This week, Yahtzee reviews Return of the Obra Dinn.
Ah, this is one of those moments that make it all worth it, viewer; one of the three basic pleasures of life: the first wank on a delicate spring morning, finally killing the last witness, and playing a new game that I actually like. Not just "like"; one that took me completely by surprise and genuinely excited me, with an originality and freshness that has long since faded from spring-morning wanks. I bought Return of the Obra Dinn on Steam while casting a broad net for indie games to review, and because it looked nautical-themed and I've recently been rereading my Horatio Hornblower books. So imagine my delight to see on the title screen that it was developed by Lucas Pope, the dude who made Papers, Please! Just goes to show that having a proven "auteur" creative in charge with the balls to stick his name on the front is still a far more effective marketing tactic than just, say, a picture of a dirty man holding a gun in an irresponsible manner.
Imagine my further delight when the game completely drew me in like a lonely Sarlacc! Lucas Pope seems to have a talent for coming up with unconventional, new core gameplay loops that turn a cold bureaucratic process, like filling out paperwork, into something surprisingly engaging, and then underhandedly tells an interesting story through that loop without interrupting it. First, I should say that Return of the Obra Dinn isn't for everyone. Wow, that's a fucking useless sentence, isn't it? Nothing's "for everyone", except maybe oxygen and Pixar films. But speaking personally, Return of the Obra Dinn almost felt like a game that was specifically made for ME, as someone who likes crossword puzzles, Horatio Hornblower books, and people being killed.
The premise is, you are an insurance investigator - Whoa! Slow the fuck down, Lucas Pope! This roller coaster's off to a hot start! - and you come aboard a hitherto-thought lost ship that drifted into English waters with its entire crew apparently suffering from a bad case of "not there". After determining to your satisfaction that they aren't all waiting below decks preparing for a surprise party, you acquire a sketch of each crew member and a list of names, and your task is simply to assign the correct name to each sketch, as well as how they died, and the only tool you have to hand is a magic pocket watch that allows you to relive the last few seconds of a dead person's life and to enter and walk around the precise moment in which they expired; yeah, I guess that is a pretty big "only".
I mentioned in the Unavowed review that I appreciate a game that makes me feel clever, because God knows precious little does since the stroke, and that's exactly what Obra Dinn does, for you see, most people, when seconds from death, aren't courteous enough to say things like, "Oh no! I, Third Officer Eric Braithwaite, am soon to die, but at least I'm in the company of my friends, Bob and Hercules! Cough, cough, splutter, splutter!" Most of the crew will have to be identified through keen deduction from scraps of clues and processes of elimination, and that's where I felt clever; it was thanks to having read Horatio Hornblower books that I was able to recognize a midshipman when I saw one. A degree of general knowledge is required to identify peoples' nationalities or what a topman does as opposed to a seaman; if it helps, topmen are generally concerned with the rigging and what goes on above decks, whereas semen is a white liquid that comes out of your penis when you think about Jenny Agutter too much.
Often, you just have to take an educated guess, like when you have to decide which of the two female passengers looks the most virginal. The game confirms your correctly-deduced profiles in groups of three, which strikes probably the ideal balance between allowing for some guesswork and not letting you cheese everything by plugging in one name after another, like you're reading off the school register. Having said that, you're probably going to have to cheese it when it comes to the four identical Chinese topmen; I have it on good authority that there is some method of telling them apart, but whatever it is, I doubt it's easier than randomly swapping their names around until you get a hit, like you're fussing over seating arrangements with a very indecisive bride.
And through the process of filling out the death certificates, we gradually piece together the story of what happened to the ship. It's a fairly incomplete story, since there wasn't someone dying at every single moment - I know! How inconsiderate of the doomed fuckers! - so don't expect to be held by the hand through it, but what I could glean from suggestion and the occasional massive angry betentacled overstatement certainly made me intrigued enough to want to keep pushing through and learning more.
Now, I have a soft spot for the solo "auteur" indie developer; it's exactly what I'd be doing if I didn't have all these reviews to make and novels to write and crime scenes to scrub. And obviously, a solo developer has a lot of limitations - don't expect a high-definition rendering of an 18th-century sailing ship with environment mapping on every splinter-filled todger - but Lucas Pope embraces those limitations; how convenient that the format of exploring single frozen moments in time means that he didn't have to do any character animation!
A full-3D game by one guy is obviously going to look like sautéed buttocks, so why not push it to a point of maximum buttock and somehow come back around to looking good, and that's why all the graphics are rendered using only pixels of two colors like an antique monitor? You might find it a bit harsh on the old eye if you're not a fan of dithering, but try to think of it as part of the challenge, trying to discern faces and firing lines through an indistinct haze of poorly-pigmented pixel pillockry. I find the combination of a historical setting and retro PC graphics conjures a nostalgic memory of playing shit like Oregon Trail on the school computer; we were supposed to be learning something, but we're just naming party members after that one smelly girl in class and laughing when she caught dysentery.
I do have complaints; I kind of completely despise the music. Yeah, I know, solo developer, so don't expect the Tokyo Philharmonic, but that doesn't excuse the way it loudly and repetitively BLARPs away while you're trying to think; and of course, there's no separate volume controls. Relatedly, I also don't like how the game forces us to wander around each memory getting unskippably BLARPed at for a minute before the event gets officially unlocked and we can start taking notes. It's weird that the music's so annoying when the rest of the sound design is fucking top-notch: voice acting, ambient sound, and especially the little radio plays that accompany the death flashbacks; I couldn't say for sure if it accurately reproduces the sound of a bloke getting torn in half by a giant calamari platter, but it certainly made me cross my legs uncomfortably.
If I have sold you on Return of the Cobra Commander, then consider this advice before you play: try to fucking savor it! Like, play it for just one hour a night or something, 'cos after I finished it, I felt the sudden melancholic realization that I could only experience it for the first time once. Tragically, the nature of the deductive gameplay means it has virtually no replay value, but fuck it; why give up so easily? You can achieve some wonderful things with head injuries, as my nursery school teacher used to say.
- Failed the examination for lieutenant: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I hate it when my seaman gets splattered all over the top deck
- With a yo-ho-ho and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol