Olija Review

I trust Devolver Digital, I trust that they’ll find the best, most interesting indie games to publish. Devolver published games are always some of the most stylized and distinctive looking games on the market with some of the most unique gameplay. Games like Hotline Miami, The Messenger, and Ruiner; I could keep going but sadly most of them don’t get released on my platform of choice, Xbox. Fortunately that isn’t the case for Olija (pronounced Oh-Lee-Ya), the most recent game to join their all star lineup which is releasing on Xbox as well as all other major consoles and PC. It was developed by a small team in Japan called Skeleton Crew Studio led by Thomas Olsson. He was the sole developer on the project for much of the game’s creation and had a hand in almost every facet of its development, from the programming and art to the audio. Olija seems to have benefited from this, the game world he created is mysterious and beautiful. There aren’t any conflicting ideas and the game’s focus remains on the combat and exploration while at the same time weaving an interesting nautical tale that feels both new and familiar at the same time.

The game begins with a cut scene (all the cutscenes are drawn and animated in a slightly higher definition than the regular gameplay). You play as Lord Faraday, a ship captain, who is the head of a village which is suffering from a distinct lack of money and supplies. They decide they must set out to find supplies or the town will face its doom. After a few weeks at sea they encounter a storm and a massive whale that capsizes the boat, knocking Lord Faraday  and his men overboard. You end up shipwrecked on a small island in an area called Terraphage which is made up of many other islands and archipelagos. After some exploring you meet an old boatman who will aid you on your quest to find your crew by ferrying you between islands on the map. He gives small pieces of information about each location. Only two locations are available to start: Shadow Creek and Shadow Gate, as well as your new temporary homebase Oaktide. More locations are revealed and become available to explore by finding maps in levels. The old boatman tells you that the Shadow Gate is your path to freedom, but you must find 3 special blue keys scattered across Terraphage in order to open the gate, and standing in your way is an evil entity called Rottenwood (who might have the most ominous and menacing voice in video games) and his army of minions. There’s a nice variety in the locations, there’s obviously a lot of island inspired settings, from beaches and caves to swamps, but also more mysterious ones such as an ancient library and a forgotten run-down village. Not long into the game you rescue a mysterious woman who turns out to be the eponymous Olija, the ruler of the land. Her and her people’s design appears to be based on imperial Japan. Lord Faraday is drawn to Olija, and they appear to have an enigmatic relationship. Everyone in the game speaks in a mumble, which quickly started sounding as if it was a strange forgotten language only spoken in this far away land.

The story basically revolves around finding your missing crewmates, rebuilding/upgrading your new base of Oaktide, and solving the mysteries of your new environment in order to return home. There are NPCs that will aid you in your quests, some you just run into like the old boatman who ferries you from island to island, whereas others were kidnapped by the hostile creatures of the land, placed in cages and must be set free. Once you save them they return to Oaktide, where most of them just hang around. There are a few exceptions, the most interesting being the floating haberdashery (hat salesperson). The hats can be purchased if you have enough currency and the correct crafting materials. Each hat has a unique look and perk associated; one makes you immune to toxins and also emits its own toxins that damage enemies, another increases your attack speed and movement speed in combat if you haven’t been hit. There’s also an explorer you can unlock who will venture off and later return with currency and random crafting materials. The final upgrade you can make is an alchemist who will permanently increase your health for a fee.  

Olija is an action platformer, with a hint of Metroidvania because you can revisit previous levels and as you gain new abilities you can reach previously unreachable areas. However, some areas get permanently blocked off after you complete them, which is unfortunate since the game has two sets of collectibles which if missed in one of those sections will require you to replay the game from the start to get 100%. Another negative is there’s only one save slot which was sort of surprising to me. Most of the levels are very intricately designed with multiple paths and some that seem to just keep going and going, caves inside of caves inside of caves. I found that this really added to the exploration aspect of the game.

Perhaps the most interesting and unique mechanic in Olija is the Harpoon you find early in the game, after its discovery is foreshadowed in a vision while in the first cave. After playing hundreds if not thousands of games, I realized that the movement in a game was one of the biggest factors in how much I would enjoy a game – no one wants to spend hours walking to and from places you’ve already been to. Games with interesting movement mechanics always seem to hold their grip on me longer than a game with just average movement. The Harpoon just happens to be one of those interesting movement mechanics. By pressing the X button it can be used as a regular weapon, and by pressing B and aiming with the left joystick (or D-pad) you can throw it. This is where the unique feature comes in – if you hit an enemy or a destructible object like a crate you can press the joystick in that direction and press B again to warp to the harpoon and slash the target.

There are also strange black sludgy eyeball things around each level that you can target with your harpoon and warp to them, which can be used to reach platforms or ledges that are unreachable with just a regular jump. I quickly learned to chuck my harpoon through any holes in the wall or ceiling I came across because if it hits something then you can use it to warp there and discover hidden rooms (which usually contain valuable items like currency, crafting materials, or collectibles). This harpoon mechanic creates the opportunity for some interesting platforming in the game; hitting a black sludge thing and then immediately hitting another without touching the ground. Pressing B without moving towards the harpoon teleports it back to your hand. This mechanic is cleverly used to solve different puzzles, such as requiring a button to be hit with the harpoon to open a door. Once you’re on the other side you can recover the harpoon which causes the door to close. About half way through the game your harpoon is imbued with the power of electricity, or rather the ability to absorb electricity temporarily. A little later they double up the teleportation factor when they introduce the moon sword, this is similar to the harpoon except instead of throwing it you slam it into the ground and can then teleport back to that spot, which along with the electricity mechanic create even more opportunity for puzzles. The moon sword has a secondary function of creating light when in darkness, which comes in handy at least once. The basic harpoon mechanics get lots of run throughout the game, but these other mechanics I’ve just mentioned don’t get nearly as much use. I would have liked to see a few more puzzles or extra sections where you could make use of them.

Lord Faraday is sort of a renaissance man, he could be described as a seafaring ninja, an amateur acrobat, and collector of hats. I’m sure he has more characteristics that I’ve yet to discover.  He fights like a ninja; he’s skilled in hand to hand combat, as well as with the sword, harpoon, crossbow, and blunderbuss. I was somewhat surprised at how advanced the combat is in the game – the X and Y buttons are for each weapon and by pressing them in different orders while in combat you can perform intricate combos. You can even chain a harpoon throw into the combo. He also performs unique moves when pressing up and X or down and X, both with the harpoon or without. You can do a very strong attack by pressing down and X while in the air.

The combat is one of multiple highlights in the game, and it can get kind of hectic, but it’s very forgiving throughout the first half of the game. The Boss fights have all been unique, but I keep finding myself spamming the attacks and sort of tanking them. Some of the later encounters get pretty intense. I’m sure there will be players that master the combat and will be able to defeat the bosses flawlessly without being hit because the controls seem very responsive. I mentioned that Faraday is an amateur acrobat, this is in regards to a humorous yet interesting mechanic. In addition to a basic jump, Faraday can dive (while in the air) or roll (while standing) by pressing RT. When you do this while in the air he does a somersault after the dive and kind of plops onto the ground, laying there stunned. This animation made me laugh but it leaves you open to attack – to avoid this, if you hit A right as you land Faraday will jump up in a fluid motion. You can abuse Faraday a little more by diving into walls, he smacks into it and becomes stunned. This animation was even funnier than the first.

The art style is yet another aspect that stands out. Skeleton Crew Studio went with a retro pixel style, but it doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen before, with the exception of their previous game BackSlash. At first glance I could see some people that like pixel art not liking the art in Olija, it’s different, it looks like it’s somewhere between 8 and 16-bit and might seem like it’s lacking in detail, but it’s not. Most 2D platformers side scroll as you move through the level but Olija is different, each screen is separate and the character can walk or jump between them – don’t worry there’s never any loading – and honestly I didn’t even notice this feature until I was on my second playthrough. The movement and fighting animations are very fluid and satisfying.

Certain environment screens are a little bare, but others are filled with different types of flora, strange constructions, and any number of odd yet fascinating things. A lot of the backgrounds are also intricately detailed with skeletons hanging from the ceiling, strange hieroglyphic writings, or interesting architectural designs. Some of the areas also have a foreground layer, like falling leaves. Occasionally the camera pans out to let you get a better view of the gorgeous landscape. Some situations it pans in to accentuate a new pathway to enter or some other feature. When it zoomed in while I was inside a cave it sort of added a claustrophobic feel to the room.

Each island has its own style and design, some of them have different paths you can take. I really got the feeling like I was exploring a complex and interesting environment each time, never knowing what might be in the next cave or door I entered.  The game has a East Asian vibe to it with many characters dressed in imperial Japanese outfits like samurai armor, kimonos, or triangular straw hats. Some of the environments echo the Japanese aesthetic. The music is also very unique, it’s described as a “melancholic soundtrack inspired by Flamenco, lo-fi and traditional Japanese music”. I haven’t heard anything like it in any other game I’ve played but it fits perfectly. The music might be the most impressive characteristic of the game; the designer/programmer/composer Thomas Olsson has really created a special soundtrack, and you can tell that this was his favorite part of the creation process. The sound effects are also top notch, including the mysterious mumble language I mentioned before. I’m curious to know how he got the villain’s voice to sound so menacing and evil.

Conclusion

Olija oozes originality, from its cinematic storytelling to its uniquely retro graphics and the genre-bending award-worthy soundtrack that ties it all together. And don’t forget about its fluid combat and exploration-focused gameplay that slowly introduces new mechanics that keep the game engaging and fun but at the same never letting it get too complex. For a while I put off engaging in what I believed to be the final encounter because I truly enjoyed my time in the game world and wanted it to continue. While watching the final cut scene I was not so secretly hoping my character would get dragged back into the land of Terraphage. I felt like there were still mysteries to discover; maybe there was another island hidden somewhere. I’ll definitely be playing through the game again at some point. The bottom line is Devolver Digital has another winner on its hands in Olija.

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This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.
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Good
  • Entertaining gameplay, focused on combat and exploration
  • Interesting movement mechanics, makes traversal fun
  • Award-worthy soundtrack and audio design
  • Unique graphic style and cinematic storytelling
Bad
  • Some areas are closed off after completing, so if you missed any collectibles within, too bad
  • Only one save slot
  • Boating trips with the old boatman everytime you go to a location get boring after the first few times
9.2
Excellent
Gameplay - 9.5
Graphics - 9
Audio - 10
Longevity - 8.2
Written by
I started my gaming odyssey playing 8-bit console and arcade games. My first Xbox was the 360 and I immediately fell in love with achievement hunting and the overall ecosystem. That love was cemented with my purchase of an Xbox One. I play a bit of everything, but I usually end up playing fast paced games that remind me of my days spent in dark, smoky arcades spending quarter after quarter, telling myself "one more try!". Gamertag: Morbid237.

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