Bleak-core should probably be its own genre at this point. Games that go out of their way to create a world that seems to embody depression, decay, and in many cases, utter failure. I don't know who's weirder, the developers who make games this bleak, or the weirdos like me who seem to enjoy the bleakness so much. Olija is a 2D Metroidvania action platformer in the same vein as Hollow Knight or Dark Devotion, but without the rogue-lite elements and is probably grimmer than both of them put together.
Olija opens with a cutscene telling the tale of a penniless lord called Farriday who must journey across the sea to feed his starving people. Along the journey, a storm destroyed his boat and washed the crew out to sea. You awaken in a strange land inhabited by monsters and downtrodden castaways, and you must fight to find your way back home.
While I mentioned Hollow Knight and Dark Devotion above, Olija isn't completely similar to either game. The tone is certainly dark, but the lack of constantly dying and losing resources or progress makes Olija feel more like an epic journey than a pilgrimage. The Metroidvania aspects of the game give a sense of progression, but the story feels a little more forthright. You know your character's name for a start and have a concrete goal of escaping from your current situation.
Olija's gameplay is pretty easy to get the hang of, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's too simple or unchallenging. Your standard abilities have you hack-and-slashing with a main and alternate weapon, while a few levels into the game, you also gain the ability to throw your weapon and then warp to it. The combat system is based on this ability. You can use the teleport to string combos together. If you incorporate a teleport into a combo, you can perform a powerful finishing move, so the movement and combat are woven together perfectly.
The bulk of the gameplay is devoted to wandering around the mysterious land, acquiring powers, saving other outcasts, and defeating bosses. The bosses, in particular, present a fair challenge. Not much of a challenge, but a fair challenge. In my time playing, I did die to a couple of the bosses, but I respawned and immediately won on my next try in both cases. So don't go into the game expecting to run your head into a brick wall over and over for hours.
What the bosses do very well is balance. In every case, the boss required me to use mechanics I had recently learned to prove I had mastered them, and after I had beaten the bosses I felt like I understood them better. It's a blend of test and tutorial that is probably the main reason that the game's lack of direct teaching works so well. Outside of some controller buttons, you don't get force-fed information. It's much closer to a more classic teaching style through gameplay that you don't see so much these days.
The graphics are another stand-out feature and are in a chunky-pixel-art style. Most of the environments are presented in desaturated colors that help bring a feeling of oppressive, ancient gloom. The chunky, simple design of the characters helps them stand out, even with the main characters' very narrow color scheme. There are a few odd moments with art at times. Due to just how simple the characters are during gameplay, proportions tend to go slightly wrong during some cutscenes.
Some of the cutscenes are done by wrestling the controls away from the player but remaining in the game world's fixed camera like classic Metroidvania cutscenes. It's the other scenes that are really impressive. Without adding too much detail to the character's faces, they manage to present some beautiful but almost minimalist cutscenes that you would expect from a 3D-rendered game. The only other game that I've come across with cutscenes like this are Flashback way back in 1992 when pixel art like this was bleeding edge.
I honestly can't wait to play more of Olija soon. The dark tone mixed with the epic journey angle is incredibly engaging. The smooth combat gameplay doesn't hold your hand while still providing you with everything you need to continue, and the bosses are both excellent challenges and excellent teaching tools. My biggest fear for Olija is that it'll end too soon. The story feels like it has so many places to go, but there are some signs that the adventure is already wrapping up. We'll have to keep our fingers crossed that it's an upcoming plot twist. Either way, we won't know until the game releases in early January 2021.
TechRaptor previewed Olija on PC via Steam with a code from the developer. The game launches on January 28th, 2021, for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.