Non-traditional methods of exploring a narrative are becoming pretty common these days. It makes you wonder at what point will these non-traditional methodologies become traditional and come full circle. Olija is an indie platformer with some light Metroidvania aspects that has only a passing relationship with traditional storytelling and a very close relationship with the particular type of storytelling that rather a lot of indie games tend towards these days. It also has pixel art that wouldn't look out of place on a ZX spectrum, or at least it wouldn't if the resolution was taken down by several hundred pegs.
Olija comes to use from Skeleton Crew Studio, a Japan-based indie developer who previously worked on Backslash, an indie 2D pixel-art brawler that bears more than a few similarities to Olija. I say it was by a studio out of Japan, but apparently, it was mostly the work of one man, Tom Olsson, who also was the sole developer of Backslash. Suddenly, the pieces all fit together. From how similar the two games seem to be, I'd wager that the developer used the original game as a springboard to come up with Olija, and a good thing too.
The narrative starts pretty straightforward. You are Lord Faraday, the leader of a town that has fallen on hard times. You journey out to sea with your men to try and figure out some way of fixing everything, and when a storm strikes, your ship sinks, and you wake up on the shores of a mysterious land called Terraphage. Awakened with no men and no equipment, you must fight your way to a nearby settlement and use it as a base to recover your men and escape by collecting three magically glowing keys.
From this jumping-off point, you encounter various interesting characters throughout the story, the most important being Olija herself. She's some sort of queen or princess who Faraday seems almost obsessed over, but it's made clear that this obsession is reciprocated. You also meet a boatsman who guides you around Terraphage, who becomes quite an interesting character as you go on. The most impressive thing about these characters is that they feel like real characters throughout the story, despite only having about 5 pixels for their faces to convey emotion.
Olija's combat is a bit of a weird mix. At first, it has that simple-to-learn, hard-to-master vibe going for it. Combos change depending on which direction you're pressing the d-pad, and when you've built up 4 attacks, you do a powerful combo-finisher. There's also a teleporting spear that you get near the start of the game, making it possible to teleport by throwing it into things. You can combine this with your combos to get even more powerful and stylish finishers that mash your enemies basically into a fine powder.
I say the combat has certain vibes "at first" because it doesn't stay that way for long. You get a few side weapons and upgrades, but beyond that, the combat doesn't feel like it evolves too much. You start (kind of) whacking things with a stick and teleporting and end the game doing the same thing. What special move you pull off when your bar fills or what sidearm you use doesn't change the gameplay's core. It's a rather solid core, but I can't help but feel like it could have done with a little something more to really make it pop.
That's not to say that the combat isn't good. The few new upgrades or abilities that you get do keep the combat interesting for a while, and the focus on teleporting in combat certainly makes you feel powerful. The main thing that really ruins combat in the more frantic fights is how easy it is to get locked-into certain moves. If you press one button too many, you'll be locked into the animation, and as cool as those animations are, they become more annoying than charming when you've been splatted by a giant hand for the 6th time in as many minutes.
There's also a slight issue with balancing. I made it through the entirety of Olija without dying once, in combat anyway. I did die once because I kept messing up one of the teleporting jumping puzzles, but that was less about the difficulty and more about sheer kak-handedness. Then I got to the final boss and died about 10 times before I finally saw him off. Honestly, the challenge was welcome as things had felt a little toothless up to that point, but if I wasn't into challenging gameplay and had been breezing my way through the game until then, I might have been extremely annoyed.
More annoying than the balance was the bugs. For some reason, the opening 3 hours of the game are completely free of bugs, as far as I can tell. They all seem to have been packed into the last hour of the game. I managed to phase through the floor numerous times and fall hundreds of feet, including during a boss fight. There was one incident where I accidentally dashed during a cutscene and somehow teleported through every point on the left side of the screen until my body disintegrated.
On the plus side, graphically and musically, Olija does everything 100% right. There's a LoFi-inspired bent to the soundtrack that makes it a pleasure to listen to, and it also really fits the mix between a sullen adventure story and an energetic martial arts movie. The pixel art is another standout feature that I keep coming back it. It's not like it's the most detailed art in the world. It's just that the artist limited themself to a small number of pixels yet managed to convey character and emotion in such a way that some big-budget titles fail to do.
Of all the issues I've discussed, I'd say that worst is that I was left wanting more. The narrative, graphics, and music had me really geared up for a grand adventure, but the game just sort of stopped at the 4-hour mark. I had even gone out of my way to collect most of the collectibles. There was enough substance here, with some tweaks, that could have filled a game twice its size and made the adventure feel truly epic. Realistically, it's a point in Olija's favor that I liked it enough to want there to be more of it.
Olija does enough that is interesting to recommend it, even if it is slightly anemic. Despite the uncomplicated combat and short length, the game feels like a journey, and the narrative, style, and tone is inviting enough that it's worth playing through. In particular, there's a scene towards the end of the game between Faraday and Olija that could have been ripped straight out of a martial arts movie and had me so hooked I could have played for another 4 hours. Just make sure that the bugs have been ironed out before you reach the end.
TechRaptor reviewed Olija on PC using a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
- Beautifully Animated Gameplay And Cutscenes
- Easy-To-Learn, Hard-To-Master Combat
- Dripping With Character, Style, and Atmosphere
- The Music Fits The Tone Perfectly
- Buggy Towards The End
- Very Short
- Combat Could Have Been Deeper