Return of the Obra Dinn: A Review

Like Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn puts the player in a mundane role while providing a wholly unique experience. In 1807, the Obra Dinn returns to port after it had gone missing for five years. With no crew on board, your role as insurance agent is to assess what transpired on the ship. Your only tools are a magical stopwatch and logbook which you will use to investigate the fate of the ship.

The first magical item, the stopwatch, is used when you come across any remains of a dead sailor. It transports you back in time to a still image of how that person died. You will have about thirty seconds to walk around the scene and observe what happened before the game pulls you back out. Then, the log book opens and records what you have discovered so far. The goal is to determine the fate of everyone on the ship – how they died and who, if anyone, caused it.

You may encounter someone getting hit by a fellow crew member with a hammer. Is the person wielding the hammer the captain, the first mate, or maybe a top crewman. They definitely got killed by getting hit with a hammer. But as you continue to the next scene, you may see them lying at the edge of the scene recuperating in a bed. Did this person die, or was the death scene someone else’s death scene?

Mystery games have, in particular, been pretty poor at presenting something to actually solve. Besides Her Story, I can’t think of any game that was really about solving a mystery. Like a book or movie, a mystery game is more about being lead along by the writers than actually doing any sleuthing yourself. While this is inherently not a bad thing, it does not feel like you actually solved anything. Even in Her Story, the task is finding as many pieces of information that you can and then piecing it together to create a picture of what really happened. As the game doesn’t reveal whether your ideas or theories about the case were right, the ending is what you make it.

Return of the Obra Dinn is different. The game is not linear, instead there are multiple clues that point a player towards the correct conclusion. Multiple clues litter each scene although it will take deduction and attention to detail to spot them. When you have correctly identified a crew member and their cause of death, the game confirms it by making the notes in the magical log book permanent. Since three correct answers are required, it makes it really hard to guess your way through.

The experience of playing through it really feels like a mystery, where the player has full responsibility to solve the mysteries at hand. Lukas Pope has said that there are enough clues that no guesses are required to identify anyone. Despite this, I did guess twice when my own deductions led me to a place where two characters could be either one or the other. I felt a bit cheap but the responsibility was mine for not confirming the people involved before I entered them in the book. After finishing the game, I took a look at a few guides and saw that the writers had followed different logical paths based on the things they had observed. I find this a little fascinating and it made me wonder what details I had missed about the crew members of the Obra Dinn.

As you uncover the fates of its crew you also piece together the story of the ship and its final journey. The magical log book contains chapters which breaks down the scenes you come across into a digestible and linear narrative. The story itself has turns and there are more than a few scenes that unfold that will hook the player to continue but as a whole it serves mainly as a backdrop for your own investigation. There isn’t much to spoil because the story is based on tropes and cliches that are common in most pirate and other sea tales from the time period. The whole thing becomes very familiar very soon. There’s a giant sea monster or two. Humans are greedy and stupid. Women are mostly in the background. Foreigners are “odd” and “mystical”. There is a version of this game with a more compelling and less cliche story that has more to say than the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

Partly this shortcoming comes about from the mechanical premise of the game and its presentation. It is difficult to provide detail with an intentional lo-fi art style so any environmental storytelling has to be clear and simple, which is it, but it also makes it limited in scope. On top of that, the stopwatch only gives us a small glimpse into a character’s life – the moment before their death – which isn’t a lot to work with when building a narrative. Therefore, it is the dramatic moments that must propel the story and with 60 character’s deaths to depict, you kind of need a giant kraken to swipe a few off the deck in one go.

Where the story does hit on something is at the end. After discovering the fate of all the crew members, the game runs through each death you have recorded. A monetary dispensation or fine is assigned to each crew member which their surviving families will have to deal with. You are an insurance agent after all and the real goal of the game is to determine who owes what to whom. Obra Dinn makes you feel excited about finding another dead body, and then reduces them to a monetary value after your work is done.

Like Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn is a game about a mundane job that is affected both in its game play and in the emotions evoked. In both games, the story is just a backdrop and it is what you do while playing that really matters. In an interview with Gamasutra, Lukas Pope talked about why he did not do a lot of marketing for Return of the Obra Dinn:

“So for Obra Dinn I focused more on how can I make this game different enough from other games, and Papers, Please is sort of like this too, make it different enough from other games that If you want this kind of game you pretty much just gotta buy this one game.”

Well, Mr. Pope, you are two for two.

Jagged Alliance: Rage – Here we go again

So there is yet another game trying to revamp the Jagged Alliance name. I have lost count of how many that is now since Sir-tech’s masterpiece Jagged Alliance 2. While a company could just take the original formula, update the graphics and improve the UI to please the fans, every iteration tries to put its own spin on things. It is due out in the beginning of December and looks like the most promising remakes so far. However, the developers are the same that did Jagged Alliance Online, so proceed with caution (although I did enjoy their game Aerena).

This time around, the game seems to focus on a small group of mercenaries going on a road trip through a jungle. The setup is that it is 20 years after the events of Jagged Alliance 2. The map recalls the island of Minerva in Jagged Alliance 1, and the premise is very The Expendables. This is an intriguing setup, even though it sounds like it removes some core things like squad management. The art direction is going to be hit or miss for most. Rage forfeits realism and goes for a more cartoony look but it might be something that one can get used to. I don’t think this will scratch the itch for those who are waiting for a Jagged Alliance remake that tries to simulate some measures of realism though. From the trailer, the gameplay looks alright, both familiar and off. A road trip with some buddies sounds like you will be limited to just one squad but it is something I can get behind if they maintain the unique flavour of what made the original Jagged Alliance games so good.

In the two videos I have found, the mercs are voice acted and the game at least tries to bring personality to them. How effective it is we will have to see once the game is available. I was a bit concerned that the game will feature a very limited roster of our favorite mercenaries. With each new piece released, the roster grows a little despite the company not updating their website. On the official website, they list fan favourites Ivan, Shadow, and Raven. In the released videos, I also spotted Vicki, Grunty, Dr. Q, and Fidel. It is a decent start and here is hoping that it includes more.

The game also introduces a new mechanic, Rage, which acts as a sort of limit break. The mercenaries accumulate Rage points and once they have enough, they can spend them to use their super abilities. A PCGamesn article goes more in-depth into how this works. Some of these abilities even interfere with each mercenary’s faults. With age comes fragility I suppose. This kind of system could work well, where every encounter needs to be weighed against the status of your mercenaries. Darkest Dungeon does something similar, for example, and it added depth and planning. With a limited mercenary pool, it might become more of a burden than a nice little feature.

Alec Meer over at RPS said it doesn’t suck, but needs a hefty dose of polish. The game was supposed to be released earlier, but was delayed, hopefully adding that polish that was missing. Writing Bull on YouTube has a let’s play series on it already (in German) and the game looks…OK. There is some Jagged Alliance there, but it also looks like a mobile game UI. Inventory management looks as annoying as Jagged Alliance 2’s, so it is sticking to its source material in some ways at least.

I have said that I will no longer look forward to another Jagged Alliance remake, since so many of them have missed the mark. I might have to take that back, as Rage is working for me. I am still hesitant because the game won’t have a large roster, it looks simpler, and although I am not sure how the campaign will go, the map in the screenshots looks a lot more linear than the open world of Jagged Alliance 2.

Hopefully it is not too much like The Expendables.

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