Return of the Obra Dinn is perhaps one of the greatest detective games ever made. It manages to combine excellent deduction-based gameplay, great storytelling, and a very unique aesthetic all into one package. Even so, the game does not come without some issues, both technical and design.
Excellent deduction-based gameplay. If there is one thing Return of the Obra Dinn really exceeds at, it would have to be its style of deduction-based gameplay. Over the course of the game’s story, the player is given just the bare minimum of information regarding the fates of the sixty passengers aboard the Obra Dinn. While the way in which each passenger died is sometimes obvious, what is difficult about the process is that the player has to identify each by name. Considering just how little information there is, this seems like an impossible task, but fortunately the game manages to cleverly weave in bits of evidence here and there to at least give the player somewhere to start. Some of this evidence is very difficult to spot though, so it largely falls on the player to make his/her own deductions, sometimes even outright guessing based on circumstantial evidence. This makes for some rather difficult, yet fun gameplay, enough so to keep me entertained for the entire eight hours that it took to beat the game.
Great storytelling. To go along with the excellent gameplay, Return of the Obra Dinn also manages to tell a pretty interesting story. What makes the story even more interesting though is the way in which it is told. Instead of giving the player the events as they happened, the story is told in pieces, usually in chunks of reverse-chronological order. This style of storytelling serves as a double-edged sword when it comes to deduction, making some fates easier to see, but others more difficult. As such, it really does complement the gameplay well, a whole lot better than a linear story would have.
Unique aesthetic. At first glance, what sets this game apart from others is the unique aesthetic it goes for. The game plays as if you are viewing it through an older monitor, with the default being the Macintosh color scheme. If the default color scheme is not your style, the game does offer a few others to choose from, all taking the form of an older computer monitor (such as the ZVM-1240 or the IBM 8503). It definitely takes some getting used to, but I found that it made the game much more visually appealing, especially during certain parts of the story. On top of that, the game also has some nice music to match, providing for a very cool overall aesthetic.
Inability to input partial answers. The deduction-style gameplay may be fun, but the inability to log partial answers definitely made the game more difficult than it needed to be. There were plenty of times where I knew a person’s nationality, job, or other descriptor, but did not know the name that would go with it. Instead, I had to make a mental note and wait until more evidence was uncovered. Normally, one could just use an actual notepad to keep track of such information, but a lot of the information in this game is tied to a person’s psychical appearance as seen on an old drawing. I could have printed this drawing from a screenshot and annotated it, but considering the genre, the game really should just have some sort of in-game note feature or at least allow partial answers.
Some tedious gameplay mechanics. On top of the inability to take notes, the game has a number of tedious, unnecessary mechanics that really only serve to slow down the player’s pace. The first of which becomes apparent early on: the fact that the player has to discover bodies twice in order to jump into that body’s memory. When going through a string of related events, the player oftentimes jumps from body to body, but after finishing up one body’s memory, the player has to go through a cycle in order to see the next. This involves first locating the next body, inspecting it, then waiting to get teleported back to the previous body at which point the player then has to go over to the next body again. I fail to understand why the last step is even necessary, all it did was slow down how quickly I could gather evidence. The other tedious mechanic I ran into was the fact that memories cannot be jumped into from the in-game book. Instead, the player has to physically seek out the body from that memory in order to dive back into said memory. This creates a lot of travel time in the mid-game and makes it even harder to keep track of information when I am trying to seek out a specific memory. If the game allowed jumping into memories from the logbook, this would not be a problem, but unfortunately, all it does is list the memories and their locations.
Mouse control issues. One of the technical issues I ran into with the game was how badly it played when the mouse sensitivity was set lower than the default. When doing so, the mouse has the tendency to get “stuck” when looking around, ceasing all movement for a brief period. This occasional stutter made it very difficult to look around on such a sensitivity, so I ended up upping the sensitivity one level just to minimize the problem. This issue was supposedly patched at the time of writing (version number 1.0.96), but I still ran into it during play. Hopefully an additional patch can fix this up, but for now it remains a really annoying issue.
With its excellent deduction-based gameplay and great storytelling, Return of the Obra Dinn easily solidifies itself as one of the best detective games to come out in the past decade. The game may have some issues, mainly when it comes to tedious gameplay mechanics, but it is a solid game overall and earns my recommendation as a result.
You can buy Return of the Obra Dinn on Steam here.
I was provided a review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.