It’s not uncommon to see video games compared to other games in reviews. It’s not something I’m necessarily against, because sometimes it’s easier to say “it’s like Super Mario Bros.” than to explain what a side scrolling platformer is—and even if you do give a lengthy explanation, it’s good to have a genre-defining or otherwise well-known point of reference. Then sometimes, a game comes around and you can’t exactly describe it easily, nor is there a game to easily compare it to. Olija is such a game—while its gameplay mechanics aren’t exactly novel, its overall presentation makes it something different. Simply put, Olija is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before.
Olija is a side scrolling action adventure with platforming elements. It has minimal blocky pixel art graphics, and features interesting traversal, a slick presentation, and a great story. It’s full of beautiful and unexpected moments, with the feel and style of an art house indie film, but with fun video game mechanics. That’s not to say it’s like a film, but it does have cinematic moments. During gameplay and its interstitial cutscenes, Olija has an interesting blend of sailor legend and Asian fantasy, but it ends up feelings a bit like a spaghetti western set in a fantasy land, especially with its silent protagonist, narrator, and soundtrack—parts of which sound like they’re influenced by Ennio Morricone.
In Olija you play as Captain Faraday, shipwrecked in the mysterious land of Terraphage—trapped with other wayward sailors. These sailors have constructed a town called Oaktide, which serves as the game’s hub world, and as a refuge for any castaways that you may rescue. It’s Faraday’s ultimate quest to return his men back to their own land, but to do so, they have to pass through the Shadow Gate, sealed by three keys. Terraphage is made up of multiple islands, and Faraday is ferried to each of these islands by the boatman, who is also a narrator, and provides insights into Olija’s esoteric lands. Most of Terraphage has been corrupted by an oily darkness—dark gods that Faraday must defeat to escape.
Olija has a mixture of combat, puzzle solving, and platforming. While there is a bit of exploration involved—and secrets to find—it isn’t exactly a metroidvania. Shortly into his quest, Faraday gets a harpoon that serves as his main weapon, and a way to zip from grapple points almost instantly. This method of travel persists throughout Olija. It’s fun to zip around, and throw the harpoon to the next enemy or grapple point, and instantly zip to that—all while in mid-air. If you miss, you can recall the harpoon to you.
Combat in Olija is frenetic. Enemies attack from afar, or attack with melee—but dispatching them is made short work with the harpoon. You will also have access to several secondary weapons—with a crossbow and blunderbuss serving as ranged options later in the game. There is also a sword that is usually used for its ability to teleport the player, much in the same way as the harpoon, but can be plunged into the ground instead of thrown. Faraday also has magical hats he can craft by finding items in his adventures, or sending explorers out to get items from the hub world.
Unfortunately, there aren’t that many enemy types in Olija, and combat feels more spammy than strategic. The boss fights are done well enough, but there are only a couple of challenging boss encounters in the whole game. In fact, I found the difficulty level of Olija to be moderate—it isn’t exactly easy, but I didn’t find it to be much of a challenge either. Still, a game doesn’t have to be difficult to be good, and Olija is a very good game.
Olija constantly managed to surprise me. Unique encounters or events are interspersed with regular exploration and combat. These encounters seem almost perfectly paced to break up mundane elements in a surprising way. Olija is also surprising in its deft storytelling, with little exposition, which parallels its low resolution art style.
Olija has a striking art style, and has locations that can range from brutally bleak to stunningly beautiful. At times I wished Olija’s graphics were a little bit more detailed, but the decision to keep the pixels extra blocky add an element of mystique that allowed my imagination to fill in the gaps.
I really enjoyed my time with Olija, and controlling Faraday through the infected and often bleak land of Terraphage. It has unusual movement mechanics, good platforming, and interesting puzzles—and even though the combat can be a little uninteresting, it’s fast and fun. I’m not a glutton for punishment, but I do wish that Olija had a little bit more of a challenge, and a few more interesting bosses. Despite these criticisms, Olija feels like a potential classic, and is definitely one of my early favorites of 2021.
If you like the video game, tabletop, or other technology content that Third Coast Review has to offer, consider donating to our Patreon. We are the only publication in Chicago that regularly reviews video games, and we cover lots of local Chicago-based events and more. If you want to contribute to our coverage of Chicago’s video game scene (and more) please consider becoming a patron. Your support enables us to continue to provide this type of content and more. Patreon.com/3CR
You can also catch us streaming games we’re reviewing and staff favorites on our Twitch channel.