Puzzles come in all sorts of forms. There are plenty of variations of brain teasers: sudoku, crosswords, mazes, logic puzzles, Sokoban, cryptic puzzles, and mechanical puzzles. Return of the Obra Dinn is unique in its core premise in that it that it does not clearly fit into any of these typical categories. It is a game of deductive reasoning. The player must use snapshots in time to determine facts about characters and their fates. Obvious hints are rarely given to you, and often times you must use logical reasoning to solve the scenarios in front of you. I have truly never played a game similar to Return of the Obra Dinn, and I hope to play more games like it in the future.
The premise of the game is that you are an investigator tasked with examining the mysterious and abandoned vessel: the Obra Dinn. All sixty crew members and passengers have vanished, yet the ship returned from its voyage all the same. Equipped with a magical stopwatch, it is your job to determine the fate of each of the ship’s inhabitants. You are given a group picture with all the passengers, and a separate document of their names, jobs, and nationalities. The goal is to match the faces to the names, as well as what happened to them. If they are dead, you must additionally deduce how they died and who killed them.
Each body you discover on the ship whirs the stopwatch into motion and a snapshot of the moment that person died is revealed to you. The player is tasked with using the exact moment of a character’s death to determine clues about that character, as well as any others who may happen to be present. Brief bouts of dialogue and audio are played in the moments leading up to the still frame, which often contain vital information to each scene. The magic of the game is how cleverly information is hidden. As previously mentioned, you need 3 pieces of information to solve a character’s fate: matching the name to the face, how they died, and who killed them. You may easily deduce one of these facts from the scene of a character’s death, but it takes logic and observational skills to figure out the rest.
Some clues are simple and should be obvious to most people. In the first few scenes in the game the captain’s fate will be made abundantly clear. Other characters will require you to use process of elimination, or make logical conclusions based off of environmental clues. You can use a character’s garb or accent to narrow down who they could possibly be. Any given snapshot contains tons of information, much of that information pertaining to the characters in the background. It is the player’s job to notice the details and piece together all of the scenes to paint a coherent picture. It is hard to explain the game in a way that gives its premise justice since I don’t want to spoil any of its surprises. If you like watching murder mysteries and guessing who the killer is, this game its right up your alley.
To match the unique gameplay, Return of the Obra Dinn uses a seldom seen visual style in video games: dithering. The game is completely in black and white, and it works well in the context of the game. If the game had a more detailed art style and used colors, the player could easily determine which characters are in a given scene by matching their visage to their appearance in the journal. The art style gives the game a distinct look while also being an integral function. Moreover, the visuals harken back to much older PC games, giving Return of the Obra Dinn a vintage vibe. It certainly could have been a PC game from the 90s, but it’s a wonderful game all the same.
One of the most brilliant aspects of Return of the Obra Dinn is how it validates your deductions. There are sixty characters who you need to determine the fate of, and as such there needed to be some method to confirm given character’s fates as you play. Having to wait until you filled out all sixty characters would be a nightmare, as you would need to get all sixty correct at the same time to beat the game. And you would have no idea which fates were correct or incorrect until hours into the game. The opposite is also a problem: if each fate were individually validated, it would be all to easy just to guess each character by plugging in different combinations of fates. Instead, fates are validated in threes. This means that if you fill out three fates completely correctly, the game will let you know and lock in those fates as correct. This prevents being able to easily guess fates, and also gives you periodic chances to find out whether your deductions are correct or not.
Even with the safeguard of having to get three fates correct, I still feel like the validation system is too abusable. There are a few different ways to use this system to guess fates about characters. While it is completely up to the player if they want to abuse the system to get freebies by guessing, I still consider it a flaw in the design of the game. It’s so easy to exploit the system, and as a result it’s extremely tempting to do so. When you get stuck on a certain character, the option to just guess is always there at the back of your mind, tempting you. It’s a shame if you do wind up cheesing the system and guessing a few characters, as there really are ample hints spread out through the game. And it’s not like you can just replay the game the correct way afterwards, since you know all of the answers. Do not ruin the game for yourself, play it the right way; do not guess. The only way to prevent this type of exploit would be to add some sort of timer on each character after modifying what you think their fate was. I think thirty seconds to a minute would be plenty of downtime that would deter people from brute force guessing through all of the options as it would take far too much time to do so.
My only other problem with Return of the Obra Dinn is that the game is a little bloated with time wasters. Its not a particularly long game, and that’s fine. But between each fragment in time there is a minute or two of downtime where the game plays an animation leading you to the next body. Obviously, it makes sense to show the player where to go next, but the animation is unnecessarily drawn out. Moreover, if you ever want to replay a scene (which you are going to be doing a lot of), you are going to have to find the body associated with the scene and spin up the watch. I wish you could just click on the desired scene in the notebook to watch it. I spent a lot of time fumbling around trying to find the right bodies to replay scenes. Its not a big deal, but when I’m trying to solve a mystery, I don’t want to have to spend a few minutes searching the ship every time I want to examine something again.
Overall, Return of the Obra Dinn is a phenomenal game with a unique premise. I rarely play through games quickly. It takes me a while to click with a game and sink my teeth into it. Perhaps the highest praise I could give this game is that I played through the entire game in a single day. The addicting feeling of discovering clues, piecing together tidbits of information, logically deducing whodunnit cases, and solving fates culminated in a game that I could just not put down. It is for these reasons that I give Return of the Obra Dinn a 9.5/10. I wish that there were similar games out there, but this is truly a novel experience. For now, I will excitedly wait a few months for when I have forgotten all of the fates and can replay the game.