In Return of the Obra Dinn, you play an insurance inspector investigating an abandoned merchant ship to determine what happened to the crew. Armed with only a notebook and a handy device called a Memento Mori (which is capable of turning back time to the moment of someone’s death), your job is to run through the fates of the 60 people who once called the ship home. While this premise seems ripe for spooky thrills, Obra Dinn leans away from horror. Instead, it presents a quality puzzler that plays like an ambitious, surrealistic version of Clue.
Nothing is what it seems in Return of the Obra Dinn. Your two ways of interacting with the world are your Memento Mori and the journal, but both are surprisingly complex. Using the Memento Mori recreates the moment of a victim’s death as a freeze frame, including the surroundings. You can walk around, see the victim, the people who were around at the time of the killing, and hear voice snippets to explain the context of the deaths. One early scenario I discovered on the top deck of the ship had one man refusing to let a cargo worker onto a life boat in the middle of the storm before brutally bludgeoning the cargo worker to death to avenge the killing of his brother. I learned more about the brother’s death when I reached the cargo deck, which allowed me to see the full truth behind the scenario and make some important calls.
Obra Dinn isn’t a narrative adventure where you’re going to spy a sheet of paper that conveniently gives you the answer to one of your puzzles. You have to examine every scene and come back to them several times with the Memento Mori. While this might sound like tedious backtracking, it’s just the opposite. You often uncover new details that are essential in solving puzzles, like seeing new wounds or suspicious details in the margins of a scene.
Your journal holds a crew manifest, one sketch of the entire crew, a map of all the decks, and a glossary. It’s also where you input what you think happened to crew members, with every fate serving as a puzzle. You need to answer how the person died (or escaped), who they were killed by, and how. You have to get a trio of crew members’ fates correct before the journal validates them, curbing your ability to brute force your way through puzzles.
The goal seems straightforward, but Obra Dinn is hard. For those who remain undaunted by steep challenges, the interlocking puzzles are fantastic, especially as you come to understand the tools at your disposal. Early on, I rarely used the sketch in the journal because I was so focused on investigating the ties between crime scenes. However, the sketch is just as important because it reveals essential details as well, like character relationships and social status.
Whenever you’re bogged down in a problem, you always have a way out – but you may have to question your assumptions. The game does a great job encouraging this as you tackle the trickier mysteries, like crewmates who are only in a few memories. You need to rely on abstract thinking and connecting events across scenarios. Determining certain fates require you to focus on what’s missing from a victim’s death scene rather than the things that are present.
What’s most impressive to me is how paradoxically linear and open Obra Dinn is. Most of the 60 puzzles can be solved in any order, with only the tools you’re given and your own detective skills to guide the way. I truly felt like I inhabited Obra Dinn’s world because of how strongly its detective gameplay gripped me. Even when I was struggling during my 12-hour playthrough to find answers or the next clue, I couldn’t walk away from the computer. I had to see this thing through.
My only frustration with the Obra Dinn is the overarching story. The plot is ultimately fine, with more than enough emotional beats coming together for an engaging mystery. However, the ultimate payoff fails to complement the thoughtful gameplay giving players who solve every fate the narrative short shrift. Luckily, the individual stories you learn about the crew during your investigations – their betrayals, ambitions, loves – are enticing enough on their own to make up for the deficit. This mixed quality of storytelling doesn’t stop the experience from highlighting its other strengths; Return Of Obra Dinn is a surprisingly hardcore detective title with a surreal bite, and one that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who loves a great challenge.