Monday, January 28, 2019

Return of the Obra Dinn (PC) - Review

A Fantastic Voyage
Definitely spoilers!

Some games have great gameplay, some games have great stories. Some games are memorable just because of their unique and/or peculiar premise. And some games have all of that. Return of the Obra Dinn is such a game.

How do you even begin to describe it? Someone used the phrase "murder-sudoku" and I find it fits so well I am stealing it. So the long version is that Return of the Obra Dinn (ROD) is about you finding out what happened on the boat Obra Dinn, as it sails into port with no one aboard. Officially your reason for doing this is to pay out insurance claims, but really you're just curious about what macabre finds the ship holds. You find some bodies on board, but without your magical pocket watch that allows you to see the final moments of whatever dead person you find, you wouldn't be able to guess what actually went down on the Obra Dinn. The ship started out with a manifest of 60 people, and the goal is to figure out what happened to all of them. The game only gives you clear advice on a dozen or so of the fates, the rest need to be surmised and in the end even straight up guessed. Not only do you have to figure out what happened to each person, but also who they are and who did it to them (when applicable, not everyone is murdered).

Short version, it's like Clue but with 60 people instead of one. Or like I said, murder-sudoku. Because as you travel through the ship and find out about different fates, you slowly realize where people must've been and when. It's a pretty ingenious idea and it's executed very well.

Clue, not just a good board game but also an entertaining movie

The game is designed by Lucas Pope of Papers, Please fame - a game I have not tried but that I definitely have a lot more interest for now. When I was reading about that and all I understood about it was that "you're a clerk handling immigration papers" it didn't exactly strike me as particularly thrilling. The great reviews told me that I was probably wrong, and in the end my main reason for not playing it was the tragic subject matter. Either way, it seems like Pope has an eerie knack for turning what sounds like a bit of a lackluster premise into a highly entertaining and thought-provoking game.

Not only is ROD a fun game to play, it's permeated by some really clever design choices that of course add to the overall impression.

For instance, graphically it is very simplistic, using something apparently called "1-bit graphics" that really have to be experienced to fully appreciate. Think old Mac games like Shuffle Puck Café and you've got a good idea. By using your magical pocket watch in places where someone has died, you can see the fate of that person. Each fate is presented by a black screen and sounds - often talking, some times just effects - and then a freeze-screen of the moment of death in which you can move and look around. This means nothing (or at least not anything I remember) is actually animated in the entire game, and yet stays very effectful and informative. If you think this sounds dull, when playing it you quickly realize that any other way would've detracted from the experience. This is the best way to tell this story. By just getting these snippets of clues (sound, an image of death) you're given just barely enough to figure out what is going on in each instance.

Never got past the second guy.

The game then allows you to fill out the information in a book you're carrying - who was this person, what happened to them and who did it to them? With 60 people to choose from and a plethora of ways to die to choose from, it is no easy task. The game will tell you when you're right only when you've got three fates correct at the same time, so just randomly guessing won't get you very far in the beginning (but might be necessary towards the last fates).

The sound effects are a big part of what drives the game, both gameplay wise and in terms of quality. It definitely helps if you have general knowledge of things like accents and boat terminology, because they will help you a lot in determining who people are. It's such a great feeling when you can figure out that a certain person has to be the Swede because he says something in Swedish. Pope is kind enough to include a glossary for the most common terms, and it's useful because I had never heard of a "bosun" before. Of course this game will also fuel your prejudices as you try to find the "Indian looking guy" based on an Indian sounding name in the ship crew manifest.

The game also unfolds in a good pace and you will never wonder where you need to go next. Only once did I get stuck because I am an idiot who thought I had opened every door, but hadn't. While the fates start out with some pretty ordinary murdery stuff, as you travel further down the decks you will find that the Obra Dinn and its crew has been through some pretty zany stuff. There were many times when I went "what the..." and for the longest time I thought Pope was almost comically exaggerating, but it all wraps up to mostly make sense in the end. This is a game best played going in blind because once you know what happens a lot of the fun factor is taken out of it.

There are several colour palettes to choose from if black and white don't do it for you.

So is this game entirely without flaws? No, there was one thing I had some trouble with. While guessing who everyone was in the ship manifest was a great and well balanced challenge, trying to figure out what exactly happened to them was sometimes just impossible. How do you distinguish between a strangling or a beheading (it might seem obvious, but isn't always)? How do you know if someone was "knifed" or "cut with a sword". How do I know if someone was drowned by a beast or just drowned? Was someone crushed by the cargo or the rigging that held the cargo?

This is my only, minor, issue I had with the game though. Everything else is so well designed it is pure joy to play through. When the game told me to wrap up (as it will) I almost said "Awww, I don't wanna" out loudly. Not because the game feels too short, but because you want to spend more time with it.

I managed to figure out 36 fates entirely on my own and roughly another 10-15 people without their cause of death. The rest I had to use a guide for and there is definitely reason to try to get all the fates correct as I found out. If you don't, you get what I would call the "bad ending" that doesn't allow you to see the entire story of the ship. As mentioned you'll get clues for the vast majority, some clues are basically give-aways and some are extremely subtle. The last couple of ones have to be guessed based on deduction. Anyone who manages to figure it all out by themselves are frakkin' Sherlock Holmes' in my book.

Return of the Obra Dinn is one of those games that just does everything right (my minor issue seriously barely worth mentioning). It will entertain you, it will make you think and it will almost certainly give you an experience that you haven't quite had before. Just like when you find a really good book or movie, it'll leave you with a feeling of happiness over having done something that was genuinely fun and so worthwhile.

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