image courtesy of Lucas Pope.

“Return of the Obra Dinn” Review

Boatloads of Fun or Washed Up?

December 17, 2021

I’m a cheater. I admit it, okay? 

Now, I’m not talking about cheating on tests or forging legal documents or anything like that. I’m talking something much worse: video games. What I’m about to say could single-handedly ruin my reputation, but I don’t care. I’ve cheated at video games. I’ve whipped out my phone, searched up my problem on Google, and gone about my day. I’m sorry to everyone out there that trusted my moral character, but I’m afraid that I’ve let you all down. 

Unsure of which random wall to bomb in Metroid? There’s a guide for that. Need to figure out what a certain boss is weak to in Mega Man? There are spreadsheets upon spreadsheets for that very purpose. Want to know every single action that you should take from start to finish for any given game? I mean sure, why not?

Maybe it’s not as heinous a crime as I might make it sound, but I always get this nagging guilt in the back of my mind whenever I pop up a quick IGN article or YouTube video to look for the solution to whatever I was stuck on. 

And whenever I do, there’s always those brief moments as I’m scrolling through the walkthrough or video where it hits me that I am just human trash; what kind of bottom-feeding scum is desperate enough to cheat at a children’s video game? 

The fact that I have gotten impossibly stuck playing a game rated Everyone Ten and Up is just so disgusting that when I finally do learn the solution, I’m too bitter at myself and the game to feel any real sense of joy or progression. 

Now, why do I mention all of this? Because if there is any game, in the whole world, that I am predisposed to get frustrated with to the point of Googling, it’s “Return of the Obra Dinn.” The entire game is a mystery that can be solved in five minutes if you were to consult the trusty Internet, without ever really even having to play the game. Yet, not once: not one time did I feel like I needed any guidance while playing. 

I got stuck, sure; but every time I nearly considered popping open my phone, I discovered an astoundingly obvious detail that fixed my problems in an instant. It’s these moments that “Return of the Obra Dinn” excels in; the sheer rush of filling in new information and using that to draw other conclusions never got old, even right until the end.

Now, what exactly is this mystery? Well, 60 people boarded the Obra Dinn when it left port. And…things didn’t go too hot. The story is best experienced for yourself, but let’s just say it feels like the plot of every Pirates of the Caribbean movie rolled into one, with probably quintuple the characters.

The gameplay itself consists of everyone’s two favorite subjects: death and paperwork! You’re an inspector for the British East India company, forced to explore the ship with a supernatural pocketwatch that can transport you to the moment of a person’s death if you activate it near their corpse. That’s right: You get to witness 60 consecutive deaths back, to back, to back, to stabbed in the back.

While that might sound boring, there is a surprising amount of variety in how people kick the bucket. Some of my favorite moments from the game came from times when I seemed to be looking at a like simple shooting death, only to turn the camera and discover…uh, NOT THAT.

On top of that, some of the characterization of the crew members is pretty interesting, and the game greatly rewards attention to detail. The only dialogue included takes place out of context moments before a person’s death, so the visual clues surrounding a murder scene do a lot to flesh out the people on board the Obra Din. For example, it makes sense that a guy who you know is going to betray their crewmates later on is going to be cowering in the corner when things hit the fan.

That’s another aspect of the game: it’s essentially like if Quentin Tarrantino made a muder-mystery movie. The very first scenes you witness are the LAST ONES, meaning you keep jumping around from that point on so you can discover what in the dickens actually happened. That might sound scattered, but if you’re paying close enough attention, it should make sense in the end.

The overarching story is nothing too special (there’s only so many new directions to take in a story like this, after all). However, the real joy/terror of the game comes in the individual deaths: the first time I picked up the game I played for four straight hours in order to see every single one, which deepened the mystery to a seemingly impossible degree. I quite literally thought about the game in my sleep, trying to piece together every individual piece of evidence.

It’s certainly no cakewalk, and the wealth of available information gets overwhelming very quickly. You can glean information from any number of places: the ship’s manifest, the deck map, nautical charts, photographs, last names, first names, relationships and more, and that’s not to mention the 60 memories to sift through on top of that. 

Some characters appear in what feels like half of all deaths, while others show up once before getting killed by God-knows-who with God-knows-what. That might sound intimidating, but once you get into the groove of things, it’s not too hard to make assumptions and narrow things down as you go, and navigating all the tools like a master tactician feels great.

The best way to describe the game is that it’s essentially the game of Clue, if all you knew was the name of the mansion. You pencil in all your answers, with the game confirming them for every three disappearances solved, giving you a satisfying little jingle every time, a sound so satisfying that it would have kept me playing for an extra 20 hours if need be.

One of the game’s biggest strengths is making the player wonder things for themselves rather than being explicitly told what’s important. You genuinely want to know what’s going on and why, and it’s easy to keep creating little mysteries in your head that aren’t necessarily required to beat the game. Most aren’t even answered by the end, and filling in gaps for yourself is a fun narrative technique, even if I did wish things were just a little more concrete.

The game’s graphics are in all black-and-white, creating an all-around creepy atmosphere, and even when I was speeding through the ship without a care, it was never lost on me that, “Oh yeah, people died here.” Even once I had discovered everything there was to discover, the game never lost that somber feeling; in fact it increased since every single corpse now had a face and a name.

After a while you start to feel like a morbid tax collector as you watch death after death so much so that it starts to blend together to an unhealthy degree, only for you to slowly rediscover who everyone is piece by piece, which gives a lot of depth underneath the otherwise morbid experience.

At the same time, being able to walk past every rotting skeleton and know exactly what happened to them makes you feel like you’ve truly conquered the mystery. It’s basically that moment when you discover that the evil wraith-demon child staring at you in your dark bedroom is actually just a jacket, except stretched over multiple hours.

The game isn’t too long, ranging from 8-12 hours, but for its price it’s well worth it. It never feels too long or too short, because you determine just how long it will take. You could just whip out the ol’ Internet and finish the game in a matter of minutes, but I mean, if I can beat this game, anyone can.

There may be a lot of weird, supernatural mystery games out there, but “Return of the Obra Dinn” feels like something special. It’s so focused on its singular vision from beginning to end that it’s insane to imagine how someone could fit these stories together so seamlessly.

It might seem weird at first, but if you give “Return of the Obra Dinn” a shot, I promise you won’t regret it. (This would be a great spot for a nautical pun but there’s too many to choose from so I invite you to formulate your own.)

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