Return of the Obra Dinn (PS4) Review

I’ve always loved a good murder mystery, whether in a book, film, TV show, or video game; seeing a crime and then using various clues to deduce who did it, what weapon/method they used, and why, really intrigues me. We’ve had a few games which fit this description, the most recent notable examples I can think of are The Invisible Hours, The Shapeshifting Detective and The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker. However, Return of the Obra Dinn is by far the biggest and most intense murder mystery I’ve ever witnessed!

Developed by the amazing Lucas Pope (Papers, Please) and ported to consoles by Warp Digital, Return of the Obra Dinn is unlike anything you’ve ever played before – both visually and mechanically. After seeing a few YouTubers play a demo of the game back in 2016, the game has always been on my radar and this week I finally had the opportunity to experience this incredible mindf***! Seriously, I was beginning to get a headache due to how confused I was whilst trying to piece together the events which happened.

So, why is Return of the Obra Dinn your next ‘must-buy’ title? Let’s find out…

Return of the Obra Dinn 1

Just what happened on the Obra Dinn?

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The story revolves around our faceless protagonist, an insurance adjuster who has been sent aboard the Obra Dinn upon its return to England. Why? The ship set sale five years ago and vanished off the face of the Earth shortly into its journey. Onboard were sixty people, various crew members, passengers and two royal Formosans, none of which returned with the ghost ship as it drifted back into this world. So, your task is to board the empty, haunting ship and account for the whereabouts of each and every person who was aboard the vessel before it faded out of existence.

With the help of the Memento Mortem, a device which lets you rewind time to the point of a discovered body’s point of death, and a ledger which contains photos and a manifest of everyone aboard the ship, it’s time to fire up your little grey cells as this is one hell of a ‘whodunnit’! Although fully identifying everyone isn’t essential to complete the game (unless you’re going for the trophies), I’d highly recommend you do as it’s one of the most satisfying feelings ever, knowing you’ve managed to not only put a face to a name for all sixty people aboard the ship, but you’ve also documented their deaths and brought peace to their virtual souls. 

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Look at how detailed it is using a single colour!

Gameplay
Return of the Obra Dinn is a murder mystery puzzle game in which you must work backwards as you try and figure out who people are and how they were killed and by who. That’s the concept, the reality is a very complex and multi-layered investigation in which you must actively take note of everything you see and hear in order to determine what’s actually going on. The entire mystery begins to unravel from the first skeleton you find upon the deck, the skeleton of a poor soul who was shot whilst trying to gain entry to the Captain’s quarters. This is shown to us by using the Memento Mortem upon the decaying bones and seeing the point of death come to life as a 3D representation we can investigate.

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You’ll hear the final words spoken at the time, get to wander around the ‘memory’ and look at who’s present, and take note of people’s appearance and location. After a short period, you’ll be prompted to try and name the victim (if possible) and/or how they died and who killed them. At first, this info won’t be possible due to lack of evidence, but more will become available as you dive through various ‘memories’. Also, once you’ve inspected one body, either a door or area will open in the real world, for you to explore and find more remains, or a ghostly dead body will be uncovered for you to use as a portal to the past.

Some of the deductions are quite simple, such as people shouting “Captain” at the Captain, or saying the person’s surname just before they’re knifed to death, but others are much harder. I also found myself jumping back and forth between memories to put the pieces together, naming the murderers once I’ve successfully named the person via another memory elsewhere. As your notebook becomes complete, with all of the events which happened and the fates of all sixty crew members, you’ll begin to unravel and discover the truth behind what happened on the Obra Dinn.

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You can guess, but it’s not recommended!

Elementary my dear Watson
How can I put this… Return of the Obra Dinn is one of the best, if not THE best, murder mystery and ‘whodunnit’ game I’ve ever experienced. The amount of thought, logic, care, and planning which went into each and every death is beyond anything I’ve seen before. Every single small detail isn’t there by chance, it’s there to help you determine who everyone is and what happened to them. Something I didn’t even think of until I was stuck is the voices, just listening to the voices of the actors helps you work out their identity due to the accents. What’s that? I don’t know who it is? Well, they sound Scottish and there’s only one person from Scotland – it must be them!

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What I really loved was the lack of help and hand-holding, the game just gives you a ship and lets you work it all out for yourself bar a few nudges at where the next body in the chapter lies. This is also utilised in the process of working out who people are. Yes, you have a ledger with all sixty names in it and yes, you have a picture with everyone’s face. However, the images are all blurry, until the game knows it’s given you enough information to work out who it is, and the game only tells you if you’re right if you’ve got three completed ‘deaths’ correct. 

That’s right, you need to get three peoples name, death, and murderer (if applicable) correct before the game will lock them in and tell you they’re correct. This means you could go the entire game thinking someone is another person and you wouldn’t even know it – unless you realise that it’s never getting confirmed by the game (which happened to me). I thought this was a great idea as it means you can’t really guess and hope to get it right unless you know you’ve definitely got two others correct already – if it was confirmed one at a time, everyone would just guess until they were confirmed correct.

The only thing I would have loved (calling on my love for Sudoku) would have been the ability to pencil in a few names you thought it was. However, there is an option just for an ‘Unknown’ name within each ‘class’ on the ship, so I guess that serves as a similar option – guess the rank or class-type and come back to name them later.

1-bit visuals?!
As you can see by the images in this review, the game isn’t your hyper-realistic game with cutting edge visuals and realistic textures. It’s a work of art, a simple idea which has been implemented perfectly in order to create a visually stunning, yet graphically minimalistic, experience. You can choose from a variety of visual styles, such as the Commodore 1084, LCD, and Macintosh, each one delivering different background and ‘image’ colours. Obviously, under the simplistic design is a fully rendered 3D game, but it really felt like I was playing the game on a computer of yesteryear as I played Return of the Obra Dinn.

Also, I imagine you’ve noticed how the image doesn’t fit the screen in my pictures – that was by choice. There’s a number of screen-size options which I didn’t really utilise. You can have it full screen but I found it to be a little blurry as I imagine it’s rendering at a lower resolution than the full 1080p (on purpose). The smaller screen I used was labelled as being sharp – and it really is in comparison – so I imagine this is probably the rendered resolution. Finally, there are other sharpness options which shrink the screen until it’s about the size of double the switch’s screen, on my 51″ TV. Again, I’m not sure who would play it like this…

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I love these settings!

I found the above look sensitivity options rather amusing! I don’t think I’ve ever had a game with a worded description of what each one will operate like!

If I’m being honest, the visuals are what drew me into the game back in 2016, yet the visuals and cryptic gameplay are what had me hooked this week. Although the game looks rather simple from the outside, it’s much more advanced than the majority of indie games and smaller budget titles I’ve seen recently. It has an art style I’ve never witnessed before, it looks simply mesmerising as shadows and rain invert the colour scheme, and despite the single coloured aesthetic, everything is very easy to see and understand.

Return of the Obra Dinn has it’s own identity and is instantly recognisable at any distance – not many games can claim that, not even AAA games.

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Return of the Obra Dinn 9

That’s gotta hurt!

The difficulty
Did I have issues in completing Return of the Obra Dinn? Yup. Did it impact my enjoyment? Nope. I managed to platinum the game after around fifteen hours or so, with no guides, help or hints. Depending on how well you can put together the events, you could have it finished in around 8-10 hours. The first thirty solutions were fairly straightforward, listening to the voices, seeing what rooms people were hiding in, and a few guesses here and there. However, as you lock in the names of people, the list of possibilities gets shorter, so it should get easier – it didn’t for me. 

I think my troubles lay with declaring how the person died. You get a list of possible deaths, some requiring a murderer and some don’t. However, because you’re playing in 1-bit visuals, it’s not always clear what killed a person. As such, the game often accepted multiple answers based on what you could possibly interpret the death as. Also, as I said above, I had a few people named from the beginning, which I thought was true, but it turned out they weren’t. Who would have thought a ‘Frenchman’ wasn’t the guy from France but the one with a stereotypical French shirt on!

Word of warning for trophy hunters – one trophy requires you to blame all the deaths on a single person. So, if you start solving them, you’ll have to do a second playthrough, as I did. However, I HIGHLY recommend you play the game blind and just ignore the trophies – don’t buy the game as just another guide-solved virtual trophy on your profile, buy it because you have interest in the game and want to feel satisfied after every three deductions are confirmed correct. 

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Official Trailer:

Final Conclusion:
Return of the Obra Dinn is the most complex and imaginative whodunnit-style murder mystery puzzle game, ever! Despite the aesthetically pleasing 1-bit design, underneath lies a perfectly crafted 3D world full of emotion, tragedy, murder, and deception. With two possible endings to uncover based upon how many people you correctly name, along with their cause of death, you could be trying to solve the mystery for many hours based upon your skills as a sleuth. If you have any interest at all in puzzle, mystery, narrative, unique, or cryptic games, you need to buy this today on whatever platform you own.

I can’t think of any other game which confused and baffled me as much as Return of the Obra Dinn – everything about it is flawless and meticulously designed. I seriously can’t wait to see what Lucas Pope surprises us with next!

A copy of the game was kindly provided for review purposes

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Return of the Obra Dinn

£18.99
9.5

Final Score

9.5/10

The Good:

  • - Unique and very interesting art design
  • - The biggest murder mystery you'll ever play
  • - Everything is a clue from the voices to the locations
  • - The music is perfectly suited and a lot of the visuals are timed along with the music
  • - It's very satisfying when you correctly work out the various death info

The Bad:

  • - Some people may find it a little tricky, depending on your ability to solve the mystery
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