"Like puzzle games, these "a-ha" moments are truly exhilarating."
Lucas Pope found critical acclaim with the oppressive insight into totalitarian governments in Papers, Please. Known for its unique visuals, bizarrely entertaining clerical work, and engaging themes, fans have been chomping for his newly released Return of the Obra Dinn. Similarly stylistic in terms of art direction, Obra Dinn stands out not only in terms of presentation, but as quite possibly one of the best mystery adventure games ever released.
Admittedly, few true mystery games exist, especially in the modern era, which is part of the reason why Obra Dinn is such a stand-out title. The other reason is that it's just magnificently crafted. As the title implies, the game is about a ship that had gone missing but miraculously returns several years later. You, the silent protagonist, have been tasked to unravel the ship's story. This means filling out a book with what happened to each person, which mostly means figuring out who they were, how they died, and who or what was responsible for their deaths.
Included in the book is a wealth of information, such as a map of the different levels of the ship, a catalogue of each inhabitant, and chapters that neatly segment the deaths into various scenes across the timeline. Players find corpses that act sort of like breadcrumbs, but not always chronologically. The game starts at the end and bounces around in an order that probably has meaning, but I couldn't figure it out. Regardless, this order isn't jarring and didn't take me out of the game. I was instantly curious about who these people were, what happened to them, and what sorts of surprises Lucas Pope had in store for me.
Obra Dinn's gameplay occurs within a 3D environment that initially appears minimalistic due to its monotone coloring and stark outlines, but the actual sketching of each person and details of the ship add an endearing, realistic sort of character. This level of authenticity is necessary because sixty crewmembers can blur together. However, after seeing several crewmembers within various scenes, I began to recognize people by face and attire. They just needed names.
As I walked around the ship and engaged with the still 3D environments that act as snapshots of the time of death, I wondered after twenty or so scenes how the heck I was going to figure all of this out. In some cases, characters open the scene with a conversation, explicitly stating a person's name or role; however, in most of them, the details seem innocuous. At first.
This is the beauty of Obra Dinn. Like any self-respecting mystery, concrete details get players engaged, but sleuths will quickly have to rely on reasoning. Paying close attention to where people are standing, who they're standing with, what they're wearing, their accent, and details within the environment are almost always critical to solving the mystery. This doesn't mean that every person can be identified right away. The game openly states that process of elimination will sometimes be necessary because some crewmembers appear so infrequently or look so similar to someone else that concluding their details immediately is impossible without blindly guessing.
About guessing: when all of the details of three crewmembers have been discovered, the game will notify the player about these three people and cement their information into the book. In this way, more reasoning skills may be employed in a meta sort of way. By this, I mean that if you guess the details of four people, and the game only notifies you after three are correct, then the one person you are not notified about must have some characteristics wrong. This method of confirming conclusions is both generous and encourages real discovery. Until the end of the game, blindly guessing isn't viable.
At several points within my ten-hour playthrough, I felt as if I had no leads. Intuitively, a mystery game like Obra Dinn requires players to stay on top of the story and try to complete it with as few breaks as possible, so that each person and detail is still fresh. I found the opposite to be true. After hitting a dead end, I took a break from the game for a day or two and came back with a new perspective that inevitably led to several epiphanies. Like puzzle games, these "a-ha" moments are truly exhilarating.
The music enhances the excitement of this turbulent adventure. On top of decent voice acting, several scenes are coupled with instrumentation that matches the maritime vibe. Battle scenes bear bells dramatically clanging, while dark murder scenes boast weighty, low tones. Obra Dinn's somber tale has little in the way of dialogue, so its narrative relies heavily on aspects like the music and visuals.
Fortunately, Lucas Pope has already proven himself a capable and promising indie developer since Papers, Please, and Return of the Obra Dinn is no exception. In fact, I might even suggest that Obra Dinn is the better game. Although a weak ending and a frustrating lack of tutorials up front limit Pope's latest release, the vast majority of his work more than makes up for these setbacks. Whether you're looking for something truly unique, thick vibes, or an excellent mystery, Obra Dinn is for you.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.