This unknown soul met an unknown fate...
Many games over the years have used the idea of solving somebody’s cause of death as their main gameplay hook, but no game I can think of has ever done it quite the same way as Return of the Obra Dinn. The newest game from designer Lucas Pope (developer of Papers, Please) takes an interesting setting, slaps an incredibly unique 3D art style onto it, and tosses the player directly into a large scale mystery where they must start from the end and work their way back from there. What mysterious fate befell the Obra Dinn and those who lived on board? There’s only one way to find out.
In Return of the Obra Dinn, you are an employee of the East India Trading Company who has been sent to investigate the Obra Dinn, a ship that had gone missing four years prior and has reappeared devoid of life. The sixty crew members and passengers that had been on the ship have either disappeared or been killed, and it is your job to figure out exactly what happened to each one. To accomplish this task you are given two items: a notebook and the Momento Mortem. The Momento Mortem is a pocket watch that allows the user to replay the final moments of somebody’s life upon encountering their corpse, letting you hear the final words they heard and see a freeze frame of their exact moment of death. The player must investigate these recreations to move on to the next step of the mystery-solving process. In this way you are basically experiencing the ship’s story backwards, seeing the same characters over and over and getting to know them in a way not often used in video games.
After you have looked at the Momento Mortem’s vision extensively, the notebook comes into play. The book will enter the information seen and heard in the vision automatically, but it is up to the player to figure out the victim’s name, how they died, and who or what ended up killing them. Often one single vision will not give you all the information you need to complete your entry, requiring you to not only follow the breadcrumbs of information in front of you but also heavily reexamine things you’ve already seen. Entering random information and hoping it’s right won’t get you anywhere either, as the game only confirms your entries and officially enters them into the book in pairs of three. Only once you have gotten three fates correct does the game inform you that you were successful.
One of the first things a player might notice is Return of the Obra Dinn’s incredibly unique look. Lucas Pope has found a way to take his signature art style, a monochromatic look self described as “1-bit”, and turn it into a game that invokes the feel of an old computer display or perhaps a Game Boy game in 3D. Sadly, while this art style sets the game apart from its peers, it also has the unfortunate side effect of sometimes just being hard to look at for long periods of time. A few times while playing I had to stop and take a break because looking at the game for more than two hours at a time made me start to develop a slight headache. There are a number of different colors that you can cycle through in an attempt to find one that’s easier for you to look at, but I never found one that completely fixed the problem.
Overall, Return of the Obra Dinn is an incredibly compelling mystery that will constantly have you moving from clue to clue, itching to find that next bit of information that brings it all together. Making the correct deduction is difficult; the game doesn’t exactly hand you all the information you need on a silver platter and sometimes even expects you to work simply by process of elimination, but once you finally get it right there are few feelings more satisfying. Despite having to take breaks due to the visual style, the game kept me coming back again and again, desperate to find the next bread crumb and crack the next mystery, which would inevitably open up a brand new one for me to work my way through. If you like a game that really makes you think long and hard about every piece of information you’re given, Return of the Obra Dinn is probably for you.