Developer: Lucas Pope
I’ve always enjoyed riddles that require deductive reasoning, and puzzles that ask “If Charlie has twice the apples as Darla, but half as many as John’s, how many apples do they have?” In elementary school, my class used to be timed on who could solve them the fastest. I wasn’t the fastest at them, but I loved the mental challenge. So, when I read that Return of the Obra Dinn is essentially an interweaving sixty-person riddle with a mature setting, I was eager to see it for myself. Here’s how it went.
Language: Set at sea in the early 1800’s, Return of the Obra Dinn (henceforth RotOD) uses a lot of language of the time: D*mn and B*****d, for example.
Violence: RotOD is a mystery puzzle game which involves interactive snapshots of the past. These snapshots involve a number of violent scenarios, such as murder.
Gore: Although without color, RotOD‘s snapshots involve a lot of gore. A person being ripped in half is a particularly disturbing example.
Partial Nudity: Although not explicit, there are scenes involving topless female figures.
Fantasy Creatures: There are several types of fantasy creatures which appear on the Obra Dinn, such as a Kraken.
Suicide: One crew member commits suicide via a gun to the head. The resulting gore is shown.
I have never played any game quite like RotOD. Even when purchasing it from Steam, I could tell it would be different. There’s no color in the game, and contour values are composed from pointillism. It looks like a game from back in the day when computer monitors really couldn’t process or portray color. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that was exactly the intended effect.
Starting up the game, the player is taken to a ship and given a book, a note, and a stopwatch. The note tells you that this ship is the Obra Dinn, which had disappeared five years ago and has only now resurfaced. It’s now your duty as an investigator to find out what happened to the people on board, and why no one came home from the voyage. So, my work as the player was laid out for me. I got out of my rowboat, climbed onto the Obra Dinn, found the first skeleton, and started investigating.
Stop. Sleuthin’ Time!
Turns out the stopwatch is magical. When near a corpse of some sort, it can teleport the person to a snapshot of the corpse’s death. This is very handy for someone trying to find answers as to who (or what) killed who. The game wastes no time in getting into its drama: in the very first flashback, I’m met face-to-face with someone getting their head blown off. It’s an attempted mutiny, but the ship is empty save for a handful of people. Where is everyone? I try to find as many details as possible from the scene, and progress through a newly-opened door, which exits the memory.
Upon returning, I progress to a skeleton laying on a bed in the Captain’s cabin. This person looks like he/she was laid to rest. I figured, “This oughta be interesting.” and sure enough it was, but not in the way I had expected. Upon using my magical pocket-watch, I am suddenly thrown in a stormy night, looking at the sea, and gazing upon the massive tentacles of a Kraken. Now this is interesting. This made my already captivated interest even more exuberant. I’m going to be investigating a Kraken attack! I was so shocked I had to watch the memory again.
As it turns out, there are several different monstrous attacks which occur on the Obra Dinn, though not all of them are from monsters.
*Flip.* *Flip.* *Flip.*
Towards the beginning of the game, one of the most obnoxious features for me was the UI of navigating the journal. There are three modes you can be in: you can either check your journal, investigate details in first-person, or change settings. First I’ll talk about journal navigation.
To start, the amount of detail in said journal is very impressive. I felt like I was looking directly at an investigator’s. The ship’s blueprints are highly detailed, the crew list is organized and believable, and each confirmed “fact” goes from a handwritten script to a more official Times script. These contribute to the immersion and really add a feeling of value to the information given.
However, navigating the journal can be a nightmare. On the surface, it seems to have all it needs. Pressing A or D turns pages left or right, as does clicking the corners of said pages. Clicking on the profiles of people is how information is allowed to be penciled in. That’s all fairly self-explanatory. However, in the latter stages of the game, it becomes more difficult to navigate the journal when looking for specific people in specific times. And, while the dialogue is recorded in the journal, I’m not actually allowed to revisit the scene from the journal. If I wanted to track down visual details from a scene, I needed to hunt down the corpse which gave me the scene. This got tiresome when there were so many different memories to view.
There is a bookmark feature, but by the time I figured out how to use it, it wasn’t very useful to me anymore. Instead, I ended up tracing the character through their movements displayed on the deck map. Ultimately, the UI is more of a nitpick than a bold critique, but being able to jump into memories from the journal would have made my life much, much easier—and game time shorter.
What’s That on the Horizon?
Walking around the Obra Dinn in the retro art style is a very unique and awesome experience. The ability to freely look about and take in all of the game’s details in it’s artstyle is intensely satisfying. However, it was not always perfect, and I often wished for more, namely detail so I could see someone’s face from a distance, and more room to walk so I can see what someone is doing in a flashback. There were several points in the game where I groaned in frustration for not being able to see someone’s face closely. I could have been given reign to move about freely, but now had to jump into a different memory instead, taking time and effort away from my thought train. Holding E does zoom in on a person’s face and bring up who they are in the journal’s portrait (very handy!) but sometimes that just wasn’t enough.
Changing the Look on Life
Possibly the coolest feature of RotOD is in the settings page. There, you can rotate through several different classic computer displays, featuring LCD (Black and White), Macintosh (Brown and White), Commodore 64 (Blue and White), and several more. I usually stayed in the Macintosh mode because it was easier on my eyes and felt like I was living inside a book, but it was fun to alternate between them. In addition to the different colors, there are also several different zoom options, similar to the old computers. There’s a “smooth” option which is the easiest to see full screen, a “sharp” option that was hard for me to look at, and lastly a “Sharp (Zoom)” option, which I consulted (unsuccessfully) to make out the missing details I mentioned earlier.
Life is Hard on the Sea
Besides the features already stated in the content guide, there is only one major setback I have from recommending this game for everyone: It is hard. Humbly, I think of myself as a fairly observant person. However, by the time I was finished with my first playthrough of the game, I only had roughly a fifth of the fates solved. Over the course of viewing all of the flashbacks the first time, I only had four hours and twelve or so fates figured out, out of sixty. This wasn’t because of my lack of attention, it was the lack of actual book work I was doing. For the rest of the fates, I had spent an unholy amount of time in the journal, looking for the smallest of details, such as all of the Stewards wearing the same clothing in their portrait.
When solving the riddles of who a person is and what happened to them, you are required to “pencil in” the details you’ve discovered. After three people have been correctly figured out, they are solidified by the game as fact. This made for an intense buildup of anticipation, but the confirmation of the facts was always greatly satisfying. You are literally set up to watch your progress solidify before your very eyes, and given the building blocks to figure out your next set. Going three by three also makes sure you can’t solve the riddles cheaply by simply alternating names through a list until you’ve gotten each person right.
Outside the game itself, another huge challenge was always presented before me: not to look up a walkthrough. This was a huge ordeal for me, as the internet can often make even the most difficult of puzzles easy to solve. But I stayed committed, and only looked up online for the case of a single type of death. It was based on a magical phenomena and I had no idea how I was supposed to describe it (The seashell burned/electrocuted him, in case you’re playing and wondering.) Although I was tempted many times, I’m proud to say that I didn’t need a notebook and pen to keep track of anything, either.
And, Finally, My Cup of Tea
When I had only solved roughly a fifth of the fates, the ending was so bad it was almost funny. The person who had sent the journal had died of illness so disappointed by my incomplete research that he regretted sending me to do the task. Well, as funny (and easy) of an ending as that was, I couldn’t let that disappointment hang on my conscience. So I went back to the ship.
By the time I had completed the journal– found the name and cause of death on each and every one– my playtime had doubled. I ended the game with thirteen hours on the play clock. Thirteen hours of watching people die in different ways, analyzing who was around them, and searching for the tiniest of clues. If I wasn’t passionately driven to complete the fates like an addict, I might’ve gone nutty. After I had finally completed the fates, I was able to drink my tea in peace, unburdened by someone dying of disappointment. I put the now-completed book on my shelf, and the end credits roll. Looking back, the ending felt a bit underwhelming for my efforts, but I’m proud to have solved such a large and ornate puzzle by myself. (60 fates!)
Ultimately with this game, you get what you pay for. Unless you enjoy puzzles, riddles, and scrutinizing details, this game is not likely going to be for you. There isn’t any color, hardly any music, and certainly no platforming action. However, if you enjoy a realistic, marine fantasy setting, and using your skills of deduction (like I do), then RotOD is definitely a game I recommend. The twenty dollar price tag drives a hard bargain for me, but with all of the positives combined, the game is worth that, but not much more. Though not much time may need to be invested, this game can test anyone’s patience. It is a short and difficult experience that demands all of your attention and then some, but the satisfaction of the completed game stands as a trophy in my mind, if nothing else.
The Bottom Line
Although not for everyone, Return of the Obra Dinn is worth the time of anyone who loves mental challenges and maritime mystery.