Return of the Obra Dinn Review - The Art of Making Great Games
The eponymous return of the Obra Dinn cannot be described as a happy reunion. The ship of the East Indian Trade Company disappears on a voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in 1802 and only reappears five years later. As a ghost ship . Everyone on board is dead. Now we take on the role of an out-of-the-ordinary insurance agent trying to find out what the hell happened on the Obra Dinn.
Gameplay beats graphics
By art we don't mean the style of Return of the Obra Dinn. Sure, the monochrome retro look has its undeniable appeal aesthetically, but the highly stylized graphic is basically an eye-catcher, a matter of taste or maybe just a means to be different, to stand out from the crowd. The style is a minimalist allusion to old computer systems (with graphics options that simulate, for example, "Commodore 1084" or "Macintosh") and it is impressive how events, locations or characters come to life with so few pixels.
The art of Return of the Obra Dinn, which we mean, lies somewhere else - namely in the ingenious gameplay ideas that tell an exciting detective story in a daringly clever and refreshing way.
But first things first: after just a few steps on the deck of the ghost ship, we discover a skeleton, and as soon as we are in front of the remains, our insurance investigator pulls out his pocket watch. This tool is called Memento Mori and with one click its hands start to spin wildly. The screen goes black and we hear an argument.
Someone asks the captain to open the door to his cabin. The battle of words escalates and suddenly we are standing in front of a still image of horror : a man has fired a pistol, the bullet shreds the neck of his victim. Time stands still and we can move freely in this frozen scene.
Sherlock Holmes on deck
This is the first part of our investigative work: We use our watch to jump directly to the time of death of people whose remains or ghostly patterns we discover on the Obra Dinn. The second part of our detective work takes place in a book that we can open at any time by pressing a button. It is a protocol and a thriller in one. It initially includes ship charts, drawings of scenes on board, and a list of the crew and passengers. This is followed by blank pages that slowly fill with the incredible events on board the Obra Dinn as we progress through the game.
Our goal is to find out how the victim died for each death. Who killed whom and how? In the example given, the captain shot someone. We have to explain why in further scenes and with the help of our book. Does the victim wear a certain uniform or does it have a striking accent? In what environment is the dead person depicted on the drawings that have survived from the life of the ship?
With such details, we can use the passenger list to narrow down the possible victim. If we correctly state three deaths, i.e. select the right combination from a list of names and causes of death, this is a first stage victory, because then the relevant entries in the book change from handwritten notes to printing types. That means we were right and new fragments of history appear in the book.
Sudoku staged like a movie
The trick is that simple guessing doesn't get us anywhere . The choices and combinations for who, how and what are simply too many. We are forced to logically derive a chronology of events from the countless death scenes, compare identities, establish cross-connections and correctly interpret interpersonal dramas.
Detective work has rarely felt as authentic as here - also because we only get marginal tips. For example, the game shows us in the notebook how difficult it is to find out the identity of a certain person with our current level of knowledge. Return of the Obra Dinn is like filling out a Sudoku - only more exciting and with more suction.
This is mainly due to the twisty story that opens up fragment by fragment and casualty for casualties. We don't want to anticipate anything here, because otherwise the charm of Return of the Obra Dinn will be lost to some extent. Just so much: The story has some unforeseen (death) moments that made our jaws crack on the table and again and again turned our previous assumptions upside down.
These moments have also burned into our memories because developer Lucas Pope has shown tremendous sensitivity when it comes to music and sound design . The soundtrack swells up in dramatically fitting moments, the speakers go to great lengths (in English) and the placement of sound effects also contributes a lot to the dense atmosphere.
It takes six to twelve hours , depending on how quickly we combine, to solve all the deaths and the stories behind the Obra Dinn. During this time we were so immersed in the complex puzzle of the ship that we hardly noticed any defects. The navigation in the book becomes somewhat confusing with increasing complexity of the connections.