I went into Return of the Obra Dinn with high expectations, stemming from its designer, Lucas Pope. You might know Mr. Pope as the creator of the thought-provoking and terrifying Papers, Please, a game that crawled into your skull and stuck with you well after you closed your laptop. Return of the Obra Dinn does the same, and it’s one of the best experiences I’ve had on my laptop in a long time.
Return of the Obra Dinn is a mystery with you in the role of a John Company investigator trying to suss out exactly what happened on board the Obra Dinn, a ship that went missing in 1803 only to return, all hands lost, in 1807.
The game begins on the dinghy that’s taken you to the forsaken ship alone in the harbor, and that’s all you know. What, exactly, you’re supposed to do is a mystery. You can walk about the ship, but only the main deck appears to be accessible. There is a corpse, however, and that’s where things get interesting.
You’ll uncover a book that magically records the details you’ll find in your adventures as well as a pocket watch that allows you to manipulate time…well, that’s not true. It manipulates time, and you’re at its mercy. When you stumble on a corpse, the watch will give you a glimpse into the past, allowing you to see how they met their untimely end. It sounds hokey, but how it’s pulled off is incredible. You’re given nothing but darkness and sound, followed by a three dimensional snapshot of the event. It’s bullet time, but the graphics, which emulate monochrome displays from the 80s, give it a ghostly air that immediately pulls you into the story.
You investigate these frozen moments trying to determine who each of the corpses were and how they died, using only your eyes and ears, the crew manifest, and your magic watch. Piecing together names and the way they died feels like you’re doing real detective work, albeit with the assistance of a magical pocket watch.
I mentioned the look of the game, monochrome grey and black, and it’s stunning. I was skeptical at first, but it’s otherworldliness fits the haunting mystery to a T, particularly the snapshots in time where waves crashing over the rails are captured in vector-lined perfection or blood splatter spreads through the air in hundreds (thousands?) of tiny, gray pixels. I normally can’t do 1st person games, and Obra Dinn does trigger a little bit of nausea, but it looks so good I’m not going to stop playing.
Sound design is also amazing. To be honest, I usually don’t give sound a thought in games, preferring to listen to music or podcasts while I sit at my desk. The voices, sound effects and even the music here are integral to not only the atmosphere, but the story. Listen to the voices. Was that a Scottish accent? Who said it? Check the manifest and see how many Scots were on board. Everything onboard the Obra Dinn is a clue.
If there’s one downside to Obra Dinn, it’s the fact that I know the game will end. I find myself going slow, stopping now and then and doing something else. I don’t want to rush through this one, I want to savor each and every one of the skeletal remains scattered across the ship’s decks. It actually depresses me a bit while I play, knowing that it will end and I’ll likely never have another game like it cross my path.
It’s for this reason I declined to call this a “review”. My intention was to dive into Obra Dinn and post a full review, but I find myself going so slow and enjoying each bit that I’m still days (weeks?) from wrapping it up. I didn’t want you to wait to play [people do not wait for your opinion before they buy games, you narcissistic dolt -ed.] this masterpiece, so instead of a full review you get this, the ravings of an EIC insurance investigator slowly drifting into madness.