I have discovered that I am quite bad at getting away with murder, which must come as a relief to those closest to me. This revelation has come courtesy of Inkle, the studio behind 80 Days, Heaven's Vault and Pendragon, as they have today simultaneously released and revealed a new puzzle game called Overboard. As ambitious starlet Veronica Villensey who has just shoved husband over the side a luxury transatlantic ship, the aim is to not get arrested for murder.
It's rather fabulous - part Agatha Christie-esque farce, part intricate 2D puzzle game where you spin a lot of plates. To partly correct myself, it's actually quite easy to get away with murder in Overboard. I did that my very first try. But if you want to make off with all the money, you need to actually pin the crime on someone else, and that's way harder.
That's where you try to be clever, you see. Like many of Inkle's games, Overboard is infinitely replayable - or at least, there are more permutations of a playthrough than one person could reasonably get through, so as far as you're concerned it is infinite. And untangling who you can or want to frame - and how - will require a lot of attempts so you know where all the NPCs are at any given time.
Overboard very cleverly takes advantage of player knowledge vs. character knowledge. Veronica knows her dullard husband Malcolm is a grubby little Mosley-liker, for example, but you as a player have to find a bit of fascist literature for Veronica to comment on it. Veronica does talk to herself out loud, but not in an unrealistic way that involves her reeling off all the relevant exposition in the manner of, "Ah, look who it is! Just to remind myself, this character is an alcoholic who keeps their cabin door locked."
Getting the hateful Malcolm's death accepted as a suicide, then, is as easy as finding out which of the NPCs was his lover, or that he owed buckets of money to another. But actually framing someone is complex enough that you'll screw it up. The NPCs move about the ship in accordance with their own schedules. It takes time for you to get from place to place. Veronica is actually a pretty sloppy murderer, the act having been witnessed partially or fully by at least three people, and she lost one of her earrings in the scuffle. Do you try to get the earring before someone else? Or is it more important to tell everyone early on that your husband went missing in the night, and you're awfully worried?
It sort of becomes a timeloop game, because eventually you'll accrue enough knowledge that you know where to be at 11.30, how to find a key into this person's cabin, and that those diamond earrings can always be put up for credit in a card game. Inkle, thoughtfully, added a fastfoward button to skip through the dialogue from choices you saw last time, too, which means there's very little tedium in your repeated plays.
But, this being an Inkle game, the dialogue is worth reading. The whole tone is winking and playful, because you're playing a 1930s husband-murderer trying to get away with it, and if they went all dark and serious with that topic I would have taken a boat out to sea just to jump off it myself. Veronica vehemently dislikes dolphins. You can obstinately insist that diamonds worth thousands of pounds are glass fakes. It is possible to speak with God in the chapel.
Most of the puzzling you do is navigating the conversations to get an outcome you want, whether that be some important information or leaving an impression on someone else. Depending on your actions, an eye witness could come to believe they saw you walking with Malcolm, or someone else entirely. And your responses shape Veronica's character in a very enjoyable way. While she's obviously ambitious and ruthless, in different runs you can make her openly cruel, cunning, or even a multiple murderer if you fancy it.
At its best this is reminiscent of 80 Days, though it doesn't have quite the sense of wonder. But it is intricate and clever, very suited to the release on handheld and mobile that it's also getting (possibly more suited, if it comes to it), and an instant win if you know what you like and what you like is Inkle games. Overboard has a lovely frivolity, a sort of happy wink of a game to uplift a bit of lockdown gloom now we're back into summer - and that frivolity also belies the complexity underneath. Much like Veronica herself, who even now is, at my behest, stuffing her husband's clothes out of her porthole so she can steal a dolphin paperweight just because she damn well can.