Released to critical acclaim last October, Papers, Please creator Lucas Pope’s Return of The Obra Dinn finally arrives on consoles with quite the fanfare. After finding a dedicated audience willing to get on board with a game that on paper, probably shouldn’t ever have been as popular as it was, Pope’s narrative-based detective story feels right at home in your hands.
With the majority of the console world still awaiting Papers, Please (bar the PS Vita), its follow up is perhaps the first time those with controllers instead of keyboards have experienced the wonderful work of Pope, and Return of the Obra Dinn is perhaps even more impressive than its forerunner. It’s bizarre, at times excruciatingly difficult and feverishly rewarding; beating the game felt like winning gold in an Olympic marathon.
There’s a reason why it was up for so many Game of the Year awards at the turn of 2019, though. It’s probably unlike anything you’ve ever played before and, as such, is somewhat difficult to get your head around to begin with. Like most games of its ilk though, when it begins to click you’re already sucked into the mystery and wanting to eagerly crack on to close this fascinating case.
Return of the Obra Dinn is set in the 1800s, and your shipping agent character is tasked with setting sail to the Obra Dinn, a ship stranded in the middle of the ocean whose crew have mysteriously disappeared. The ship contains enormous amounts of cargo, so naturally, the powers that be are very concerned as to what happened to the ship and those contained within. It’s up to you to figure out what became of these unfortunate souls, and what follows is perhaps the most captivating and original detective game you’ve ever played.
There’s very little hand-holding in Return Of The Obra Dinn, if any at all. There are moments in the game where you wish it would intervene and just slightly nudge you in the appropriate direction, but all it offers is a magical pocket watch, a variety of corpses strewn across the ship and a book to keep everything you discover in order. The latter is your most prized possession, as it becomes integral to your detective work. Inside its pages, it features a list of the crew and passengers, a layout of the ship and drawings that you can refer to at any time. The moment you come across a corpse, your bewitched watch will allow you to turn back time, giving you the chance to see how this poor soul died. Once you work out what happened, you’re able to jot down in your book the fate of each individual crew member and move on to the next, solving the macabre mystery of the Obra Dinn one death at a time.
Sounds simple, right? Not quite. As you come across the first corpse and its story, you’ll notice in the book that it’s been placed under the section labelled ‘The End’. Return Of The Obra Dinn starts the investigation at the very end of the tragedy, and working your way backwards will allow you to answer questions you had about the very first case. You’ll never immediately know everything, and using the pocket watch's powers to explore the exact moments the deaths take place will raise more questions than you’re unable to answer – until, that is, you’re able to identify those involved.
Pulling apart the mystery will involve paying more attention to a video game than you’ve done in quite a while, we'll wager. All of the answers are in front of you; you just have to find them and use them to piece the puzzle together, one corpse at a time. Exploring the flashbacks could answer a question you had an hour or two before. What was the name of the passenger who was captured by the Kraken? Which one is the brother of the Captain’s wife? Return Of The Obra Dinn persistently asks questions of you, like you’re walking through the pages of a novella that hasn’t been written yet. The persistent challenge is tying things back to past events, and this is what keeps you going; as the story unravels before you, you'll want to know everything. Patience is a virtue in Return Of The Obra Dinn, but it’s rewarded handsomely.
As the story unfolds, the horrendous fates of the crew members and passengers come to light, and the emotional attachment between those on board rises to the surface – and this is where the game truly shines. You’re learning the story backwards so making sense of it all can take time and emotional effort, as things get quite grim at points. Still, it feels like the suffering these people went through has the faintest aspect of light shining through, which makes their sacrifice all the more poignant. It’s a powerful, at times horribly vivid and always surprising.
Then there are the visuals which, as you’ve probably already noticed, set Return Of The Obra Dinn apart from its peers. Everything is presented in a faux-retro monochrome art style which can be altered to look like an IBM monitor or a Zenith ZVM, for example. These filters are purely available to give the game a little splash of colour should you want it, but they do serve a more obvious purpose – we found it was handly to scroll through the available options to see certain moments with a little more detail.
The art style is beautiful, suiting the setting of Return Of The Obra Dinn perfectly. It's as if the game is presented as an artist's impression of the fateful ship; scribbled drawings used to recall fading memories. There are plenty of moments where it can look a little crowded with only two colours on screen at any given time, but this is a minor complaint. The screenshots certainly don’t do it justice; when walking around a still frame of art to deduce its meaning – particularly during the Kraken attack – it takes your breath away.
Return of the Obra Dinn lives up to the hype, and then some. It’s a beautifully crafted and intricately constructed detective mystery unlike anything you’ve played before with a harrowing narrative at its centre. Unravelling its secrets takes time and requires patience, but you’ll be glad you allowed the story to play out at its own pace. What we have here is a thoroughly unique experience that will stay with you, and is among best this genre has ever had to offer.