If you’ve got a magical harpoon in your hand, everything will be okay.
Or so that’s the approach that Faraday, protagonist of Skeleton Crew Studio and Devolver Digital’s action-adventure title Olija, takes. Off on a journey to find a better life, Faraday finds himself shipwrecked. He’s not alone, either; the ramshackle island he’s found himself on is filled with other castaways. Not only does he now have to try to get himself home, he has to help everyone else, too.
He’s told of a legend of a mystical harpoon. Imbued with powerful magic, it can help Faraday in his quest. And it turns out he’ll need all the help he can get; in order to get home he needs to traverse multiple islands, each more dangerous than the last. Filled with hostile foes, he’ll need to battle his way through. And thankfully, the harpoon makes for some interesting combat.
With a unique pixelated 2D art style, Olija‘s visuals can be somewhat jarring at first. It’s basic, at a glance, but actually packs in a lot of detail. Faraday’s face might be made up of a few tiny blank pixels, yet his animation often packs in so much emotion and storytelling. The same goes for the characters you meet along the way. You don’t need hyper-realistic, detailed visuals to make an impact, and Olija proves that.
The environments are beautiful, if not a little repetitive at times. But its layered 2D backgrounds are filled with detail and, despite being very dark in tone, they’re a pleasure to explore. Expect to come face-to-face with dead bodies hanging from the ceiling, piles of bones, and other dark and disturbing imagery. The world of Olija is not a pleasant place, and that’s why Faraday needs to fight to get home.
You’ll be doing plenty of fighting along the way, coming up against a range of enemies all out to get you. But with your harpoon in hand, and a range of secondary weapons which expands as you progress through the game, combat is a fast-paced and varied affair. One-on-one, you can simply hit the attack button to wield your harpoon, quickly dispatching whatever beast is in front of you. But faced with several enemies at once – as often is the case – you’ll need to employ various other tactics.
Olija has a combo system, allowing you to chain attacks together in order to deal more damage. You can strike with the harpoon, use any one of your secondary weapons, or throw your harpoon to pierce your enemy, before warping yourself to their position to cause even more damage. Secondary weapons include a sharp and pointy blade, a bow and arrow, and a gun, which you’ll acquire over time. Making use of ranged attacks and close-up attacks is key to success in combat. You’ll need to be quick and co-ordinated with your button presses in order to truly excel. It’s easy to fumble over a combo, but in regular combat it’s rarely a problem.
Facing off against one of Olija‘s fearsome bosses, however, might tell a different story. They’re a mixed bag, but if you don’t have your wits about you, you’ll find yourself destroyed in no time. The game’s final boss puts up the biggest challenge of the game (as one might expect), though finally coming out on top is one of the game’s most exhilarating moments. There’s nothing too challenging, that patience and perseverance can’t overcome.
But combat isn’t all there is to Olija. There’s plenty of exploration, and a few light upgrade mechanics, too. Currency and items you find can be used to buy ‘hats’, each of which offers Faraday a unique ability. One makes him invulnerable to poison; another sets his harpoon spinning like a dangerous sawblade. They’re useful, but not complete game-changers. You can also gradually upgrade your HP in exchange for currency.
Each island you visit has its own secrets, so it pays to explore. There are plenty of hidden areas, many reachable only by using your harpoon. You’ll need a sharp eye to find them all though; there are small ‘tells’ in the environment as to where you might find a secret area, but they’re very easy to miss. Poking around never hurts, and there’s plenty of reason to go back to ‘completed’ areas to try to find a new secret.
Olija feels most like a Metroidvania, though rather being made up of one large, interconnected area, each island is its own, smaller area. You’ll explore in much the same way though; moving from screen to screen, you’ll take one route before needing to backtrack to go another way. With no map, however, it can be easy to lose your way or find yourself going around in circles for a while before you find the right path.
But that’s about the only complaint I can leverage at Olija. Aside from occasionally getting lost, every moment spent with this short adventure game is a joy. You’ll see the credits roll in less than six hours, but you’ll likely be itching to jump back in and continue exploring after that. The harpoon makes for a unique and useful weapon; whether you’re using it to destroy your foes or to transport yourself across the screen, it’s a fluid and rewarding experience. One of the first games of 2021 I’ve sank my teeth into, Olija certainly has set the bar high.
Olija Review: GameSpew’s Score