When I spoke to Thomas Olsson, the driving force behind Olija and Skeleton Crew’s (almost) sole developer, he told me he liked to develop games like playing jazz. By that, I guessed he meant he liked to improvise, see where the development naturally led him and not rigorously stick to a predetermined idea of what the game should be.
In the case of Olija, the player should embrace the same notion. Whilst playing Olija, go with the flow, don’t put too much pressure on expectations and enjoy the ride. At its most basic, Olija is a puzzle platformer though it often deviates from the tropes of the genre, taking the player on unexpected diversions.
It also visually harkens back to Another World and Flashback with the former also undeniably informing the underlying themes and plot of Olija. Starring Faraday, a sailor from a far off land, Olija sees him and his crew shipwrecked and stranded in the mysterious country of Terraphage.
Under siege by a powerful and deadly force, Terraphage seems inescapable, until Faraday acquires a cursed harpoon and frees the titular princess; Olija.
Before collecting the Harpoon, Faraday is a pretty standard platforming hero. He can jump, dash and punch. The platforming is pretty vanilla and things get off to a fairly average start. However, once players have the harpoon the true beautiful simplicity of Olija is revealed.
Pressing Square/Y/X (depending on your controller) uses the harpoon as a melee weapon. Building up a combo can unleash devastating powerful attacks on the enemy and clear them out of your way with ease. And it’s very satisfying. Combat in Olija has a sticky, tar-like feel. Enemies seem to be gelatinous and bounce off your attacks more than they should and when they explode, they do so in a shower of guts.
But not as satisfying as the harpoons other feature. Pressing Circle/A/B throws the harpoon. Enemies, crates, special gooey plants; they all can be pierced by the harpoon and when they are, the harpoon stays in place. This allows the player to move towards the harpoon and press the throw button again to instantly teleport to its location. This is Olija’s Racoon Suit, its FLUDD…its Cappy.
The harpoon turns combat and platforming on its head and although we’ve seen similar mechanics in other games, the way it comes together in Olija is new and different. By piercing enemies, Faraday is able to leave them ‘primed’ for attack whilst using secondary weapons (rapier, shotgun, crossbow) to deal with other attackers. When the time is right, Faraday can teleport to the primed enemy, dealing extra damage with a combo on the go, and finish them off in style.
Later, once players unlock the moon blade, Faraday has two weapons able to be used as anchor points which turn combat into a 2D, pixel-art swashbuckling version of The Matrix.
The Harpoon (and blade to a lesser extent) is also used for exploration and puzzle-solving. None of the puzzles are all that taxing nor is the platforming twitchy or requiring godlike reflexes, instead they’re in service of the core mechanic of the harpoon and the dreamy, east meets west fairy tale.
Terraphage appears to be inspired by Asia with architectural and environmental influences clearly coming from that corner of the real world. However, Faraday and his castaways are clearly from the swashbuckling, East India Trading company dominated world of the Caribbean during the time of pirates. The coming together of these two worlds works well in Olija, especially in reinforcing the fish out of water experience that Faraday is facing.
Not a short game, Olija’s not overly long either though it does manage to pack a lot into its runtime. For the most part, players will be exploring and fighting with the help of the harpoon, but Skeleton Crew manages to sneak in a few extra surprises including some stealth, a Kurosawa-esque duel, Metroid style boss fights and even a little base building. Even without the additional quirks and flourishes, Olija is a great game, so these embellishments help round out the world and flesh out the plot.
Olija’s pixel-art visuals are a real treat and throwback to a period in time when gameplay had to stand on its own and couldn’t rely on visuals to dazzle players and distract them from a mediocre experience. They’re simple yet detailed enough to get a good understanding of what each person/creature looks like, as well as having a distinctive style which is quite pretty in its own way.
The real standout when it comes to the art design is the audio. Backed by lo-fi Spanish guitar and Asian influences sounds, the audio in Olija transports the player to the world of Terraphage and creates the perfect atmosphere for the action to take place.
Olija is a great action platformer and one that throws back to the best of those which have come before. Set in a gorgeous yet dangerous world and featuring one of the most well-used combat mechanics in a platformer, Olija is well-worth checking out.
Olija was reviewed on PC using a digital copy provided by the publisher.