Return of the Obra Dinn

Return of the Obra Dinn is a clever, unique idea, executed with distinct visual style and theming. But those three factors clash with each other, and while they do create a unique experience, for me it was primarily one of frustration and exhaustion.

Return of the Obra Dinn came out in 2018. It’s a mystery game combined with a logic puzzle. It got a lot of good press at the time. So I decided to finally play it this weekend. And I’m… frankly, I’m a bit underwhelmed.

I don’t give out scores on this website. Usually I just say if I think a game is worth playing. But I’d give Return of the Obra Dinn a grudging 8/10. It’s not a bad game, but it isn’t excellent. This is weird because Return of the Obra Dinn ticks all the boxes to be excellent, but is somehow less than the sum of its parts.

The premise of the game is simple. The player is an insurance claims agent sent to investigate the titular Obra Dinn. It’s a ship that was lost at sea and has just now returned to the shores of England with no passengers or crew. Your job is to determine the fate of everyone aboard. However, you are not empty handed. In addition to your own wits, a crew manifest, and some sketches, you also have a magical watch. Using the watch on a corpse transports you to a still moment in time/memory of when that person died.

Within the memory you can walk around, hear a snippet of audio, and also get some information about who else was present. Using this, you need to reconstruct the full series of events and determine the cause of deaths of everyone who started aboard the Obra Dinn.

Just a word of warning before you read any further. I will be spoiling the “experience” of playing Return of the Obra Dinn in the rest of this review.
I won’t be spoiling specific gameplay
.

There’s one thing I’m going to rant about regarding one single death, but outside of that, reading this review won’t make you any better at playing the game. But it will probably impact your experience of the game. So, last chance to stop now, and read about a mystery game I like more: Lucifer Within Us.

Okay, so I called Return of the Obra Dinn a grudging 8/10. That’s because it does everything in such a way that it should be excellent. It has a fantastic presentation and theme and a unique visual style. It has a decent story. And it has a unique game mechanic that I haven’t seen before or since. That means that this game is five years old, and no one ripped it off.

Tick tick tick.

But all of these things feel like they somewhat play against each other. Let’s start with the story. The story of Return of the Obra Dinn can be summarized as: a trading ship brought passengers aboard with a magical artifact. At one point, members of the crew tried to kidnap these passengers and escape on lifeboats, and steal the artifact. The artifact attracted mermaids, the mermaids killed some people, but then were knocked out. The mermaids were imprisoned back on the ship, more mermaids came to try to free them, but were killed. Then a Kraken was summoned to tear the ship down.

Which is fine EXCEPT, this feels kind of like paint-by-numbers Lovecraft. It plays counter to my level of interest in rest of the mystery. What’s the magical artifact? Why are the mermaids attacking it? How did the passengers get it? I didn’t get answers to these questions.

Instead I just got to figure out which crew member was killed by getting a spear through the head, and which one was killed by being strangled. That’s not actually as exciting as a mystical artifact.

It felt like attending a dinner party where someone is served their mother’s head, and then being asked to determine which table settings had the wrong fork.

Secondly, the story is experienced in reverse. Which means you get the big finale/setpiece of the Kraken attack first. Then everything else is a slower
boil. There was no building tension past a certain point, because you see how things end up pretty quickly. The ending/beginning serves to refocus the story, which continues to remind me of a Lovecraft paint-by-numbers.

Yes, this is very pretty. Yes, it is probably technically interesting. But it also makes details hard to make out unless you’re staring right at them.

The game has a excellent theme and rendering, being done entirely in only two colors, with minimal detail. However, this hindered my ability to actually “play” the game. Viewing a death memory requires you to interact with a corpse of someone who died at that point in time. While the scenes themselves are fairly straightforward in how they’re laid out, you usually experience them in reverse order.

This is frustrating, and it’s doubly frustrating when you want to view a scene in chronological order. On top of that, scenes also can take a bit to load. They play the audio clip once each time you enter the scene, but don’t let you replay it, so you have to load it again if you want a replay. It’s frustrating and difficult to navigate.

Side note: the game also doesn’t have a resolution setting. So I had to use Unity launch flags to play it on my Ultrawide, because of course I did. Small gripe, yes, but this is from 2018, not 2012. I should not have to do this.

You’ll notice I used the word “Frustration” a lot in the previous paragraph. For me, a thread of frustration carried throughout the gameplay. The game has a “Fate” system, where you enter how a given individual died and their name, and then once you have 3 correct, the game validates it, and permanently enters it into the record. As a result, in order to progress you need to solve the deaths of 3 crew members correctly.

In theory this is a cool system that prevents you from making random guesses. And it sort of does that, but the structure of Return of the Obra Dinn meant that in the later 75% of the game I found myself doing a bunch of guess and check, just throwing things at the wall to see what stuck. I might not know which Chinese topman was struck by lightning, but I know it has to be one of them, so I might as well just slam different names into the journal until one works.

The most frustrating thing for me was trying to figure out what was, and what wasn’t a clue. For example, one of the biggest hints you get at the start of the game is a set of drawings of the voyage of the ship at various points.

These drawings include everyone on the ship, and for some of them, there are clues in where they’re standing, and what they’re wearing. For example, crew members of certain nationalities are bunched together, or wearing similar outfits, or only certain ranks wear some specific attire.

I don’t understand why, in a game about identifying people and situations based on location and appearance, the developers decided to so stingily ration pixels. It’s not actually possible to identify who people are without right clicking them, and seeing their photo.

It also doesn’t help that some clues require you to look out of game. Maybe the game is made for people who are smarter then me, but I don’t what Formosa is. While I might know what an Italian accent sounds like, I don’t speak Danish, or know anything about Papua New Guinea. So perhaps if you’re European, and did well in social studies, the game is more straightforward.

The general feeling I had with Return of the Obra Dinn was frustration. Solving deaths in the later half of the game never had a “pieces falling into place” moment, where everything just clicked and made sense. Instead it was a perpetual slog of getting three more deaths, then trying to brute force my way via guess and check into my next set of deaths.

I also do want to direct some specific enmity at one particular death, and the only one I ended up looking up. This individual was attacked with a projectile spike, crawled away, pulled the spike out of their body and is seen leaning against a wall prior to their death. In other cases, these spikes have been quite lethal. So how did this person die? Well, according to the game, they were shot through a wall. Which I was supposed to figure out by looking at their corpse, back tracking 5 scenes, and then seeing who could have fired the bullet.

Have I mentioned that the game has an art style that makes it hard to see things? Things like small details, and exact outfits?

Looking back at it now, maybe what I’m supposed to realize is that the watch can only transport you to the moment of death, and as such, I’m supposed to be looking for the exact cause of death at that point in time. I don’t know. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough for the game. But what I do know is that after 12 hours, I’m mostly just frustrated.

I didn’t have fun. The game doesn’t give answers for many of its open-ended lore questions. When I beat it, there was less catharsis than a “Well, at least I have something to write about this week.”

No, we shall not be.

Return of the Obra Dinn is a clever, unique idea, executed with distinct visual style and theming. But those three factors clash with each other, and while they do create a unique experience, for me it was primarily one of frustration and exhaustion. If you think you’re smarter than me, you can buy it on Steam here.