The year is 1807. The good ship Obra Dinn, missing at sea for five years, mysteriously reappears devoid of her crew. With little to go on other than a few sun-bleached corpses. a single insurance adjuster from the East India Trading Company boards the lonely vessel and must sift through mystery and bloodshed to piece together the fates of the 60 souls who called the Obra Dinn home.
This is the set up for developer Lucas Pope’s new puzzle game: Return of the Obra Dinn. Released five long years after his breakout hit, Papers, Please, Obra Dinn is a haunting labor of love that challenges the player’s logic and skills of deduction to their very limits. Utilizing a stark, but detailed, 1-bit monochromatic art style, Return of the Obra Dinn is one of the most visually unique games I’ve encountered in a long time.
Essentially one large logic puzzle, Obra Dinn’s chief objectives are to identify all members of the crew, determine their causes of death or current whereabouts, and, if applicable, who is responsible for each character’s demise. You are given few tools to help complete these monumental tasks: a logbook that records pertinent details, a crew manifest,a map of the vessel, a series of drawings that visually identify all those aboard, and a magical pocket watch called the Memento Mortem which mysteriously allows the user to travel to the moment right before a person dies.
The Memento Mortem is an interesting trinket; upon finding a corpse, and the Obra Dinn is littered with those, you flip the pocket watch open and the world around you fades away as you enter the exact instance where the subject died. The screen stays dark for a few moments, and a brief soundtrack plays before you enter the memory proper. These snippets of sound play out like small radio dramas and the blending of period voicework and detailed sound effects do an excellent job of building a narrative around each death or disappearance. The dialogue ultimately transitions into these freeze-frame moments of tragedy that the player is free to explore. The scenes serve as large-scale dioramas that are painstakingly staged in extreme detail. Here, the player can see who was present in the memory, small details and clues are scattered everywhere in these scenes. Sometimes it’s quite obvious what transpired, while other memories require some serious deduction to unravel. Many memories also open up previously blocked off portions of the ship, and some even contain additional bodies which in turn lead to more trips to past.
While the Memento Mortem makes up the bulk of the experience, the other tools at your disposal compliment the mystical watch. The logbook files each memory into separate chapters and is where you record your findings. Every entry contains a transcript of the audio from each memory, the location where the event occured, a visual guide as to who was present in the memory, and a small section where you write down what you believe happened to the poor soul whose death you just witnessed. The drawings of the crew ends up being one of the more interesting items you have: the faces of each character are blurred at the start of the game and as you view more memories they become clearer. When you’ve experienced enough scenes that contain clues to the identity of a crewmember, their picture becomes clear. However, even when a face is revealed, it can still be a real challenge to deduce the identity of a character.
The clues contained in each sequence are as varied as the myriad of sailors who called the Obra Dinn home. Some of the early scenes you experience give you some real softballs like clearly identifying characters by rank or name, but the vast majority of the information you’re given is much more subtle than that. Sometimes you have to figure out the uniforms of a specific rank of crewmember. Once or twice the identification of a spoken language leads to discovery of who a character is. Certain crewmembers spend the majority of their time doing their assigned duties; for example, if a character is consistently in the wood shop they’re probably the ship’s carpenter or their mate. Luckily, the game rewards your deduction skills by permanently locking in information when you solve any three fates; allowing you flexibility in solving the puzzles while also preventing you from guessing your way through the whole game. The details and clues may seem obscure at first, but as you expand how many memories you have access to and experience the story in macro, you begin to realize just how well crafted the grand puzzle of the Obra Dinn is. Almost everything matters, the crew seems organic and real even though you only see singular moments of their lives. The true magic of the game lies in just how well the mystery unfolds around you.
There are a few issues aboard the Obra Dinn. I wasn’t particularly thrilled by the music in the game; I found a lot of it brash and cacophonous in comparison to the melancholy scenes of death and destruction that it accompanies. While the logbook contains a ton of useful information from each memory, including timelines for each character that keeps track of each memory they appear in, there is no way to return to a scene without going back to the specific part of the ship where you first accessed the scene and whipping the Memento Mortem back out. You also have to spend an arbitrary amount of time in each memory when you first experience it, and occasionally the memory will be succinct enough that you glean all the information you need from it before the game will let you leave. Ultimately, all of these gripes are fairly minor but become more apparent in the late game when you may need to routinely revisit memories to uncover some of the more difficult identities.
All in all, Return of the Obra Dinn is the most unique gaming experience I’ve had in a long time. Between telling a nautical narrative through the lens of those who didn’t survive it and using such a sparse art style to create such a detailed world. Obra Dinn is a game that’s willing to challenge itself to be something completely different. Even though it’s incredibly difficult at times, persevering and wrapping my head around all the puzzles gave me a real sense of accomplishment when the credits finally began to roll. My only real regret is that I won’t ever be able to experience it for the first time ever again and I’m a little envious of anyone who gets to pick this game up and uncover its secrets: you’re in for something pretty special.
Return of the Obra Dinn is available now for PC via Steam. This review is based on a copy purchased by the writer.