It’s 1807 and the lost ship the Obra Dinn has just drifted into port, seemingly abandoned. You play the role of the (presumably Britain’s leading) Insurance Investigator sent to assess the damages and discover what happened to the Obra Dinn.
If you’re not convinced by that sales pitch that’s understandable, Return of the Obra Dinn has possibly the driest pitch compared to how excellent an experience it is. Without spoiling the mystery, let’s just say the game is far more exciting than it sounds!
A game of mystery and deduction, Return of the Obra Dinn spins a web of puzzles that most games wouldn’t dare dream of. The gameplay is completely focussed on the mystery, stripping back a lot of graphical quality that modern gaming has become synonymous with. Animations are almost non-existent, models have just enough polygons to be able to tell the characters apart, and the game is completely monochrome.
This graphical style ends up being one of the game’s greatest strengths, being visually compelling without being mentally distracting. The lack of animation allows each scene to be exactly as dynamic as intended, knowing everything you can see is 100% intentional. The minimalistic colour palette and character models strip away any unnecessary information, allowing you to focus on only the important details. This amplifies the main point of the game design, everything you can see is important in one way or another. There’s nothing flashy and unnecessary going on, what you see is what you get, and what you get is information.
The story of Return of the Obra Dinn is told in a non-linear fashion, and is incredibly intelligent with its progression. There is a very careful balance of questions and answers throughout the game, always giving you enough leads to follow without overwhelming the player with options. Answers are drip-fed throughout the game, gradually building up and culminating in an immensely satisfying ending.
Furthermore, the game is very easy to play. The controls are simple, and though the notebook can be tedious to navigate at times, this is a fairly small price to pay for its intuitive layout. The game essentially plays like a 3D point-and-click adventure; at no point does the speed at which you do things matter, allowing you to play at your own pace. The atmosphere alone creates an eerie tone which gets your heart-rate up without any real-time events.
It feels like the developers have made deliberate choices with the game’s design to keep the focus on the mystery of the Obra Dinn. They have put a lot of faith in their story, and I must say, that faith has been well placed.
Having played it on stream, I might not have paid as much attention to the sound design as I would have in a solo playthrough. Though when I did notice it (and there were plenty of times where we had to stop talking to listen to something) it felt really well done. The voice acting, whilst each character had very few lines, felt top-notch; the music was incredibly ambient and tone-setting; and the number of clues available through sound cues were astonishing.
The little tune that plays when you complete a set of journal entries is one of my personal favourite pieces of sound design. It’s a joy to hear after toiling over the mysteries and it is in itself a reward.
Mentioning clues via sound cues; there are often several ways to reach the correct conclusion for the key story beats in Return of the Obra Dinn. Not only is this a mark of great game design, but it also makes the game more accessible. Whilst I cannot attest to this, I expect you could 100% the game on mute. You would have to take some more complex routes for some clues, but if you find yourself at a dead-end there is almost certainly another way to find that piece of information. For example, some characters have clear accents in some dialogue which is not apparent in the transcriptions, but they are wearing something which indicates who they are.
We played Return of the Obra Dinn over the course of 3 streams, taking approximately 10 hours of gameplay. Whilst a fairly short game, I have not seen many games do the mystery genre this well, and Return of the Obra Dinn seriously deserves the high praise it gets. The only game on-par with Obra Dinn for its mystery, that I can think of, is Outer Wilds (which is one of my favourite games of all time).
Though intended as a single player experience, Return of the Obra Dinn was a great game to play with friends, as having extra minds to bounce ideas off – and to keep track of important details – was incredibly helpful.
I thoroughly recommend Return of the Obra Dinn, particularly if you are in the market for a mystery experience!
I’ll go ahead and second that recommendation. Part of me regrets leaving it so long before giving the game a go, but the chance to play it through as a group was great. Return of the Obra Dinn is truly something special.
The VODs of our Return of the Obra Dinn streams are available on YouTube
And we regularly stream on our Twitch channel, please come and join us!
All game images have been taken from the Steam Store.
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