Olija has a great elevator pitch. A seafaring adventurer named Faraday tries to find a cure to the blight that plagues his modest yet proud village, setting sail into the unknown. Using his harpoon and a myriad of sidearms, he battles his way through a cursed land after his ship is capsized, attempting to find his way back home, all while the mysterious Yellow Cloak (a possible homage to Robert Chamber’s King in Yellow) bears a deadly and mysterious grudge. The air of mystery and liberal use of proper nouns really sell the universe, which is by far my favorite aspect of Olija.
Unfortunately, the uniqueness of the game’s world might be the most original thing about it. Be it the moody, obtuse narrative exploration of Hyper Light Drifter, the snappy combat of Katana Zero, or the village investment systems of Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Olija constantly reminded me of other games. This isn’t such a bad thing, but I do wish that it did more to stand out from the crowd, especially since, when taken as a whole, it fails to reach the heights of any of the titles listed above.
Though the works Olija is inspired by might be meandering, its adventure is anything but. Tightly focused levels with obvious goals guide your trajectory as you sail from island to island with your obligatory crusty old boatman. It’s a bite-sized adventure, and that definitely works in its favor.
One way most indie adventure titles make their big impression is their art direction. A flashy, well-scripted trailer can do wonders when luring in potential buyers. It’s a wonder, then, that Olija’s early marketing was a beautiful, traditionally animated narrative trailer, completely forgoing the use of in-game footage. After wandering over to a gameplay video, it makes sense that many expressed disappointment at the chunky pixel art and stock-standard action game formula that awaited them there.
Olija’s art direction is great, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired. Its designs are wonderful, its world worth exploring, but the way it’s all portrayed is so bland it almost comes across as a first-pass. What’s more: the animations are great! The way weapons whip around, and Faraday expressively runs, climbs, and dives are all very satisfying, so it’s even more perplexing that the art itself is so rough. It’s like a slightly upgraded Nidhogg (uncannily good animations, sub-par pixel art), but without the overt simplicity that made that game so pleasant-looking.
Luckily, the music and soundscape carry some of the weight. NPC voices are delightfully obscured, sounding more synthetic than natural. The score is adventurous, ranging from jazz to downtempo, always setting a wonderfully macabre mood as you explore various caves and shores.
Olija’s action plays well enough and is almost exactly what we’ve come to expect from 2D indie action fare. The standout tool is Faraday’s harpoon, which can be used to impale, then dash to, enemies and objects. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but the fact that it’s governed by physics adds a little more creativity to its use. Enemies are mostly punching bags, and the only real dangers come from environmental hazards and puzzles, both of which are usually overcome by using (you guessed it) your trusty harpoon. One novel mechanic is the “combo” system, where your fifth consecutive hit supercharges your next attack, turning something like a standard shotgun blast into a screen-wide laser beam.
Bosses are a definite highlight, as they’re about the only chance you’ll get to use your whole arsenal effectively. Most of the game is spent crawling through brooding caves, with so-so level design and sparse enemies. There are some neat puzzles here and there, and a few stand-out narrative moments, but the overall design of the world and its levels isn’t what I would describe as “tight.” Rather, they feel like a means to an end — a gold key or quest item being the main goal of each of the smaller dungeons. Cohesion isn’t helped by the fact that the world is a series of small islands, but this does help to limit backtracking.
Olija is worth playing if you’re a glutton for expressive worlds and small-scale indie platformers. It had me thinking that, had this released back in the days of Xbox Live Arcade, it would’ve been a smash hit. But, just in the ways those games have shown their age, better titles have been made using the same ideas present here. Still, the “show, don’t tell” narrative made for a rewarding experience, and the short runtime flew by. Olija probably won’t stick in my memory for very long, but I certainly don’t regret the time I spent exploring its fantastical world.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy was provided for review by Devolver Digital.
Olija may fail to make as big of a splash as its influences, but it's a worthwhile adventure with a palpable atmosphere.