I have to admit- I had never heard of Return of the Obra Dinn until I saw a plug for it on sale on a deals website, with one of the comments indicating that it’s a great mystery game to play together with others on a couch. With that little plug, I was sold, and I bought a copy for my Nintendo Switch.
In Return of the Obra Dinn, you take on the role of an insurance representative unraveling the mystery of why the eponymous ship reappeared devoid of life after an extended disappearance. The player has access to a mysterious compass that, upon finding any kind of corpse, bone, or other remnant, allows you to hear the moments leading up to death of that character and freely move around a tableau showing the moment of death.
The objective of the game is to fill in the ship’s manifest mapping each character’s name to his/her image and ultimate fate.
Because you don’t necessarily find corpses in the order they died, you need to piece together what happened bit by bit to connect the dots and figure out what happened to whom. Most of the earliest chapters you can find are the last chronologically, so the first few characters you encounter tend to be the ones that show up the most throughout the game, having outlived most of their comrades.
There are a few consistent types of puzzles in the game.
- What is the name/job of this dying person? Sometimes it’s easy, if the character is referred to by name in the moments leading up to death. Other times, it’s harder, and you have to use a combination of context clues, details from the manifest, observations about what the character seems to do on the ship, minor details about how the character is dressed… This type of puzzle is the bread and butter of the game.
- How did this person die? Typically speaking, this is pretty easy to determine, and even before you know a person’s identity, you can peg the character’s image to a fate. “This guy was stabbed with a sword by an unknown attacker.” Then as you later figure out the character’s ID and the attacker’s ID, you can come back and complete the entry quickly.
I’m sorry to say I didn’t play the game as it was intended to be played. It led to me having a much easier time completing the game, but as I read online notes from others who played the game, I felt like I robbed myself of making a lot of really fun deductions to identify some of the lesser seen characters.
To “cheat” the system, I took advantage of how the game validates characters’ identities and fates three at a time. As soon as the third correct identity/fate is fully entered, the game confirms you got them right and locks them in. My approach was to pair up two fates I was very confident in with one I had no idea about so the game would lock in as soon as I picked the right name on the guy I had no idea about.
By doing this, I saved myself a ton of time, and within an hour of viewing all the death scenes, I had completed the book of fates. I had completed the goal, but I had also missed out on a very rewarding phase of finding the game’s hardest “aha!” moments on some of the game’s vaguest characters.
Still, the game’s slowly unraveling narrative was a very rewarding experience and a delightful environment to study top to bottom to unravel the mystery of the doomed ship. The story takes some shocking turns that come together to tell a cohesive narrative on how the Obra Dinn met its end.
+Very unique puzzle system, simple but effective
+Puzzles reward players for paying close attention to the story
-Most difficult puzzles can be skipped by taking advantage of the game’s design
-Sometimes fates can be unnecessarily difficult to pin down using the game’s options (i.e. if I slip on a banana peel and fall off a cliff onto a knife, did I die by slipping, by banana peel, by falling, or by being stabbed?)
-Game ending feels abrupt; epilogue chapter doesn’t give any more closure than the average chapter encountered during the game
-While looking for fates, the game makes you chase a smoke cloud around the ship needlessly, sucking up time for no real reason
Overall: 8/10 (Strong Recommendation for Most Puzzlers)
The puzzle design has a few minor flaws that dampened my experience from a pure puzzle perspective, but the game’s well-crafted narrative is enough to keep most puzzlers engaged, especially because of how unique the objective is.