1802, the Obra Dinn, a merchant ship, begins its last voyage from London to the Orient.
Six months later, it was supposed to rendezvous at the Cape of Good Hope. It doesn’t.
1803, the Obra Dinn is declared lost at sea. The 60 people, (nine passengers – including the Formosan royalty along with a 51-strong crew) with over 200 tons of cargo on board, vanished mysteriously.
That’s until October 14th, 1807, when the Obra Dinn reappeared with tattered sails void of any passengers at the port at Falmouth as suddenly as it had disappeared.
You are an insurance investigator for the East India Company’s London office. Armed with a mysterious pocket watch that can wind back time to the hour of death and a journal to track your progress, including the ship’s manifest – complete with a sketch – it is up to you to determine the fate of the 60 souls who were aboard the Obra Dinn.
The Return of the Obra Dinn is part whodunit and part insurance investigation. It’s a detective game that does not hold your hand. The premise makes it sound easy enough; go to the ship and take a quite literal walk down memory lane. Identify the passengers using the manifest and sketches, along with their cause of death and get home in time for a nice steaming cup of tea.
The information you are given is sparse, from the get go. You need to rely on a combination of background information, accents, conversations from memories that you had walked through ages ago (in-game), crew relationships, uniforms, body language, a general knowledge of geography and history to identify who is who in the first place. Sometimes even that isn’t enough, so you need to rely on the process of elimination, especially for a particular set of topmen.
Beyond simply identifying the person, you also need to correctly decipher the cause of death. It may sound simple, but it can be quite hard to do with the 1-bit retro style graphics. Some deaths are quick, easy and uncomplicated. On the Obra Dinn, however, most are messy, difficult to untangle and most often, the circumstances surrounding them are as murky and choppy as the sea she sails on. In the case of a murder, there’s the matter of uncovering the identity of the killer, a task that is as difficult as identifying the victim. And you need to be precise; there’s a particular scene that is depicted in the sketch given to you, which you will replay using the pocket watch. If it’s a public execution – a single man is shot by a firing squad, you need to figure out whose bullet it was that hit the target.
Once you have correctly identified three unfortunate souls, the tragic circumstances surrounding their untimely demise and the perpetrators (if required), your journal will automatically update and then those three fates are sealed. It goes on until you have managed to deduce what happened to all 60 aboard the Obra Dinn. Are they dead or alive? If so where? Were they killed by a human or did they meet their end at the hands of a terrible beast?
The atmosphere on board the Obra Dinn (the game in general) really does transport you to an era when 1-bit monochromatic games dominated the PC market. The game is a stylish combination of modern 3D and retro pixels. The death scenes are incredibly detailed (they have to be) and there’s so much to take in. This is the game where the tiniest detail matters so pay close attention to those freeze-frame death dioramas. Because of its unique visual style, it can be hard to make out what exactly is going on at times, but it’s simply a matter of getting used to. For the deaths that are especially ambiguous, you can have slightly different answers. In fact, there’s a certain achievement that can be obtained only if you deliberately shoulder the blame on a specific individual.
Along with visual cues, you need to rely on a lot of audio cues to decipher the events that took place on the ship. The voice acting is really good and if you have an ear for languages then you’re in luck. Conversations especially are the key to unlocking all the secrets that lie in the shadows of the sails of the Obra Dinn. Though they are jotted down in the journal, it helps to replay them to know who was speaking to whom. What you hear in one memory needs to be connected with a completely different memory — people, events, places, deaths.
The musical score of the Obra Dinn really helps set the tone of the plot. From the eerie strings that welcome you when you first set foot on the Obra Dinn to the swashbuckling tracks that begin to play when winding back time to a nail-biting moment in the high seas. It’s exhilarating, melancholic, unnerving all at once. The notes of victory that ring out when you’ve got the fates correct are the sweetest. Even the ambient sounds immerse you in the story, from creaking ship noises, crashing waves, ocean roars, the groan of the wooden stairs as you descend into the orlop deck and the rumbling of the thunder.
The Return of the Obra Dinn is a unique detective game. For one, you don’t get to interrogate the parties involved, because you aren’t a detective, you’re an insurance investigator. There’s no culprit to catch, no killer on the loose – just an empty ship. The game is, at the end of the day, a walking simulator. You rely on observation and logical reasoning; you can try brute forcing it but there is no need to if you pay very close attention. There are three different endings to get depending on how you choose to go about fulfilling your duties but the true one is most rewarding. No two people are going to solve this in the same order either because of the nature of the mechanics, which makes it all the more fun. It is a difficult job for the little grey cells, to unravel the mysterious events that took place on the Obra Dinn, but the thrill with which you snap your fingers at the eureka moment when it’s all coming together, like inserting the missing puzzle piece is a very, very satisfying feeling.
The story of the Obra Dinn is one that stays with you long after you send your report detailing the assessment of the damages. The only downside to this game is that you can never play it for the first time again. Insurance investigation has never been more exciting.