Return of the Obra Dinn Review

Screenshot of the deck of the moon shining on the deck of the Obra Dinn in the Return of the Obra Dinn
This style is apparently called "ditherpunk". I quite like it.

Quick Info
Reviewed by: Mark Goninon
Developer: Lucas Pope
Publisher: 3909
Release Date: 19 Oct 2018
Time played: 6.7 hours

Loved by the press and fans alike

Following the release of the massive hit Papers, Please in 2013, indie developer Lucas Pope decided to work on an entirely new game Return of the Obra Dinn which released on Steam five years later. As it was in Papers, Please, you are given a seemingly boring job: an insurance assessor for the East India Company in the early 19th century. A ship that was presumed lost at sea mysteriously returns back to England damaged and with no sign of its crew. It's your job to investigate what happened, solve the mystery and determine what payments are due.

I purchased the game with some Christmas money in 2020 because I liked Papers, Please and the game is critically acclaimed with a Metascore of 89 and an "Overwhelmingly Positive" Steam rating based off over 60,000 reviews. Considering how well regarded the game is, I felt it was about time I actually played it to see what all the fuss was about.

Screenshot of monitor colour settings set at IBM 5151 in Return of the Obra Dinn
You can choose what colour monitor you'd like. Being as I used a lot of IBM PCs, I went for IBM 5151

In the 80s, you could sail the monochrome seas...

What you'll first notice about Return of the Obra Dinn is its distinct graphical style. It's going for a retro kind of look, but not with your typical pixelart, but by using polygons masked by a monochrome filter that employs a dithering effect. It definitely evokes pangs of nostalgia for those of us that remember playing games on a 1980s Macintosh (I never actually owned a Mac but I did have multiple chances playing them over the years). Everything else is also a weird mish-mash of the old and new: it is a 3D game played from the first person perspective with high quality audio and voice acting, yet the meat of the game mainly involves reading notes and drawings to deduce what's going on, similar to older 80s adventure games.

At a high level, the game bears some similarities to Pope's previous hit Papers, Please where you have to spot minute clues in order to determine the truth. In Papers, Please it was to determine whether people crossing the border possessed a valid visa or not but with Return of the Obra Dinn it's to determine the fate of the 60 crew and its passengers. Through supernatural means, you're able to relive the events of each crew member shortly before they die. Since you initially have no idea who is who, you'll spend a lot of your time checking faces during these scenes so you can match them with other clues you have in a notebook, including drawings of all the crew members, ship schematics and a crew manifest.

Screenshot of man killing another in Return of the Obra Dinn
You'll get to see a lot of this happening in this game

Assumptions kill, or do they?

Once you get the ball rolling it can be hard to take a break from this game and I don't think it's too uncommon to play the entire thing in one sitting (you can easily finish the game if you have three hours to spare). In fact, it had been a while since I first played this game so I actually attempted to dabble a bit with it prior to typing up this review - I found I couldn't help myself in replaying the entire thing, and yet, I only fared slightly better than I did the last time I played. You see, at the end of the game you have to submit your findings to the mysterious man who gave you the tools to perform the investigation in the first place, so the more fates you've correctly determined, the better the outcome. In both cases, I fared poorly. In my first playthrough I only got a measly six fates out of sixty (so 10%) and three of the fates are basically given away during the beginning (which acts as a sort of tutorial). Admittedly, my first playthrough I still hadn't figured out how everything worked so a word of advice, you might want to restart the game if you ever get into that situation. However, playing the second time only secured me 24 out of 60 fates which is still not quite a pass.

This game is for those who are good with hunches and assumptions, and also for those that are very thorough when investigating each scene. Sometimes, while you're revisiting a scene of someone's death, there are actually other characters on other decks or rooms which can give you hints as to their identities. But this is where my reluctance to convict people ends up being my undoing.

Screenshot of fate selection screen in Return of the Obra Dinn
At the end of the scene, you have to determine who the victim, who murdered them and how

Those who have the patience to try trial and error will eventually figure out the fates, all you need to do is pick the identity of the victim, the identity of the perpetrator and how the victim was killed. But if you don't want to spend all your time going through each permutation, you'll have to view the scene and listen to the audio (which often doesn't give any hint on who said which line except for the victim) sixty times to piece things together. You'll be listening in on accents and different languages in an attempt to match those lines with the nationalities of those on the ship, although by doing so, you're automatically making assumptions that people of particular nationalities would have an accent in the first place or be able to speak that particular language. Sometimes you might see certain characters examining bodies and you'd probably assume them to be the surgeon and the surgeon's mate but again, it's an assumption because they could be just random bystanders.

As Jack Reacher says: "In an investigation, assumptions kill" and I tend to be cautious when investigating murders, which is probably why I performed so poorly in this game. If you're like me, and you don't find much motivation to replay a game over and over again, the game is definitely entertaining but has limited replay value and just leaves you feeling mighty stupid. In fact, since nothing in the game is procedurally generated, it means there's no point in replaying the game unless you enjoy the story or are willing to replay scenes you've already become familiar with in order to investigate the stuff you failed to last time. While the setting is interesting and you get glimpses of the characters on the ship, you really don't get enough exposition to really care about any of the crew or its passengers and remember there are sixty of them altogether! Also, I'm actually not one for replaying visual novels to experience every single branch or new game+ mode, so despite replaying the game a second time, my primary motivation to do so was for the review and while there was a bit of enjoyment from performing slightly better than last time, many times I was frustrated at waiting for the wispy spirit animation that guides you from one corpse to the next (this takes several seconds and is unskippable).

Cluedo meets What Remains of Edith Finch

Ultimately, the game is probably worth a look if you've ever wondered what an old 80s murder mystery adventure game or visual novel would look like on modern hardware as it's very much inspired by that era's graphics and it also has a fitting soundtrack to boot. The game feels like a mix of What Remains of Edith Finch, due to it being enticing for those with morbid curiosity and also Cluedo as you'll be using your deductive skills and the process of elimination in order to determine the fates of the sixty crew and its passengers.


If you like the game Cluedo but want to try your hand at determining the fates of sixty crew and passengers on a 19th century East India Company vessel, Return of the Obra Dinn might be the game for you. If you have a morbid curiosity on the creative ways people can die or you enjoyed playing What Remains of Edith Finch this game should also appeal.

Whether you enjoy the story or not really depends if you're content with less characterisation but are at home with the nautical setting. Frankly, I found the characters in Papers, Please and the Soviet-era politics more compelling but Return of the Obra Dinn was still enjoyable if only to experience a trip down memory lane thanks to its early Macintosh monochrome graphics.

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