It's been a long time. Too long in fact since I’ve played a game filled with innovative ideas that pushed the boundaries of what a video game designer is normally capable of. A game that isn't afraid to embrace unique themes and go into territories most games wouldn't normally go towards. A game with so much love and dedication put into it that almost every aspect was perfected. If you're wondering what game I’m talking about then you probably haven't read the title of this review. If so, you still probably don’t know what this game is, so let me explain a little bit further before we dive deeper. The man who created the game we’re about to talk about is a solo indie developer named Lucas Pope whom you may have heard of before.
When he was a little boy, Pope spent a majority of his time with his father watching him fix equipment or machinery since he was a handyman. Through watching his father, Pope slowly gained an interest in tinkering around with mechanisms and trying to figure out how they all worked. Like a clock which keeps on ticking. He then made a friend in high school who introduced him to robotics and eventually he earned a loving passion to program and experiment with ideas. He wanted to use his skills in programming to create games for others to play and enjoy. He started off small by creating mods for the old school classic multiplayer shooter Quake, and then he helped Naughty Dog with the development of the original Uncharted trilogy. He wasn’t a big role when it came to Uncharted, but it’s great to know that Lucas Pope had some previous work in the video game industry. Unfortunately, working at one of the biggest Triple A companies within the industry wasn't enough to go and fulfill Lucas Pope’s dreams, so he took off to start his own independent studio. Free to do whatever he had in mind.
One of the first few games Pope created was The Republia Times, a game where the player had to decide what stories made it onto the public news. Determine what was right and not ready for the standard human eyes to see. Through this simple gameplay loop, Pope was able to flesh out the world by making the player’s actions affect the world around them. It wasn’t until 2013 when he expanded his idea of world building through gameplay loops with a title known as Papers, Please. Set in a dystopian world ruled by a strict communist government, the player controlled a border patrol post guard as they determined who was allowed in and out of the country. They checked passports, documents, and decided who got to cross the borders into the dictator country of Arstotzka without being gunned down on sight. Much like Republia Times, Papers Please was a game with a simple gameplay loop but expansive world building. The player could decide the fates of each character and their actions could change the world around them into a more peaceful one or chaotic one. Do they want to do a good job but continue living in a communist society, or start a revolution and change their livelihood? Critics praised Papers, Please for its tight game design and how it was able to tell an effective narrative and world building from you simply playing it.
The success of Papers, Please was enough to convince Lucas Pope to begin development on his next big project. Pope took the analytical aspects of Papers, Please and decided this time to make a game about solving a mystery. Not just any mystery, but a murder mystery! Unlike most detective games he wanted this project to be about using critical thinking. Where key analysis and deduction was necessary. Where the player wouldn’t be held by the hand, and they wouldn’t be given the solution blatantly. This is what led to the idea of Return of The Obra Dinn. This was Pope’s biggest project yet, but much like the size and scope of the project the amount of time to develop was plentiful as well. Around 2018, Lucas Pope finally released the full version of the game on PC, and those who found Return of The Obra Dinn buried within the Steam marketplace were immediately treated with the pleasures Lucas Pope layed out for them. Return of The Obra Dinn was one of the biggest welcoming surprises to come out in 2018. Review scores for the game were nearly perfect and a small handful of critics who actually played the game considered it to be Game of The Year material. Maybe the reason more people didn’t notice the game was because it came out the same week that Red Dead Redemption 2 came out. Cough cough, overated.
Personally, I think the little old Return of The Obra Dinn is more worth your time. This is where we connect back to me. One year later they released Return of The Obra Dinn on consoles and that's when I finally got around to playing the game myself. I heard about this game through a critic I watch named Yatzhee Crosshaw, otherwise you may know him for running a show called Zero Punctuation, and I’ve been dying to play it for how much he praised the game. He considers it one of his favorites of all time, and you know a game that pleases constantly grumpy Yahtzee Crosshaw of all people is doing something right. I finally got the opportunity to play Obra Dinn and I can safely say all my expectations were exceeded despite being told it was great beforehand. This game is an absolute masterpiece! I had a blast playing Return of The Obra Dinn from beginning to end, and I still look back at the mysteries I unraveled throughout my first playthrough. So today we’ll be talking about why I believe Return of The Obra Dinn is so incredible and why it’s the next big step for puzzle games, detective games, and so much more. May even show how developers should aim for innovative ideas rather than stick within a closed creative box. So, grab your catalog, adjust the time of the momentum mortem, and prepare to set sail for the Obra Dinn.
We play as an insurance adjuster hired by the British East India Company to investigate a trade ship that has gone missing five years ago at sea, the Obra Dinn. There were about sixty individuals aboard the ship including the captain, his crew mates, several workers aboard, and a small handful of passengers. All of whom were of different ethnicities and were sailing towards the Cape of Good Hope. However, something went wrong out at sea and all the sixty individuals vanished without leaving a trace of where they were. They never reached land and the ship is left in ruins.
When the investigator arrives at the ship, they find multiple dead bodies lying about and wreckage. They are given a briefcase containing tools they have to work with, but the tools aren’t that many. It contains a catalog to record information, a drawing made of the sixty individuals who were traveling on the ship, and a pocket watch given a peculiar name. The pocket watch is known as the Momentum Mortem, a strange trinket with a mysterious skull in the middle. The watch seems useless at first to the investigation, but soon when the Momentum Mortem is brought up towards a corpse or pile of dead remains the watch begins to shake, and the hands spin towards a specific time. When the investigator activates the watch near a corpse, they are transported to a still set period of time showing the last few seconds before a person’s death.
Through the scenery and voices, they are able to determine what happened to each individual and how they died. Within the first few minutes they learn the crewmen were after something special, and a majority of them lost their lives trying to retrieve it. They also learn that the ship was attacked by multiple beasts out at sea and that something caused all of these beastly attacks to happen. Through further investigation they’ll piece together the terrible fates each individual met, what events happened aboard the ship, and how the sailing Obra Dinn went missing five years ago. Even if this means slowly digging towards the cold bloody truth.
As you can probably tell by now Return of The Obra Dinn is a detective game and much like any game part of its genre you have to figure out what happened at each crime scene through investigation. Unlike a majority of detective games though, Return of The Obra Dinn does not hold you by the hand because each solution isn’t lying in plain sight. At the beginning of the game, you are given the catalog mentioned earlier containing the names of all the sixty individuals aboard the ship. It lists their first and last names, their main occupation, and their country/race of origin. What it doesn't tell you is what they look like. We’ll dive more into that later. You are also given the Momentum Mortem, the magical pocket watch I mentioned earlier. By bringing it towards a corpse you are transported to a still set period in time. You get a bit of dialogue showing what each character said before your fated individual died. From there you can walk around the murder scene and analyze what exactly happened.
Let’s take the first crime scene for example. We hear two men talking about stealing an object before one man comes out and fires his gun into the chest of the now dead person. From there we can start plugging in the information we know. We're given an image of the person who died, a place to fill out their name, and a place to fill out how they died. It’s easy to say the man was shot by a gun. What makes solving the murder hard is determining who they are and who shot them. Realistically nobody would shout out their full name before dying or when getting ready to kill someone, and here in Return of The Obra Dinn they don’t flat out tell you who is who. You have to work with whatever information you have to fill in the blanks.
Sometimes you won’t have enough information to work with, so you’ll have to make an educated guess or come back later when you have more information. Maybe a crime scene will have you wandering around the riggings of the ship. From there we can determine the men working on the riggings were all topmen. Maybe we’ll be transported below deck, and we get to see the crew sleeping quarters. Each bed could be marked with a number coordinating with a crew member's name on the list. Some members will even be resting in them at the time, meaning you can take full advantage of the scenario. You have to analyze everything in Return of The Obra Dinn. The way a person dresses, their accents, location of the murder, past events they make references to, and sometimes they’ll shout the names of other individuals within the same room.
There are also going to be times when a memory is within a memory, so the only way to access memories you wouldn’t be able to get to in the real world would be to go through other ones. The game confirms when you get fates correct by matching them into groups of three. They’ll lock the information you wrote down in place and you don’t have the ability to change it. This means whatever you put down was right and you won’t have to worry about changing it in the future. I like this idea, because it summarized from what Yahtzee Corshaw said in his review, “It allows some guesswork but not all the time, so you don’t just cheese through every single murder”. You are an investigator/detective after all, it’s not like your guessing answers to a high school history test. Besides that, there really isn’t anything else I can do about the gameplay besides that it's practically perfect. It’s geniusly set up and finds a way to expand overtime as each event unrolls to the player. Hopefully, you can figure out what happened on the Obra Dinn and put a pin on the case.
Return of The Obra Dinn is a game I really don’t have all that much to complain about. If so, it would probably be nitpicks. I’m being honest with you right now, even though this game isn’t that long it knows what to do and does it tremendously well. It understands what it wants to be! Be a confident detective game that respects the player’s intelligence. If you truly respect the player’s intelligence, then you wouldn’t hold them by the hand. You would reward them for figuring out puzzles on their own. They gain more knowledge through personal experience, and honestly, they would get annoyed if you brought up constant reminders of what they specifically had to do. To respect a person’s intelligence, you let it roam freely and not baby it. This game requires a lot of critical thinking and some of you may not understand half the stuff in this game since it’s set during the 1600s and the terms they use aren’t obviously what we use today. By using deductive reasoning, you can slowly figure out what happens and that’s how the game pulls you into its story. It’s one of those “ahah” games or a puzzle game where once you figure something out you feel like a genius and keep playing.
I thought the story was really good. There wasn’t a person dying at every corner and certain bits of it aren’t fully explained, but it’s pretty amazing how it’s all told through still images and voice clips. It was a tale about betrayal, lies, and how greedy people could be over power and wealth. The audio was surprisingly good too. The voice acting is top notch, the sound of waves smacking onto the sides on the ship felt realistic, scenes with guns had a perfect bang, and even the sound of blood splattering across the floorboards sounded normal. The graphics are another aspect I really appreciated about Return of The Obra Dinn as the game makes full use of it’s limitations.
You see, Lucas Pope is a solo indie developer, so the game is mainly composed of low-resolution pixels and doesn't have much animation due to financial limitations. However, he decided to embrace these limitations by creating 3D environments the player could walk around from a first-person perspective. He designed each individual character, set up the murder scenes which have loads of tiny little details going on in them, and set the game mainly in a black and white color palette. It feels like we’re playing on one of those old school computers or watching a film from the 1920s. Kinda reminds me of this one film which came out this year named The Lighthouse which also has a sailor theme, contains a black and white color palette, and is reminiscent of older styled films. There are different color palettes available in the options menu which is really nice if you want to give the game a different feel.
An average playthrough takes around seven to eight hours to beat, or ten hours if you're me and you took the time to figure stuff out on your own. Which is great, because it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Return of The Obra Dinn is what happens when one creative mind is determined to set a goal for himself and actually achieve it. He pushed a simple idea to its utmost limit and found a way to tell a story through engaging gameplay loops. If there's one complaint I have, it's that this game doesn't have much replay value. The first playthrough is magical because you are going in blind and don’t have any knowledge of what is going to happen. Every event lands perfectly because you witness it for the first time, and the satisfaction of figuring the mystery out on your own hits all the bells it needs to. If you ever try to replay this game, you lose the charm you had the first time through because you already know what is going to happen. You may remember a majority of the solutions and the major plot points. My piece of advice is if you are planning to replay this game give it six months when you forget a majority of the crucial events that happen. A piece of advice is to not use a guide. The game feels more satisfying when you figure stuff out, and a guide will not only shorten the experience but diminish the satisfaction entirely.
Besides those minor complaints, Return of The Obra Dinn is a masterpiece and I hope five years from now we can look back at it and realize what made it so extraordinary. Any gamer can pick this up and if you’re not a fan of puzzle games or detective games then give this one a go. May even possibly be one of the best video games I ever played. In the end I am going to give Return of The Obra Dinn a 10/10 for being incredible.
This critique was written by the single man at Review on. Stay tuned for more content and feel free to check more reviews out over at my site!