The Obra Dinn was lost at sea, the souls aboard it missing along with the vessel. Now it’s been found but empty, save for the skeletal remains of its crew and evidence of great violence. It’s up to you, as insurance agent for the most honourable East India Trading Company to find out what happened on the journey before the Return of the Obra Dinn.

Return of the Obra Dinn is the latest game by Lucas Pope, the creator of the wonderful Papers, Please, which puts you on the shoes of an insurance agent in the 19th century. You board the Obra Dinn with the mission to catalogue what happened and determine the fate of its crew, passengers and cargo. Your only tools are a book with the chapters of the ship’s journey and crew manifest, and a mysterious compass, the Memento Mortem, which reveals the last moments in someone’s life.

Return of the Obra Dinn blew me away and in the short time I spent playing it—short only because I binged on it until I finished it, with sleep very much optional—I completely fell in love with it, to the point where I can confidently say it’s one of the best games I’ve played in my life and one of my favourites.

The Good

  • I See Dead People: To identify the crew of the Obra Dinn you use a curious compass that lets you explore a snapshot in time, specifically the last moments in the person’s life. It’s a fully explorable static scene with incredible attention to detail, including the things said or heard right before the event happens. These scenes often hide other bodies to pull out of the past and into the present, where you can get another glimpse further back in time. It’s a wonderful investigative rabbit hole, just jumping down and back in time and it often surprised me how many details these scenes hid in the background or how interconnected the crew’s fate was.
  • It’s all in the book: Your book on the Obra Dinn breaks down the ship’s fated journey into chapters. The blank pages fill with every corpse you find, and then you must identify the people in the scenes, using three artist renditions of the crew in key scenes of their journey and the crew manifest. Getting close to a corpse or the image of a person in the past matches them to one of the faces in the art. I loved this approach, as often the bodies are unrecognisable and it let me track people across scenes, following their path to the grave.
  • Detective Work: Return of the Obra Dinn puts the task and responsibility of identifying the crew and their fate entirely on your hands, it’s not a game that holds your hand in any way. This is not your typical adventure game where finding the clues immediately fills in the relevant information on a crew member. No, what makes Return of the Obra Dinn so amazing is that it’s all about your deductions, your educated guesses and the only thing the game does for you is confirm your deductions in groups of three. It’s the only indication that you get that you’re on the right or wrong track. It’s innovative and beyond compare, and I can only wish for more, for a murder mystery in a giant mansion, perhaps. All great murder mysteries deserve a mansion!
  • It’s in the Details: What makes the “crime scene” reconstructions so good in Return of the Obra Dinn is that Lucas Pope put attention to every audio-visual detail, up to and including the crewmember’s accents, their native languages, their clothing and even the numbered tags on their sleeping spots. You have to make educated guesses and Return of the Obra Dinn makes sure you have the evidence there. This way even the hardest of deductions is fair.
  • It’s all Black and White: I love the visual style, 1-bit monochromatic. It gives the game something of a timeless feel and it makes the thorough visual details even more impressive. And just because it’s monochromatic doesn’t mean it’s not absolutely gorgeous!

The Bad

  • Once in a Lifetime: The only downside I can think for such an astonishing game is that once you’ve played through it, that’s it, you’re done. There’s no point in replaying it, as the Obra Dinn’s story and your deductions will always remain the same. I’m sad that I can’t experience Return of the Obra Dinn for the first time again.

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