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This review is spoiler free
Lucas Pope is one of those people who clearly knew how much his elevator pitches would frighten off anyone but the dullest of game producers, destined to live his life as a solo developer. His previous release, Papers, Please, focuses on the day-to-day grind of a passport officer against the backdrop of the Iron Curtain, Obra Dinn, meanwhile, has you playing an insurance agent picking over an empty ship trying to match the names in a massive list to the ever growing number of corpses littered around the decks... and yet somehow both games knock it out the park.
Looking like it belongs on an early 1980's Apple computer, Obra Dinn puts your detective skills to the test as you are faced with a Mary Celeste-like situation; an abandoned ship arriving in England five years behind schedule. Aiding you is a rather unusual pocket watch which allows the user to play back the last few seconds of a person's life, followed by a freeze frame of the moment the investigated character bit the dust. It is here where you must deduce who all these crew members are, how they died, and who or what killed them (where applicable). Listening to the brief snippets of dialogue, characters mumbling to themselves, or shouting at an attacker and/or victim, then taking your time to stroll around the frozen character models like a guest at a rather macabre maritime museum.
First time playing I hadn't the foggiest idea what I was doing. Half-hoping the characters would be shouting out names and exposition for the benefit of anyone who was listening. Second time around I realized I was approaching the game in entirely the wrong direction. There is no time limit, so do not rush. Flick back and forth through your initially overwhelming notebook. You are given all the tools you need, the rest comes down to simple observation, noticing where characters work, who they work alongside, etc.
I think there is still a lot of guesswork involved. Many of the characters are never named as far as I could tell, leaving me to cycle back and forth, brute forcing my way through the Indian or East Asian crew members who have little in the way of dialogue or focus. I didn't feel like I had earned many of the solutions, rather just happening to insert the correct name by pure luck. Some of the fates, as the game puts it, are rather obtuse too. The monochrome graphics making it difficult to see a knife handle in the back, or whether a seaman was drowned, strangled, or scratched to death.
Don't let these quibbles or bizarre setting put you off, Obra Dinn is an impressive mystery game, with some genuinely awe inspiring scenes. Enjoy it like a fine wine, do not neck it like a yard glass of cheap beer.
No spoiling, but there are actually clues that allow you to figure out every single character without resorting to guesswork; I actually figured out the Indian crewmen without needing to guess once I got a certain memory where they all appear, and the Chinese topmen can all be discerned without needing you to guess (though the specific clue involved for three of them does require really good eyesight [better than mine, to be honest]).
There are indeed clues here and there, especially concerning the Chinese topmen, along with the vitally important crew roster numbers. While the clues are all well and good, you not only need good eyesight to spot them, but a good memory to keep those details in mind as you run back n forth between memory spots. It is a shame that the game does not allow you to playback memories straight from the notebook. It houses every other piece of information you could need, so a way of instantly replaying fates would have been a handy feature. I will give the game credit too in how lenient it is regarding some of the fates, the book will accept multiple answers and in some cases a different culprit.
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