Dark, foreboding, and beautiful. Olija, developed by Skeleton Crew Studios and published by Devolver Digital, is all of these things, and more. Although not as long as other indie offerings on the market today, Olija offers the player a tight package of challenging-yet-fair gameplay, fantastic pixel art, and a compelling narrative. It’s reminiscent of the classic days of indie releases on the Xbox 360. It’s just simply a joy.
Setting the stage
Olija opens with a seemingly tragic tale. Faraday, a survivor of a shipwreck, is stranded in a foreign land known as Terraphage. He must gather himself before the strange, horrific creatures of this land swallow him up. His goal is to save his fellow shipwrecked crew and venture back home out of this land. He must pick up the pieces around him, or be stuck in this new reality.
The first few minutes of Olija place the player in Faraday’s shoes immediately after he washes up on these mysterious shores. With the wreckage of your lost vessel scattered behind you, Faraday pushes forward, determined to find his footing and recover his lost crew. This opening segment is somber and semi-haunting. The atmosphere is made all the more chilling with it being accompanied by an expressive musical track that captures the mood perfectly.
This is something Olija replicates throughout its experience. Nearly every setting in the game holds your attention with either the gripping melodies of the musical track or an environment that’s littered with stories of its past. As of late, few games capture environmental storytelling as well as Olija has, and it’s so refreshing to see.
The standout example of this is the main hub area of the game. This hub becomes the place where you return to after exploring areas of a surprisingly open map. As you gather resources, and rescue castaways, your hub will grow and expand. The castaways will have nuggets of dialogue for you with information about the world or of their own personal achievements. The place grows right along Faraday in a very literal sense.
NPCs will set up shop in your new, temporary home. These NPCs act as the game’s merchants, offering health upgrades or crafting stations. It’s always a welcomed sight to see a game show progression by more than just giving the player character a stat upgrade.
Wrapping up Olija in a tight little bow is its central story. Well on a course to return his people home, Faraday meets Lady Olija, the game’s namesake. What transpires over the events of the game is a classic tale of romance. A play on the star-crossed lovers, without the overdrawn irony of Romeo and Juliet. Like the rest of the game, this narrative is not overdone, but a central theme that keeps the pace going. The romance between Lady Olija and Faraday isn’t the only story Olija is telling, but it’s the core one, and it’s wrapped up nicely.
Stern but fair
Olija isn’t just a pixel-art treat to the eyes, it’s wonderful to play. The game offers fast, weighted combat that expands throughout the game. As Faraday ventures further in his quest, he will gain access to a small range of off-hand weapons including a rapier, a crossbow, a musket, and one other item that should be left for the player to discover. These weapons add variety to combat, but they’re not the main attraction.
Early in the game, and as seen in much of the promotional material for the title, Faraday stumbles upon a harpoon that comes equipped with some abilities beyond the scope of reality. Almost reminiscent of Portal, Faraday can use his harpoon as a way to teleport or blink around the map. The player can use it to climb walls, solve puzzles and most importantly, fight the monsters that lurk in this foreign land. The harpoon feels heavy, yet quick in the hands of Faraday.
Faraday is surprisingly agile throughout this experience. It’s what makes the game such a treat to play. As the player unlocks more weapons throughout the game, Faraday’s potential grows right alongside it.
Further augmenting gameplay is the hat system. In your main hub zone, a hat maker has set up shop after you help him early on in the title. If you bring him crafting materials, found by exploring or killing enemies, he will craft hats for you that can radically change gameplay. One hat sees you recover health after vanquishing a foe, while another gives your harpoon a special attack once you charge it properly. It’s varied gameplay mechanics like this that gives players an incentive to hang out and explore before the game’s completion, or to visit the game again after the credits roll.
Where Olija shines is in its boss fights. Each boss fight is memorable and fast. They’re not overly challenging, but they do require you to get a firm grasp on the mechanics and movement capabilities before you can conquer your foes.
One fight, in particular, is a standout that sees Faraday juggling multiple bosses at once. The frantic rush of the three enemies as they collapse on you seems insurmountable, but with mastery of the blink mechanic from the harpoon, this challenge is more than beatable. This speaks largely for the game as a whole. Most of the later encounters of the game require this, and the game is better for it.
Olija offers players a fantastic experience that rewards those that fully get a grasp of the moment to moment combat. In this dark and haunting world, swift and powerful movement will save you at the end of the day. Olija reflects that in both its gameplay and story. It’s a wonderful experience that can not be recommended enough.
The only major flaw in this package is the length of the game itself. Just as players get a firm grasp on the gameplay loop being presented, the game heads directly into its final act. Narratively, it sticks the landing and will be remembered by those that played it for a long time. But it leaves the player wanting just a little bit more action. That speaks volumes for the package being presented by Skeleton Crew Studios and they should be applauded for the achievement that this game is.
Olija is dark, yet bright. It’s a rare combination of crisp storytelling, with responsive and satisfying combat. It’s one of 2021’s first gems. Play it.