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Review of Return of the Obra Dinn by Harald B

Stars - 45

Rating by Harald B posted on Oct 24, 2018 | edit | delete

a must-play pure investigation game

Lucas Pope strikes again. As with his previous Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn is a game not quite like any other. The thing that jumps at you immediately is the 1-bit 3d engine, giving a very old-school vibe indeed and letting you pick between it looking like an old Apple, IBM, Commodore or other display. Besides being suitable atmospheric, leaving some details and colors to the imagination may well be a good thing for the sights you’ll see later in the game.
Other production values are also great. Sounds effects like footsteps and creaking wood sound like they should, and your immersion and sense of horror are further enhanced by the many sounds of death. Voice acting and writing are well done, sounding natural and never shoving in too much information. The soundtrack is also great.

But good as they are, the production values are not the reason I spent a bit over 10 hours binge-completing the game in one weekend. That would be the gameplay. As an insurance adjuster of the East India Company, you are tasked to investigate the Obra Dinn, a lost ship that miraculously returned to port with no living crew aboard. Using a magical pocketwatch and a reference book sent in the mail by someone in Morocco, you need to discern the fate of all 60 people on board, including putting names to faces and identifying killers.
The power of the watch is to let you enter a dead body’s final memories, picking up the last heard sounds and then walking around a still scene from their last moments. If this scene contains other dead bodies, you can use the watch on them as well to uncover more scenes and mark them to return to later. Indeed, only a few bodies will be left when you first arrive.
Each time you uncover a new scene, an entry is made for it in the reference book with a picture of their face, the last heard dialog and the place the body was found. And each time, the same questions are opened: who was this? how did they die? and if it was not an accident, who did it? Notably, answering these questions through your own deductions is the only mechanic by which you solve things. There are no other puzzles of any kind.
After a couple of easier ones to get you started, these mysteries will require more and more reasoning and exploring. From clothing and accents to places they hang out and other characters they are seen together with, anything can be a clue to a person’s identity, and scenes that initially seem to have no connection can be critical. I can only recall a similar sense of open-ended investigation from parts of a few other games, and never done as consistently or as well as here.
To allow you to get some footing and not go crazy with the possibilities, correct “fates” are confirmed in sets of three: answer all the questions correctly for three dead people and they get locked in. It’s a good balance to not make it easy to brute-force but at the same time allow you to make some educated guesses without having the doubt linger for the whole investigation. And each time it happens it gives off an intensely satisfying feeling.

There are only a few gripes I can hold against this game. One is with pacing. If a scene you uncover contains another dead body, you’re alerted to it as soon as you put the book down through a combination of high-strung violins and visual effects. As soon as you click the left mouse button you’ll be forced to walk towards it. If you are too quick to go with the flow, what is likely to happen next is that you go into that new scene right away without properly processing any of the one you were just in. This can happen many times in a row, to the point that I saw one streamer unlock all possible scenes while having only 6 people’s fates locked in. Obviously, rushing ahead like this makes things more difficult for yourself than it needs to be, so there should have been a bit more effort to gate things off effectively. (The game tries to do that by only opening certain doors if you’ve seen them open in a scene, but this is barely noticeable.)
I also could have done with a few more conveniences in the interface. In the later stages when there are many scenes to go to, being able to go to one directly from the book would have been hugely helpful. And I would have liked to see characters present in a particular scene drawn in on the scene’s map and flip between those, akin to The Sexy Brutale’s map screen.
Finally, while not throwing unnatural amounts of exposition at you is a strength, only seeing the story through death scenes can also make it feel like this story has a middle and an end but no beginning. Not to spoil anything but I would have liked to see a tad of backstory and explanation on the beginning and causes of certain things, perhaps at the end of the game.

But these are small gripes. Get this game if you have any interest in a pure investigation challenge. And don’t spoil it for yourself online.

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Time Played: 10-20 hours
Difficulty: Hard

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