Return of the Obra Dinn (Review)

Plot spoilers (but no solutions to the game) ahoy, as this is a four-year-old game and I really want to talk about the plot.

I think a lot of people wanted me to finally get around to reviewing Return of the Obra Dinn because they thought it could contend for the #1 position on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard. Heh. Yea, no. It’s good, but it ain’t that good. Hell, it missed leaderboard’s top 50, which I expect to be controversial even if it just barely missed it. For many journalists and gamers, this was 2018’s game of the year. It’s a major tent pole indie and basically unlike any game that has ever come before it. It came with the pedigree of being from the guy who made Papers, Please. And I missed reviewing it in 2018 and getting those sweet, sweet clicks. Oh, I didn’t deliberately skip it. In fact, I even started playing it on Steam when it came out. It didn’t hold my attention and it just fell off my radar. I’m not entirely sure why, either. I like a good mystery game, and there’s NEVER been a mystery game like Obra Dinn.

“You unlock this door with the key of imagination..”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot this last week. My Dad, an old-school Macintosh fanboy, saw this on the Switch eShop. He wasn’t ever much for gaming, at least until recently, but the graphics style caught his attention. That same style wasn’t for me at all. I kind of think Obra Dinn is ugly looking. Like so many graphics types, old computer games looked the way they did because the of limitations of hardware at that time. There’s nothing inherently sacred about them. Creators of the legendary PC games of the era would have crawled across hot coals on their bellies to have more colors or higher-resolutions.

The chicken did it. NEVER TRUST THE CHICKEN!

I’m also not so much into high seas adventures. In fact, the only nautical game I’ve ever really enjoyed is Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, and I don’t even know if that counts. Weirdly, it’s my favorite 3D Zelda by a mile. Finally, I’m not huge into nonlinear storytelling. It can be interesting when done right, but when done badly, it can be ruinous. Look at the recent remake of Stephen King’s The Stand on Paramount+. The original made-for-TV mini-series with Gary Sinise and Molly Ringwald was badly acted, had terrible special effects, and was nine-ways of awesome. The 2020 remake (an all-time contender for “Worst Timing Ever” given that it’s a show about a plague that was produced before a real life plague hit) begins with 99.9% of the world’s population already already dead. I mean, come on, that’s the fun part! Each episode cuts between different time periods. The Stand doesn’t work at all as a nonlinear experience and it renders the entire nine-episode limited series unwatchable.

Actually, nonlinear storytelling was only one of many problems. That entire series was one of the most embarrassing dumpster fires I’ve ever seen in my entire life. TERRIBLE performances by actors capable of so much better. Even J.K. Simmons is bad in it. Bryan Cranston is uncredited as the President of the United States, doing a voice over that reminds you the man got his start playing the voices of the monster of the day on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Then, there’s the “fresh” takes on characters. Odessa Young’s Frannie is such so unlikable that it makes you cheer for the embodiment of all things dark and evil. I have never hated a show I was all set to love more than I hated The Stand 2020.

Obra Dinn leans heavily on nonlinear storytelling. The game opens with the ultimate final fate of the final handful of surviving crew. To its credit, it’s immediately jarring, as you see the captain blow some poor SOB away, which is no doubt the cap to a mutiny. The problem is, Obra Dinn uses the jump-around too much, and not always in service to keeping the player engaged. There’s a moment where most players are like “okay, wait, this isn’t just a ship where a series of random calamities happened” where you see the crew fighting a giant mutant crab monster that looks like something out of John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s genuinely jaw-dropping, even if my Dad and I both started giggling at how silly the plot was starting to become. By this point in the game, you’d already seen the crew fight a giant squid, but that’s a fairly common nautical trope. Creepy ass giant crab-spider things being rode by spooky, shapeless riders? Not so much.

The design of these is some of the creepiest, most eerie shit I’ve ever seen in a game.

And that element doesn’t have the same impact if Obra Dinn introduced the monsters at any other point. The scene where they’re climbing onto the ship (pictured above) would have still been a “oh shit” moment, but not as startling or meaningful as seeing the crab do its thing. Nonlinear works there. But for the later mermaid attacks, you’re now expecting that type of thing. Seeing that chapter take place at the tail end of the attack (no pun intended) has lost all impact. Once you’ve already seen that the story involves a giant squid and shapeless warriors riding giant spider crabs, it would have been a lot more chilling to see the mermaid attack sequentially. Of course, the game couldn’t do that because of how you see all these events in the first place. The mermaid sequence requires you to go in reverse order, using the “scene within a scene” aspect of the gameplay where you click on freshest carcass in someone else’s moment of death as the go-between of the segments. It’s safe to say that, by the end of Obra Dinn, that sense of awe and foreboding had long since abandoned ship.

You don’t matter, and you don’t matter, and you don’t matter, and you don’t matter..

If Obra Dinn’s plot itself was part of the checklist that you had to solve, the solution would be “RETURN OF THE OBRA DINN was SMOTHERED by TOO LARGE A CAST THAT NEEDED TO BE THINNED OUT BY A PAPER-THIN FANTASY PLOT.” I’m going to go ahead and say it: Obra Dinn’s story absolutely fucking sucks. Once the sci-fi elements and the magical treasure chest that lures the monsters comes into play, the story dies a miserable death. All the intrigue is gone. All the interpersonal dynamics no longer feel like they matter at all. The answer to “cause of death” for around half of the crew was “killed by horrible beast.” And they had to use “horrible beast” as a catch-all for the mermaids, spider crabs, and kraken, because otherwise it would have spoiled that those elements were in the game. I hate that I didn’t like it, or that the game lost a lot of its enjoyment once the treasure/mermaid plot revealed itself, but from that point on, I just didn’t care about the characters anymore. Their lives, their intrigue, and their fates felt arbitrary. I don’t know why it annoys me so much. I guess I thought it was going to play out like I would be Tim Curry in the Clue movie (Cluedo for you non-Yankee types) meticulously explaining that so-and-so set up a booby trap with a barrel of gunpowder and lured someone to their doom with each character, and instead 50% of them were chalked up to death by monster.

And you don’t even need to be EXACT with the cause of death for most of the characters. Hell, for some of them, you don’t even need to get the exact entity that caused the death. This is one of those multiple-outs type of games. So, for example, if a person’s head is shot off with a cannon during the Kraken fight, you can blame the Kraken, or the guy who shot the cannon, and for cause of death, the game accepts “exploded” or “decapitated” or “shot” or many other things. Now, I’m totally cool with having multiple definitions for the same effect, but I thought I was signing up for a tight mystery full of plots and murder most foul. There’s only teeny tiny hints of those things, but most of the solutions come down to “who died during each monster attack?” God, I can’t properly convey how much of a let down that is.

Do you know what I like most about Obra Dinn? I’ve always said “gameplay is king.” It’s been my unofficial motto at Indie Gamer Chick. I can be wowed by incredible stories. I can be dumbfounded by incomprehensible stories. I can be bored by mundane stories. But ultimately, I play video games to be absorbed by compelling gameplay. Return of the Obra Dinn will now forever be the game I point to that shows the power of gameplay to overcome all. For all its flaws, the actual sleuthing in Obra Dinn never gets boring. It works because of the wise decision to only reveal correct answers in groups of three. We got five or six of the characters correct just by guesswork, but always after a process of elimination that left only three or four options. Granted, we did score one group of three where we didn’t have a definitive answer for any of the three, but when the game cut to the WELL DONE screen, we completely lost our minds in celebration, hooting and high-fiving until we were hoarse. It’s never NOT satisfying to see that you’ve correctly guessed the solution, and that’s the hallmark of a great mystery game, shitty story or not.

The zooming in feature was helpful because, a lot of the time, I couldn’t tell the faces apart from each-other. A lot of characters look similar. And the accents really didn’t help me at all. I could NEVER tell those apart, and I’m a stickler for accents in real life. I can’t tell voices apart either, but at least that ruins nothing here, unlike Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

Obra Dinn isn’t exactly Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. It feels more like Columbo, where you’re looking for the teeny tiny details that would never actually hold up in court. Ultimately, you’re just picking faces out of a crowd. The cause of death is the easy part. You’ll see the weapon embedded in their corpse, or dialog will say “yep, that guy sure was sick before he died” or something equally on the nose. In fact, there’s a strong chance you’ll have in the neighborhood of 80% of the checklist filled with the causes of death for each face before you have a name to go with any of them, but the game lets you do that. You have to base the rest on how they dress (there’s a glossary included in the journal that explains different ranks and jobs and where those people would be on a ship) or accents or location. Not every character has a 100% “this is the clue to their identity” moment, and instead you score them by virtue of eliminating all (or most) other options. There’s four members of Asian royalty (who helpfully have their very own picture separate from all other characters), four people from China, and X amount of officers that you can suss out once you have the cause of death listed just by rearranging them. Once the game starts thinning out characters, that becomes even easier. You’ll almost certainly get a few just by plugging a placeholder name into a character. EVEN THEN, you feel like you’ve done a good job when you get it right. Obra Dinn might be one of the most immersive games ever because of that sense of accomplishment.

The “scenes” are like walking around a big diorama, and when you think you’ve gotten every possible clue out of one, chances are you’re going to be forced to return because actually there were characters present you didn’t even realize were there.

Sure, the gameplay isn’t perfect. I hate the whole “see a scene for a minute, then it fades out, then you’re back in it” part. You want that shit to end as fast as you can so you can start inspecting in a productive way. I also wish that you could just click something in the book to let you relieve the scenes instead of having to go back to the original spot in the ship. That especially becomes annoying in the end game, when there’s corpses all over the ship, many of which look kind of samey, and keeping track of which one opens what chapter in the narrative becomes overwhelming. Then, sometimes you have to click on one corpse to enter a scene THEN click on even more corpses over and over until you get to the scene you want. The end game is going to require you to go back and look for the clues you missed. There’s just no way you’re going to be perfect the first time around, but it’s not at all convenient to do so. And don’t say it was for immersion in a game where you use a magical pocket watch to see a freeze-frame of the exact moment of someone’s death. Just let us click something in the book to see the scene again. The way it’s set up now is really just creates busy work. I haven’t seen such obvious padding since that time I wore my Mom’s bra when I was 10 years old.

Competitive marathon running claims another victim.

Finally, I hate that there’s two endings. My Dad left the ship too early because we couldn’t figure out what we were missing and because the journal has a chapter that says you can’t see it until you leave the ship. So, he left the ship, and the game ended and we ended up with the bad ending because we hadn’t solved everything. At this point, I absolutely blew a fucking gasket. Not at him, but that it was even possible to do this. We didn’t know the game would say “okay NOW you’ve solved everything you can do on the ship, so now you can leave the ship and see the final parts you missed.” I mean, it doesn’t say it like that, but that’s the jist of it. If we had to start over at this point, this would be the angriest review I’d ever done in my life, but after seeing the bad ending and credit roll, we got to restart where we were without any loss progress. Thank god. But the game should NEVER have allowed this. It’s unnecessary.

When a new scene reveals itself, you have to watch this trail of smoke or light or whatever fuck around on the ship, sometimes circling back around before settling and turning into a dead body that you can then click on. It’s not bad, I guess, but sometimes I wish it used a compass instead. I can’t tell anything apart of a ship. I don’t even know what side of a ship is the starboard side. Just because I cuss like a sailor doesn’t mean I know shit about fuck in regards to boats.

Presumably this was done so when people say “there’s no replay value” smug asshats can say “well, actually..” NO! There’s no replay value, AND THAT’S FINE! $19.99 is a perfect price.. hell maybe undervalued.. for a one-and-done experience. You can even say that the captain killed everyone and net an achievement for it if you’re especially lazy. No, Obra Dinn’s story didn’t “do it” for me. I don’t think this tapped all the possible sea-going calamities, or high intrigue for that matter. The mutiny that climaxes the story but in reality starts the game off is rendered kind of moot in the grand scheme of things. There was no pirate attacks. No drunken fool hitting the whiskey too hard and falling overboard. Nobody croaking from scurvy. Nobody catching a fatal case of the clap from a gnarly wench. No jealous husband killing the wench because that was HIS clap, dangnabit! I know the message is about the perils of desire and greed, but Jesus, really? Mermaids? Spider crab monsters? Eh, fuck it. Obra Dinn is still an absolute must play experience, because gameplay is king. Long live the king.

Return of the Obra Dinn is Chick-Approved
Leaderboard Ranking: #51 of 302
Top 92.9 Percentile of All 636 IGC Reviews
Top 83.12 Percentile of All 302 IGC-Approved Indie Games
*Rankings based on time of publication. Check the Leaderboard for updated standings.

Return of the Obra Dinn was developed by Lucas Pope
Point of Sale: Steam, Nintendo Switch, Xbox, PlayStation

$19.99 was torn apart by a terrible beast in the making of this review.

Lucas Pope is now officially an Indie Gamer Chick Certified Developer Who Does Not Suck!

About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

One Response to Return of the Obra Dinn (Review)

  1. Matt says:

    I almost left the ship too early as well, but something told me I should check a guide to see if doing that wouldn’t lock me out of the real ending, so I did and I ended up not leaving the ship. Phew!

    And yeah, I agree that the story isn’t all that great, but, like you said, the gameplay is just wonderful.

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