Return of the Obra Dinn (Nintendo Switch) Review

By Michael McCann 09.11.2019

Review for Return of the Obra Dinn on Nintendo Switch

After the critically acclaimed Papers, Please, one-man-band game designer Lucas Pope returns with the Switch port of nautical themed detective-ing follow up, Return of the Obra Dinn. The former title impressed with its morally grey storytelling, and cross-referencing originality, but does this seafaring offering of a 1-bit mystery tour do enough to keep itself afloat?

Appropriately enough, Return of the Obra Dinn opens on a piece of documentation. A message informing of the titular Obra Dinn, a ship previously lost at sea, having returned to port with all sixty-person passenger and crew mysteriously deceased or absent. The premise is set - no doubt, then, that this is a job for an insurance investigator to give a full and frank assessment of losses and damages. After the briefest of excursion aboard the 'good ship' Obra Dinn, the real meat and bones of the experience comes into light. That is to say that the experience slows back down to a contemplative pace as the journal and Memento Mortem are acquired. Both items will become very familiar throughout the play-through because, well, that's really about all there is in terms of game mechanics to cover.

Screenshot for Return of the Obra Dinn on Nintendo Switch

Along with some light first-person exploration, these items are central to the core gameplay. What is ingenious, however, is how much Pope manages to bring to the table with such minimal mechanics. Return of the Obra Dinn is a much tighter and focused adventure for it, and something that plays out in the head more often than it does on the screen. It is also a rather slow-paced affair. The journal, an incomplete report of the events during this lost voyage, must be leafed through from cover to cover before progressing with the story. Much of the playtime will be spent leafing through this journal and, as much of it is left blank, the ultimate goal is to complete this missing information, ascertaining the identity and fate of everyone aboard.

Besides being a manifest of passenger names and nationalities, the book contains a deck plan for the Obra Dinn, and an artist's sketch rendering of these lost souls. These elements must be linked together, and are invaluable in helping one figure out who is who. The organisation and design of everything here in the journal is clearly something that has been highly considered. It is an overarching element that could have quite easily hindered the experience if it weren't so well thought out, but thankfully that isn't the case. The layout never changes, and it is a fairly simple matter to flit between photofits of various characters to different story chapters and then back again.

Screenshot for Return of the Obra Dinn on Nintendo Switch

The key tool in aiding the completion of the journal is the aforementioned Memento Mortem; a magic pocket watch that allows one to "remember death." Walking up to the remains of anyone on deck, and using the watch will trigger a split-second flash back to the deceased moment of death. This plays out as a short audio clip leading up to the moment of death, and then a "frozen moment" tableau that can be wandered around, and studied to find small pieces of a metaphorical jigsaw to put together. Some of these frozen moments are really quite striking, as the mystery of many deaths involve anything from accident, murder, Lovecraftian beasties, or just plain poor weather conditions that can eventually lead to their demise. Gradually, in compelling fashion, the plot is unravelled in reverse chronology, finding out just what on earth went awry on the Obra Dinn.

Although determining each death can be relatively straightforward, oftentimes it's the identities of the parties involved that are completely obfuscated unless there specific mention is made of them in dialogue. Usually that requires a cannier and indirect observation about the type of uniform a character is wearing, a distinctive accent, or maybe someone else that happens to be in close proximity that will help glean a positive ID. It is entirely possible to get these wrong too, as red herrings are ever present; perhaps something that can be thought of as certain will be misinterpreted until new information is revealed elsewhere. In this respect Return of the Obra Dinn plays out like a convoluted version of Guess Who?, whereby implicit logic and stereotyping must be applied to solve the overall puzzle.

Screenshot for Return of the Obra Dinn on Nintendo Switch

The art direction also supports this. Everything is presented in a monochromatic, 1-bit, dithered look which belies realism. In turn it has just the right amount of detail for characters to be distinguishable up close and from afar. It's a dreamlike, and highly stylised look that is a pleasure to take in, particularly when rendering things like gunpowder shrapnel or explosions within the Memento Mortem's motionless time. The presentation across the board is great, with a qualitative rather than quantitative approach to the sound, design and composition of scenes.

After three fates are answered correctly it is all typeset into the journal and confirmed. This is definitely something that comes as a relief, and never fails to elicit a smug self-reward pat on the back. Return of the Obra Dinn is designed so that some information will remain incomplete and it starts to get much more difficult to find answers from around the halfway mark. Eventually, jumping back and forth in time between tableaus to find the answers becomes a necessity. One must always be situated at a specific corpse to view a specific memory and then find a doorway within that memory to then leave it. This is one thing that could have been streamlined and grew a little tedious after a while. It's possible that without this gameplay exposition that it may have made the experience too short or easy, but it is also something that could have been serviced just as well with a button press after you have witnessed all the memories.

Screenshot for Return of the Obra Dinn on Nintendo Switch

Cubed3 Rating

8/10
Rated 8 out of 10

Great - Silver Award

Rated 8 out of 10

Return of the Obra Dinn is without a doubt a thinking man/woman's piece of crumpet. It is someone that you can take out on a date and have a riveting conversation with, but then scratch your head about some of the things they've said afterwards. There's not a lot of replay value here and a lot of the fun is over whence all discoveries have been made and confirmed. That said, it is a, mostly, to-the-point adventure, and it is because of this focus that Return of the Obra Dinn works so well. It's certainly not going to be for everyone, and may even sound boring to some, but as long as there's no expectation for split second thrills (beyond that of what is depicted in the memories, which can be thrilling), you will find an excellent puzzle experience with a more than shipshape presentation.

Developer

3909 LCC

Publisher

3909 LCC

Genre

Puzzle

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  8/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

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