What do you get when you mash-up the graphics of a 1980s-era Macintosh, the board game Clue, soduku, and a locked-room murder mystery? You’d end up with one of the most original games of 2018, that’s what.
As I perused the “Best of 2018” lists, The Return to Obra Dinn popped up again and again. I actually hadn’t heard of this fall release, but the stellar ratings and the unique premise earned a quick buy from me. It was money very well spent, because I became incredibly engrossed in this tale of murder and calamity on the high seas.
The player character takes on the role of an insurance adjuster (seriously) who is tasked with boarding the now-derelict Obra Dinn after it has been brought home with nary a single soul of its 60 original crew and passengers on it. The adjuster uses a magic pocketwatch (just go with it) to relive the final moments of each discovered corpse, taking notes in a book to help figure out the three essential questions: Who was this person? How did they die? And who killed them?
By jumping in and out of these past memories, a scattered timeline eventually takes shape. No spoilers here, but it involves both human deviousness as well as some supernatural elements. Eight chapters eventually are woven together to tell of this misfortune of this ship from start to end as well as those who sailed on it.
At the core, Obra Dinn is a logic puzzle in which the player has to identify clues from scenes and piece them together to figure out who is who and what happened to them. As it’s been said, the attention to detail is staggering here, and I had to look at nationalities, uniforms, photographic evidence, and not a little bit of prowling around the death scenes to see if I could spot anything helpful.
Once the player makes three correct guesses (as in, the correct fates of three individuals), the book will confirm it and start the countdown from 60 unidentified people down to zero. Some of it is easier than others, and there’s some guesswork to be done, but eventually it all is very solvable.
In a similar fashion to walking simulators like Tacoma, I appreciated how Obra Dinn really drew me into this world and told an engrossing story. I walked away from the game knowing a lot more about the positions and roles of crewmen aboard an 19th century sailing vessel as well as a ship’s layout, and some of the characters I ended up liking far more than others.
I was hoping for a little more satisfaction in the end, although wrapping up all of the fates was probably satisfaction enough — and there were very few unanswered questions when all was investigated. So yeah, I give this a strong recommendation. I’m sure we won’t see many other games like it in our lifetime.