I am not a seafarer. I could probably count the total number of times I’ve been on a boat in my life on two hands, and in the majority of those cases, I almost immediately got seasick. That nausea’s always been my primary deterrent for sea travel, though after playing Olija, I could probably add “being stranded in a mysterious shadow land” to my list of concerns.
Olija (and that’s pronounced “Oh-lee-yah” if you weren’t sure) stars naval captain Faraday, a local lord from a poor fishing village. Faraday’s village has been on hard times lately, with money and supplies dwindling, so Faraday and his crew set out to the seas in search of better fortunes. They end up finding hostile weather patterns, and end up shipwrecked upon the shadowy continent of Terraphage, where Faraday quickly finds himself embroiled in a conflict between two warring tribes. Armed with a legendary Harpoon, Faraday needs to find his men and secure their passage home.
Olija has a style evocative of classic swashbuckling adventure stories. Faraday has a sort of stoic charisma about him that I enjoy; he doesn’t talk, but he doesn’t really need to. You get a pretty good idea of what he’s about just from his actions. There’s clearly something bigger at play than just him in this story, and I was quite eager to see what it was. The story is accompanied by some pretty impressive pixel art setpieces that do a good job of conveying both the scale of Terraphage as a place and its dark depths.
If I were to categorize Olija in a particular game, I’d call it a diet metroidvania. Rather than one big, connected world, the game takes place over multiple small islands, more of which are unlocked as you defeat bosses. These islands are fairly linear in design, clearly pointing out where you need to go to make actual progress, but there are a few secret nooks to find if you’re interested in exploring. Traversing these locales is a lot of fun; Faraday’s Harpoon can be thrown at designated points and then warped to, which makes for some rapid-action platforming and a few clever positioning puzzles, though those puzzles don’t usually get any more complicated than “throw the Harpoon here and don’t fall in a pit.” While the puzzles are easy, that simplicity helps the game keep a good momentum going throughout.
Speaking of momentum, combat is surprisingly fast-paced. The Harpoon’s warping ability can be used on enemies as well, so you can lob it at them, warp right into their face, and start pummeling them senseless. Besides the Harpoon, Faraday is capable with swords, firearms, and even his bare hands. It’s a pared-down system, kind of like a sidescrolling brawler, but as with everything else, that simplicity helps keep the flow going. No combat encounter took longer than a few minutes and that momentum helps keep the game fresh. Encounters move even more quickly when you use one of the enchanted hats you can craft with materials found in the world. These hats offer some pretty wild abilities, like making you secrete acid or turning your Harpoon into a buzz saw, to the point that some of them border on OP.
If I were to offer a single complaint about this game, it’s that it’s pretty short. My playthrough only took about four hours; while I didn’t get 100% completion, I came pretty close just by playing the game normally, so I would assume deliberately going for 100% would only add maybe an hour to the run time. Combined with the linear level design and relatively simple puzzles, Olija may feel a bit unfulfilling if you’re hoping for a meaty adventure experience.
While the game is short, though, my time with it was almost universally pleasant. It doesn’t kick you in the face with its difficulty or beat you over the head with lore, it’s just a fun little slice of swashbuckling romance you can spend a couple of afternoons with. It’s like one of those short adventure stories you used to read in school, except with more stabbing and gross people. And hats, a lot more hats.
Olija launches on January 28, 2020 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC for $14.99. You can visit the official website here for more details.