Game review: Return Of The Obra Dinn is the best detective game ever

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Return Of The Obra Dinn (PC) – gaming’s greatest murder mystery

The creator of Papers, Please returns with an instant classic that revitalises the concept of the video game detective.

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Given how popular they are in other media it’s not surprising that there are plenty of video games in which you get to play a detective. Perhaps not quite as many as an outside observer might expect though, for the simple reason that it’s almost impossible to turn detective work into an enjoyable gameplay mechanic. Few modern video games would ever be so daring as to let you get stuck and so detective work is usually reduced to mere window dressing, happening automatically or as a result of very clear in-game prompts. But Return Of The Obra Dinn is different.

The most notable modern examples of detective games are interactive movie Her Story and Rockstar’s big budget L.A. Noire, while this week’s Call Of Cthulhu illustrates the ‘detective vision’ approach at its worst. Return Of The Obra Dinn is very different to all three games, which is just what you’d expect given it’s by Lucas Pope – who is best known as the creator of the superb Papers, Please. It’s not only great to see him back but to find that his new project is something completely different, but equally as good.

We confess we’d never heard of the game until the writer of Dontnod’s Twin Mirror mentioned it to us in an interview, but despite the odd sounding name the set-up is fairly straightforward. The Obra Dinn is in effect a ghost ship, a fictional riff on the Mary Celeste where the ship mysteriously returns to port but with all 60 crew members dead. And as a shipping agent it’s your job to find out how and why.

Return Of The Obra Dinn (PC) – meeting the crew is a sombre experience

The most important design decision the game makes is fully embracing the concept that you are a detective, not an action hero. From there it follows that this must therefore be a puzzle game at heart. But in order to work out who all the men are and what happened to them you have two very different tools at your disposal: basic deductive reasoning and… a magic pocket watch.

We know how that sounds but it’s really just a gameplay affectation to help compensate for the fact that most players are probably not a real-life Sherlock Holmes. The watch works by allowing you to hear the last few seconds before the crew member’s death, before freezing time and allowing you to investigate the scene in detail and try to form a theory as to what happened. You can’t interact with anything at this point though, only observe, and cannot move too far from the corpse.

You soon work out a routine for establishing the basic facts, by matching the crew-members’ faces to a group portrait and trying to divine their name and role on the ship. As short as the audio is it’s usually filled with useful clues as you also try to work out how each person was killed, whether they were murdered, and if so who did it.

The game offers very little help in what to do with the information you uncover, merely filling in a notebook with the information you glean from each corpse. It’s then up to you to connect the data with that of other deaths and to try and start making connections. Often times you just have to make educated guesses, which later have to be altered, but if you’re successful then the watch will offer a hint at other corpses that are related in some way – although that’s really it in terms of hand-holding.

Return Of The Obra Dinn (PC) – first person detective

The graphics, as you may have noticed, are gorgeously peculiar and mimic not only the old monotone graphics of early Apple Macintosh games but also book and magazine illustrations of the early 19th century. Everything is modelled in 3D though and as you walk around the ship from a first person perspective the visuals draw you in far more effectively than any attempt at photorealism. They’re amazingly evocative of not just the era the game is set in but also the era of gaming where the idea of a detective game would’ve been more commonplace.

As far as we understand Lucas Pope has always been a games designer, starting out making Quake mods and enjoying a stint at Naughty Dog, but between this and Papers, Please he also seems to be quietly pinning for a life as an accountant or data analyser. Both games share a similar obsession with paperwork and logical reasoning, but while Obra Dinn’s premise is more intrinsically interesting than being an immigration officer it lacks the earlier game’s moralistic element. Thematically it’s shallower but as a game it’s much more entertaining.

The story does take second place to the detective work but it’s still filled with twists and surprises that ensure this isn’t just a dry logic puzzle. The game takes dozens of hours to complete in its entirety and by that time it begins to feel as if you know every crew-member personally, even though they’re all dead and you never met them… and you’re playing a video game.

In terms of flaws there’s almost nothing to complain about beyond a certain level of clunkiness when using the notebook, which seems inevitable given how much information it contains, and some occasionally questionable voice-acting, particularly when it comes to accents.

In all other respects though this achieves everything it sets out to do with astonishing aplomb. Not only is it a great game in itself but it establishes what is essentially a new genre for subsequent games to explore and expand on. Playing detective is finally something that’s both fun and rewarding and that is the Obra Dinn’s most fascinating revelation of all.



Return Of The Obra Dinn

In Short: Easily the best detective game of the modern era, with challenging and rewarding gameplay combined with some of the most evocative visuals of the year.

Pros: The detective mechanics work extremely well, with very little hand-holding but a clear and obvious methodology for finding and using clues. Superb art style and surprise-filled plot.

Cons: Using the notebook can be awkward and occasionally confusing. Variable quality voiceovers and accents.

Score: 9/10

Formats: PC
Price: £15.49
Publisher: 3909
Developer: Lucas Pope
Release Date: 18th October 2018
Age Rating: N/A

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