Back in 2014, I purchased a game called Papers, Please. Despite a rather boring gameplay concept (checking the validity of someone’s passport), I love the game for how they build up everything around it. What could’ve been a very dull game is instead one of my favorite puzzle games for its puzzle mechanics and interesting world. Lucas Pope, the creator of Papers, Please, now has a new game under his belt, and it has done the near impossible task of being better than his previous game. This is Return of the Obra Dinn, and it’s time to climb aboard the most unfortunate ship ever to set sail.
Taking place in the early 1800s, you play as an insurance investigator tasked with investigating the damages of the Obra Dinn, a cargo and passenger ship with no one alive on board that recently drifted to shore. With a notebook and a supernatural pocket watch, it is your job to find out what happened to everyone on board.
Playing as an insurance investigator sounds just as boring as playing an immigration inspector, but don’t let that fool you. To say that the story you experience through the lives once on board the ship is fascinating is an understatement. You walk up to a body on the ship with your supernatural pocket watch, and you teleport into a freeze frame of the exact moment the person you are investigating dies, and seeing the other characters around as well as the events that are playing out is a fascinating and unique way of experiencing the story. Not only that, the game doesn’t dish out the story chronologically. Whatever body you find is what story bit that plays out, but the order you find the bodies in makes the story zig-zag through ten different chapters. It sounds hectic at first, but seeing the story piece itself together over time is a fun thing to figure out. On top of that, the story being all over the place makes more sense on the puzzle side too, as for playing it chronologically would probably make it too easy. The way the story plays out is fascinating and unlike anything I have ever experience in a game.
The way the story plays out is fascinating and all, but what about the story itself? I’ll keep it a surprise with how wacky it gets, but I can tell you that it isn’t dull. There are some dumb early chapters like people getting sick or a few accidents here-and-there, but as the chapters roll on, things only get crazier and crazier. Throughout this story, you also get to meet the various members on board in little bite size pieces. Despite the very small amount of time with the characters, I actually understood all of their character arcs and why they did what they did. It’s hard to flesh out sixty people on a boat that you spend only a few minutes with, but for what it’s worth, I think Pope did a good job at fleshing them out enough to understand the situations they are in.
The only big issue I have with the story is the ending. I won’t spoil what it is, but at the beginning of the game you learn that there is a chapter you can’t access until you complete all of the others. I remember starting the game thinking this will be the chapter that will tie everything together and make sense of this story, but as I reached the missing chapter I was easily able to piece the story together in my head and understand everything that happened. When I finally got to the missing chapter, I found it to be underwhelming as for nothing exciting happened and the plot reveal they try to frame as the thing that ties the story together is something I figured out awhile ago. Still, that is one chapter in a sea of nine others, and the other chapters that play out highlight an incredible journey in an order I was not expecting.
I can’t go on without talking about the game’s music and art style, which are both incredible. The game looks like it was ripped from an original Gameboy, though I would argue it reminds me of an old newspaper with a tinge of green. The art feels more subdued, with faces and environments being harder to see because of its monochromatic art (almost like it was done on purpose), but it still is an incredible sight to behold. What isn’t subdued in the slightest is the music, which booms with a symphony of strings, brass, organ, bells, and other instruments appropriate to its time period. These elements also affect the gameplay in a significant way, but even in a vacuum they stand out from many other games for how great they are.
The gameplay loop of going up to a body with your handy-dandy supernatural pocket watch and teleporting into a freeze frame of that person’s death has already been explained, but not only do I think this gameplay loop is a great way to convey information in a puzzle game; it is also an incredible visual experience. I still remember the first body I examined: After hearing the dialogue from the characters, I teleport right in front of a person while they were shooting someone else, and mixing that with its booming music and monochromatic art style left me speechless. Many more of these moments await, and I was excited to experience each and every one. More than that, the freeze frame format is a great way of conveying just enough information. It shows the death of the person, but everything before and after that point is up to you to interpret.
The question I haven’t answered yet, though, is what you are trying to interpret. Your goal is to identify all sixty members on the ship, find out what happened to them, and who (or what) did that action towards them. It’s a giant murder mystery ship, and you are the one tasked with finding out every single death. While it was hard tying names to faces at first, the more I played, the more things started to click for me. Not only that, the game has a few subtle yet brilliant ways of leading you towards the right path while not giving you the answers outright. As you gather more information on someone, the image you have of them gets less and less blurry, and your notebook fills up with every single scene he or she is in. Once you correctly guess the identity and deaths of three people, they will be locked in, confirming you are on the right path. As for my own findings, I started to find smaller details while re-entering scenes and started to identify people in other ways like their nationality, clothing, and by the other people they hang out with. This leads to a complaint I have about the game, which is not being able to put down nationality under a person’s name as a side note, but all of these things come together in such a brilliant way that makes the puzzles challenging yet not impossible. I got stumped more than a few times throughout, but I never once had to look up an answer online, and every time I got the notification that I got three more deaths right felt just as good as the last. The puzzle aspects of this game are subtle enough to be challenging yet strong enough to be rewarding and not unnecessarily difficult, creating a perfect balance between the two.
The freeze frame puzzle aspect is a brilliant way of conveying information that I think is perfect, but I did have a few tiny hiccups with audio surrounding it. For starters, the music does get a bit repetitive towards the end. As I went along in the game, I started re-visiting deaths, which would play the same music over and over. This isn’t much of an issue because of how incredible the soundtrack is for the game, but I wish there were some more songs to listen to. One thing that got annoying much faster however is an echo that happens when you open the book while the music plays. Every time you enter a memory, music plays; and every time you open the book while the music plays (which is often), an echo noise happens. It’s not that big of a complaint either, but it still annoyed me a lot and is still worth mentioning.
In conclusion, I think Return of the Obra Dinn is an incredible game that mixes puzzles, story and style together in a way I have never experienced before. The puzzles find a perfect difficulty and offers something unique, the story proves to be interesting even though it’s chopped up and offered non-sequentially, and its time period mixed with its monochromatic art style and booming soundtrack creates an interesting atmosphere. This game is Lucas Pope at his finest, and it just may be my favorite puzzle game to date.