Olija is about a penniless lord (if you can excuse the oxymoron) called Faraday. Having set sail from his home country in search of a better life, he ends up shipwrecked, trapped in the mysterious islands of Terraphage, where his true adventure awaits.
The story of a man in a foreign Eastern-inspired land could be a deliberate parallel to Olija’s solo creator Thomas Olsson, who developed the game in Japan under the banner of the aptly named Skeleton Crew Studio. Either way, it is an action-adventure that manages to cram a lot of inventiveness and cinematic moments into its brief running time, harkening back to the 2D cinematic platformers of yore.
If the minimalist pixel art, limited palettes and a lack of scrolling initially give off the impression of gaming classics Another World or Prince of Persia, you’re in for a surprise once you realise that Faraday jumps at three times his own height, even with just a quick tap of the button. Where those games were keen to convey a sense of realism in both their aesthetics and mechanics that made any encounter with enemies or the environment potentially fatal, Olija confounds this expectation by making Faraday a distinctly empowered character who can be impaled by spikes before quickly respawning on the same screen with just a slap of the health bar. It’s a game less set on giving you a hard time and more focused on letting you have fun – to be honest, I’m all for that.
Where it really comes into its own is the signature Harpoon you find early on. It’s not just a great weapon for melee or chucking at enemies, but works almost like a grapple, latching onto enemies or more often creepy parts of the environment with an eye poking out. Press the button again while moving towards that direction and Faraday warp-strikes right over, giving the double whammy or teleportation and damage. Changing the direction of your attack also results in a varied moveset, which makes for some fun combos as you beat down enemies, sometimes sending them flying back and smashing into a bloody pixelated pulp. In fact, the Harpoon is so good that it’s easy to overlook the secondary weapons you can acquire in your arsenal, from a rapier to a shotgun.
Enemies aren’t even that threatening, some barely getting up to register your presence before you’re already skewering them into oblivion, but it makes it no less satisfying pummelling them as they cry out and get obliterated with a bunch of crunchy sound effects. Again, in contrast to the minimalist presentation, much of the game is heightened thanks to some terrific audio design, from the unsettling ambience of the island’s perilous caverns to the semi-gibberish that makes up the game’s voice acting giving a further sense of mystery (about the only word that’s distinctly audible is ‘Faraday’). Best of all are the weapon sounds, especially the delightful ‘shing’ from the swing of your rapier.
Both the sound and visuals help create an oppressive atmosphere despite the fact you’re rarely in any great danger. Things ramp up slightly for the bosses who have the ability to knock you down relatively hard, annoyingly delaying your recovery to move again, which may not be great if you’re suddenly rushed by a mob of enemies and get lost amidst the pixels. More unusual are moments where the game forgoes action altogether, slowing you to a walking pace or presenting the scene in a zoomed out wide shot, as well as narrative-specific sections involving encounters with Olija herself (perhaps alluding to Zelda, this is also a game title named after a significant but non-playable female character).
In other ways, it’s a loose Metroidvania, where you need to find keys to access a further dungeon or there’s a handful of optional collectible items (or captured castaways) but these you rarely have to go out of your way to find them. You also have access to a hub called Oaktide where you regularly revisit to rest up or spend money on upgrades – namely some rather fetching hats for Faraday which also grant different perks. It’s a nice place of comfort, almost recalling Majula in Dark Souls 2 or perhaps the evolving settlement in Ashen as rescued castaways take refuge here and add a couple more features to your home away from home.
That said, unlike those games, you won’t be around to bask in that comfort for long since Olija is a relatively brief adventure that can be finished either in an evening or a few brief sessions over the course of a week. You’ll likely have close to 100% completion without even trying. Ironically, the only thing that might prevent you from finishing is a bizarre bug that seems to only occur right at the end of the game when the credits are about to roll anyway (a fellow reviewer for the PC version had also reported encountering a bug that crashed the game after the final boss prompting a restart). It’s nonetheless just the right length for an austere yet varied adventure to kick off a new year, and quite the accomplishment from a solo developer.