Overboard! is the nautical narrative-driven ‘murder-mystery with a twist’ from Inkle Studios, which made quite a splash when it arrived during a surprise announcement last week. It is a fresh take on the traditional whodunnit tale, planting you firmly in the high-heeled shoes of femme fatale Veronica Villensey. Sexy, lavish, charming, though perhaps lacking depth; Overboard! is the perfect 1930s cliche.
The premise of Overboard! is simple – you’ve already killed your philandering husband, and now all that’s left is to get away with it. A youdunnit, if you will. The other characters inhabiting the luxury 1930s boat alongside you will toss around suspicions and theories, especially if you don’t stick to your story faithfully. Each of them has something of their own to hide, but you’ll need to use all your sultry (and sometimes straight-up violent) powers to extract the truth, and keep yours hidden.
It is possible – nay, encouraged – to poison old women, steal from the chapel, and generally be an all-around manipulative arsehole to everyone you come across. I hate to say it, but something in this is kind of enticing. As someone who always picks the ‘nice’ option in RPG games, Overboard! really forced my hand and let me exercise my somewhat-atrophic inner bastard. Of course, within a limited scope, this is flexible – allowing you to range from the simple ‘woman scorned’ to the evil mastermind behind multiple murders.
The art is charming and period-appropriate, as is the dialogue that manages to encompass the culture and prejudices of the time without blurring the moral boundaries of today. The music calls to mind a Poirot mystery set on a boat filled with Wodehouse characters, and if you can find a fault with that, I’d like to hear it.
You can mess with the emotions of your fellow passengers, and even go to God for clues (or poetry criticism), and it’s fairly easy to manipulate your way into varied situations with a little forward-planning. You can also drug, bludgeon, and coerce passengers to death, but the game always maintains an upbeat charm and dark humour. The triviality of the affair is entertaining in itself, sort of like how we can watch an old woman be slashed to death in Midsomer Murders and then be charmed into a state of comfortable amiability by Inspector Barnaby and his jovial warmth. Murder ain’t nothing but a trifle.
One of the key successes of Overboard! is its ability to stop things from slowing down. Although you will inevitably replay the same scenes again and again, a clever speed-skip system prevents monotony. If you feel you’ve nailed a particular dialogue tree, you can merely skip to the end of it until you’re ready to make a significant change. This little stroke of genius keeps each playthrough concise and focused, and may be one of the best features of the game.
Although a thoughtful game by nature, the pacing and urgency of Overboard! is added by the swift passage of time, which is influenced by your choices and actions. Hang around too long, and someone might just notice something incriminating. After a few run-throughs, you start to notice patterns, observe habits in the other guests and are able to plan your strategy with a touch more finesse.
But it isn’t just daily routine that you’ll be uncovering. Your fellow guests are, as mentioned above, hiding something from you. You can use this information to blackmail or even help them out of their own sticky situations, but my preferred method was using evidence of their dishonesty as an excuse to pin the blame convincingly on them. You can also, of course, add them to the ever-growing body count (read that as you will).
These unlockable secrets are undoubtedly fun, and cannot all be revealed in a single playthrough, but sadly they lack the depth they initially hint at. Similar games have given more scope to these tantalising tidbits of gossip and intrigue – such as Death And Taxes, or Inkle Studio’s very own 80 Days. Within about five hours of Overboard! I felt I had dipped into every available pool and had learned all that I could learn.
My only criticism of the game, therefore, is essentially a backhanded compliment. It is indicative of the potential and quality of the game so far that I just want MORE. Inkle Studios can do more, and I believe this expectation will filter through to fans after the initial excitement of a surprise release wears off. It needs more sophisticated scheming, more locations, in short: just more, more, more.
I realise I now sound like a whining child, and it is only fair to point out that this game was created in lockdown and released as a surprise. This means two things. One: There was no overhyping, no hyping at all in fact, so perhaps it is unfair to burden Overboard! with these expectations. And two: what is otherwise a beautifully crafted game was created at a time when remote working was draining most of us of our creativity, sanity, and ability to work as a team. It is, when considered under those conditions, a bit of a masterpiece, even if it is a short one.
But there are those who like short films, short stories, I hear even the Mona Lisa is pretty tiny in-person. So perhaps I won’t be too harsh on what proves to be a roughly six-hour experience. For its small stature, Overboard! is crammed full of heart and soul. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s an investment, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to a friend looking for a way to kill a few hours. Or a husband.
Overboard! takes a genre much in need of a facelift and perks it right up. It manages to be thoughtful and intricate, whilst also maintaining pace and rhythm. Although it lacks the hidden depths it appears to tease, it’s a well-rounded game and an evening of charming vintage fun.
- Music and art are spot-on for the time period
- Characters are colourful and fun to stitch up
- Premise lives up to its promise for the most part
- Somewhat shallow
- Would benefit from more scope
- Too much money for what it is