At heart, I think everyone wants to be a detective.
There is a reason why famous sleuths like Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, and Phoenix Wright (in certain circles) are so popular. It’s because we all want to be dropped into the middle of a mystery to find clues, build brilliant deductions, and eventually solve the case. Escape rooms give us a taste of this, but nothing gets the imagination rolling like a good old-fashioned (fictional) murder!
In Return of the Obra Dinn, you are an insurance agent employed by the East India Company in 1807. The Obra Dinn, a ship that went missing with all hands a few years earlier in 1803, is rediscovered off the British coast. Your job? To figure out what happened to the crew. To assist in this task, you have only a few hand-drawn pictures of the crew, a list of the ship’s complement, deck maps, a logbook, and a magical pocket watch called the Memento Mortem. When directed at any corpse, this watch allows you to witness a “memory” of their death, including the audio of the last few seconds of their life and a frozen, explorable tableau of the very moment of their demise. You soon discover that you can even use the Memento Mortem on bodies found within memories, leading you even further back in time. With these tools, you must figure out the identity of everyone on the ship, their fate, and in the end, what exactly happened during the last voyage of the ill-fated Obra Dinn (for insurance purposes, of course).
A word of warning to those who hope for detailed tutorials: Obra Dinn is not a game that holds your hand. There are, thankfully, some clues available that can help you narrow things down. Inside the logbook, every picture of a crew member is given a rating between one and three triangles. If there is only one triangle, you already have the information you need to deduce their identity. If it’s three triangles, you must do some deep investigating before you can put the pieces together. With each fate you uncover, more and more doors are opened on the Obra Dinn, giving you access to newly discovered bodies and additional memories. The crew is remarkably stingy with names, only dropping a few of them across every memory. You will need to investigate their clothing, possessions, injuries, relationships, ship locations, and even accents to gain the necessary clues to deduce their identities. Helpfully, there is no time limit on the boat. After you’ve seen all the memories, you can leave the ship any time you like, ending the game. If you want to get the best ending though, you need to narrow things down until you’ve finally deduced the identity of everyone onboard the ship (for insurance purposes, of course).
Ah, but couldn’t you simply guess, plugging in possible deaths and names until you happen to get one right? Not so fast! To prevent random guessing, your deductions will always be confirmed in threes. After you’ve successfully figured out the identities of three crew members and their fates, the game will play a delightful little jingle, take you to the logbook, and inscribe their fates in permanent text. With 60 crew members, dozens of potential causes of death, and the necessity of naming of the culprit if they were murdered, random guessing isn’t going to get you far in Obra Dinn.
To gather the necessary information, you’ll likely need to revisit the memories of each crew member’s death multiple times, and this is where the system starts to break down a bit. Many of the memories are only accessible from within other memories. While this is a super satisfying and interesting storytelling mechanic the first time you see it, it becomes a massive pain after you’ve found every memory in the game. If you want to view certain memories to find clues, you need to remember the location of the first person in the memory chain, then follow each memory backward until you find the fate you are looking for. Yes, it would have been somewhat immersion breaking to be able to choose which memory you wanted to view from the book, but it would have improved the flow of the game immensely. At the very least, having a way to access the fate of all crew members on the ship rather than only from specific memories would have been much less frustrating and eliminated a lot of unnecessary backtracking.
Some games might try to bring the 1800s to life with lavishly detailed graphics, but Obra Dinn goes in a completely unique direction: The entire game is “1-bit,” evoking the graphic capabilities of early computer systems like the original Macintosh. You get two colors, black and white with no gray shading allowed, in a modern 3D, explorable space. The amount of detail communicated in only two colors is remarkable. Faces of the crew members are instantly identifiable, despite the “low” graphic fidelity, and the entire ship itself appears as a fully lived-in place. Obra Dinn looks like nothing else I’ve ever played, and it does take a few minutes to adjust to the lack of colors and details. But once you’re drawn into this monochromatic, melancholy world, its beauty will captivate you.
The sound design here is an absolute treat. While investigating the ship, the sound is sparse, mainly just the ambient noise of the ship settling or the fall of rain on the deck above. The second you bring out the Memento Mortem, things liven up considerably. The music that plays during the memory tableaus wonderfully underscores the frozen action. There is everything from a bombastic sea battle score to spooky organ music. And the little sea shanty jingle that plays when you successfully figure out three fates makes you feel brilliant every time! The voice acting in the memories is excellent across the board, with some very effective accent work (which is an important part of working out crew members’ identities).
The console port of Obra Dinn carries over everything included with the original PC release. The big question for me going in was how would the keyboard controls translate to a controller? And I found them to be okay — they do the job. Navigating multiple menus and through the book with the limited buttons on a controller is a bit cumbersome, but thankfully, the interface is well designed enough that it rarely feels like a chore.
Apart from that, Obra Dinn controls like any other game with a first-person perspective. Playing it on the go with the Switch, however, is not the optimal way to experience the story. With the two-color palette and gameplay emphasis on spotting tiny details, I found that the Switch’s screen wasn’t large enough to spot the clues necessary to figure out the fates. Once I returned home and put it in the dock, I was quickly able to find some clues that had eluded me when I was stuck with a small screen. This is a game that requires a monitor at the very least. It’s fantastic on a docked Switch, but you likely won’t get the same rich experience playing it on a Switch Lite.
Games like Return of the Obra Dinn are rare. They alternately make you feel like a complete idiot for missing what was in front of you and a bloody genius for solving the mystery. It’s remarkable how important it feels to figure everything out, especially given the lack of immediate stakes. After all, everyone on the ship is dead or gone; there is no time limit; there’s not even an apparent threat to your safety. But after you’ve witnessed only a few deaths, you become fully invested in figuring out precisely what happened to the crew of the Obra Dinn (for insurance purposes, of course). It made me feel more like a dogged detective than any game I’ve ever played. Despite some minor control issues on consoles, Return of the Obra Dinn remains possibly the most successful detective game ever made.