I love a good murder mystery, from classic Sherlock Holmes to Knives Out’s modern sensibilities, through to the delightfully camp legal dramas of Ace Attorney. It’s an evergreen crowdpleaser of a genre, which sparks the question of how to keep the structure fresh time and time again. Surely there are only so many ways to tell a story about uncovering a killer? Visual novel Overboard! is a clever upending of the time-worn story structure, which results in a fiendishly fun role-playing experience. It’s a whodunnit where youdunnit, and are trying to convince other characters that theydunnit, and the effortlessly slick execution of what is ultimately a simple concept makes you wonder why it hadn’t been done before.
Set in the 1930s against a backdrop of decadent jazzy big band tunes and elegant outfits, Overboard! sees you play as glamorous starlet Veronica Villensey escaping financial woe with her husband, Malcolm, on a steamship bound for America. However, Veronica’s idea of recouping the couple’s riches involves pushing Malcolm off the ship and claiming his life insurance payout, leaving you scrambling to concoct a plan to get away with murder.
Overboard! follows a similar format to previous Inkle games, like the excellent 80 Days, where you progress the journey by making dialogue and action choices which in turn impact the ending. Beginning from the morning after Malcolm’s demise, you have a limited amount of time to discover what evidence you left behind, what fellow passengers might know and how you can use this information to your advantage. Working against the clock, every decision you make, from talking to other characters to moving between ship locations, progresses time forward, inching closer to the end-of-day emergency meeting where the culprit is decided. A key wrinkle to consider is that claiming Malcolm’s life insurance requires a murder charge to stick–you won’t get a cent just by convincing everyone he jumped of his own volition.
Time is one of several weapons to wield in Overboard!, as it is central to everything you do. All of the characters move to a set schedule, and you spend much of your early playthroughs determining who’s where at what time. You use this knowledge to meet with characters and hound them for information, all the while figuring out how you can find or fabricate evidence to paint someone as the perpetrator while they’re absent from a particular room. One clever early instance of this involves discovering that one of Veronica’s earrings is missing, placing her at the crime scene. If you’re quick enough, you can recover the jewellery before anyone else notices it, and then potentially plant them elsewhere to throw would-be accusers off the scent. Overboard! runs like clockwork, and as a result, makes you feel like a supreme mastermind once you internalise everyone’s routines and successfully bring a perfect plan to completion.
Videogames that require multiple playthroughs to see a ‘good’ ending often carry moments of tedium due to repetition. Overboard! does away with this frustration in its brevity – sessions rarely run for longer than 15-20 minutes – and in how easily you can speed through to branching decision moments. You can fast-forward through dialogue and choices you’ve already seen, making it easy to get to moments where you want to try a different course of action or rectify a mistake from the previous playthrough. Another welcome feature is a non-invasive hint system that essentially functions as an objectives list. Sometimes Overboard!’s characters will let slip a juicy tidbit of information that can be easy to forget with so many subplots occurring at once. If you don’t happen to see a particular narrative arc to its conclusion, you receive a prompt the following run–usually in the form of a question–gently reminding you of the leads not yet investigated.
Easily Overboard!’s greatest strength is in its open structure, where there is no singular ‘correct’ path to victory. All choices feel equally important when even the most seemingly minor details are interrogated once the accusations start flying. My first successful attempt at framing another passenger for Malcolm’s murder was an open-and-shut case by my considerations, but a surprise wrinkle revealed I made a mistake somewhere. Totally sure of myself, I retraced my steps only to realise I made one minor misstep, and that fixing it would require a complete upheaval of my previous strategy.
Overboard!’s staunch commitment to covering all your tracks feels earned, especially when each of the ship’s passengers are interesting characters in their own right. A shifty sort, the lot of them, they all harbour their own secrets, each with justifiable reasons for wanting to deceive everyone else.
An intelligent slant on the murder mystery formula, Overboard! makes being the villain extremely satisfying thanks to its smart logic and highly replayable format with multiple compelling ways to claim dubious riches.
Four stars: ★★★★
Release Date: 2nd June 2021