I find myself to be a strange human being, when it comes to how similar or different I feel towards certain titles in comparison to the general crowd. For example, I love Shovel Knight for its fantastic take on old school platforming, but hated how Cyber Shadow did not become fun until halfway through the game. Meanwhile, Death Stranding is among the 10% of walking simulators that I actually enjoy, due to the rest of them containing gameplay that is less engaging than navigating a DVD menu. I say this, as Olija was a title I heard a lot of mixed opinions on, which was the reason for why I wanted to give it a shot and see what it was like. Yes, sometimes my curiosity is all I got for why I want to talk about a game.
An Eastern experience
Under the southern sun where a fishing village lies, we meet Lord Faraday, a penniless man wishing to somehow help his town that is still suffering after a war took place. With few options left, he gathers a crew of men and sets sail in order to find any form of salvation. Unfortunately, the events keep getting worse with a strong storm attacking his ship and a giant whale destroying it to smithereens. When the sea seems to have taken him and the crew, Faraday wakes up on an unfamiliar land where strange black creatures roam around. After escaping these threats, he meets up and befriends an old sailor, who tells him that he has come to the troubled country of Terraphage.
This is where Olija will take an Eastern turn with its setting, where you play as a man of what I believe is Spanish or Portuguese heritage, exploring a world inspired by Asian cultures. The story has a simple plot where Faraday is just trying to help those he can and find a way to get home to his own people, but you are always met with intriguing reflections on the different elements you encounter. Be it on the slaves that are losing themselves to their masters’ terrible treatments, the unique islands you explore or the aura a princess contains, this is quite the philosophical game that never thrives on being high art. It only wants the player to take in the situations they are presented with, without providing any real answers. Just opinions for you ponder upon.
In many ways, this is a poetic title where every sentence is interesting by always telling subtly about the islands you visit, their culture, and the people’s take on the different subjects, creating a solid world-building with few words spoken and using mainly visual storytelling. This is is a fantastic aspect of the game, where you are always provided with enough elements that will keep you engaged to look deep into what you observe. To name my favourite example, I love the scene where Faraday meets the princess Olija in an old elevator, and you can see how the slow animations tell every single emotions they feel without a single word being uttered.
This setup is strengthened even further by how the atmosphere each location has comes to life. Through a clear style that never goes overboard, you can tell by the simple visuals and audio what kind of place you are in. It is impressive how the villagers’ settlement has a dark tone due to the inhabitants’ acceptance of their difficult situation, and can still coexist with the garden of the princess that gives a sense of wonder through its lighter use of colours. With the legendary harpoon Farady acquires, this makes for a diverse, mysterious, and fascinating world to uncover. The game’s slow and impactful storytelling is also presented in cutscenes that only enhance certain events, making them feel important to the plot.
This is really reminiscent to Eastern action movies, due to how this title conveys only dialogues that strengthen its story, while letting the visuals speak volume. Nothing overstays its welcome and the story is as long as it needs to be. Although, I do wonder why this game is called Olija, as she serves no real purpose to the plot. I do commend her for being a strong female character and a nice romance to Faraday, but I wish her part in the overall plot was significant. As it is now, this feels misleading and the strange flashbacks at the end of the adventure felt unnecessary. Still, this does not change what a wonderful journey Olija provides, and a fantastic example of how to use this media to its fullest potential in terms of storytelling. A magnificent tale that is shown and not told.
Story Score: 9/10
Fast-paced like a samurai!
Despite that Olija might look like a tile-based platformer, it is not. This is an action platformer with smooth controls, where Faraday can perform high jumps, has midair controls, and is able to dodge left and right with the click of a button. However, his most important possession will be the legendary harpoon. With this, he can attack in multiple directions and spin it while airborne to bounce off enemies or objects. This makes Faraday into quite the agile fighter already, but the most impressive element to his weapon, is whenever you throw it into something solid. When this happens, you can then teleport to that item or fiend.
Not only is this fantastic for making the combat fast-paced with multiple floors and enemies to deal with, but also great for platforming by using it to leap between areas. There are respawning eyes for some tense jumps included and you can even take shortcuts if you are well versed with the mechanics, giving you a ton of possibilities for exploration. Should you not be holding your spear, Faraday can throw punches and kicks if needed, and summon it back if you do not wanna dash towards it.
However, his arsenal does not stop there. Faraday can also carry secondary weapons that you can switch between on the fly, all coming with unique supports. The rapier can cut ropes and do quicker combo attacks, while the repeater can shoot rapid shots as long as you have ammo for it and destroy traps from afar. I truly love this setup, as every weapon is made with both the exploration and combat in mind, and they all enhance the overall experience. You can even use a shotgun that spreads strong bullets as an extra boost for jumping, which is simply clever.
Besides this, you also have a hub world where you can refill health and purchase goods at, such as extensions for your health meter, random materials, and hats that will require specific ingredients. These hats are always equipped before visiting an island and each grants different forms of supports that are all intriguing, such as stealing HP by attacking enemies or channel lightning to name a few examples. There is even a power meter under your health that will make these effects stronger when full, forcing you to fight well in order to fill it up.
It is important to consider that a strong set of abilities does not mean anything if the game does not take advantage of them, so let us look at Olija’s structure. From your hub world, you can choose which island you have discovered to visit, and you will find more by finishing the other areas and acquire new maps. Each of them is structured as a metroidvania, with multiple pathways and secrets to uncover. They are not as nonlinear as the traditional takes on this genre, but has enough freedom to reward those who enjoys exploration. I also admire the detail that materials are found through believable locations, like bamboo stubs from bamboo plants and money from fallen foes.
This setup gives a nice middle ground by letting you look around for hidden goodies and be always aware of where you are supposed to go. It is all made even better, due to how much the game relies on your acrobatics skills with both jumping and spear throwing, testing your reflexes strongly. You will also need to have a keen eye for where you can go further, making the exploration fast and entertaining! Combine this with your arsenal being always helpful for finding more rewards or disarm traps, and you are always feeling a solid sense of progression through your accomplishments. It was to the point that I did not even miss having a map, because I always knew where I was.
The enemies add to the mechanics by coming in a good amount and solid variety, such as jumping fighters, rangers shooting from afar, and even constructions that neglect spear throwing. Fights were always engaging and a treat, thanks to the fast combat and that you had to constantly be looking around you for taking down the foes before they got to you. Although, I did often feel overpowered due to that you move much quicker than the enemies can, making it clear that you will no matter what have the upper hand. I had to still use all of my tools and pay attention at any time in order to succeed, but I never felt like I was in any danger.
I could also say the same thing for the boss fights, honestly. While all were entertaining battles with great patterns and strategies to be aware of, I was never in fear of losing. Despite the lack of challenge, I had a great time with Olija. Even one stealth section was incredibly fun due to using the dash technique all the time. The game might have ended slightly early due to only containing four areas with islands to explore and clocking in about four hours too, but everything it offered was excellent and engaging.
Gameplay Score: 8/10
Olija uses its pixel aesthetics perfectly by fully representing a chosen technical limitation, making this feel like an authentic retro game. This is done through using every single pixel to convey motions, which is especially noticeable in the in-game cutscenes where everything becomes tense. Be it through the character’s subtle movements or in the fluent fights, every event makes sure the animations are worth paying attention to, which is why the frames are so detailed. This also translates beautifully to the actual cutscenes, where you again will see how every pixel is significant for creating different atmospheres.
Throughout the adventure, you will encounter varied creatures and characters, all having distinct styles that are memorable for different reasons. Some of my favourite examples are the flute player who always comments on the scenery and the bizarre creatures made out of liquid masses that are hard to describe any further, but everyone adds to this world you are exploring. I also have to compliment the elements surrounding each location, such as the vines waving in the wind, books in old libraries or just seeing the vast backgrounds that are a constant reminder how far you have come and how small you are.
Everything is implemented to present strong atmospheres of what tone each area wants to give the player. Some can make you feel majestic, like when you are on the top of a mountain, and some can fill your heart with despair, such as when you are inside a claustrophobic mine where slaves are working to starvation. I do think some caves can blend in with each other due to the lack of varied colours or even different environmental structures, but at least the overworld areas are diverse enough to never get repetitive.
The action is always mesmerising, and it is impressive how the effects truly make you feel fast and a force to be reckoned with. The quick movements and fierce attacks that can leave enemies into piles of blood never gets old, and I enjoy how Faraday’s idle animations are different depending on the weapon he is holding. Even the wires for traps are impressive by being barely visible pixels, making you take in every detail you can witness.
This is all accompanied by fantastic audio that makes every motion feel strong. Swings of the weapons, sailing your boat over treacherous land or hearing the fiends scream, it all adds to show a world that is hostile and mysterious, making you always on the edge. This can also be said for the ambient sounds, such as animals roaming around, the uncomfortable echoes of water dripping inside caves or simply the cold wind breezing by. Every effect is impressive and immersive, and I think it was a good move to make them overshadow the music to continually convey different atmospheres.
This is not to say that the soundtrack is bad, far from it! It is simply unobtrusive, but still wonderful by using a lot of guitar and general string instruments mixed with flutes. The music is somewhat a general Eastern take that feels eccentric and unique. All of the tracks are short and only used to make events feel significant or add to the sound effects, creating strong, varied, and echoed tones. Almost like different victory tunes for other elements than just your accomplishments.
Presentation Score: 8/10
Do I really need a pen and multiple papers?
This is where the only problem of not having maps for the islands comes to play, as there are collectables to find everywhere. Not counting the four maps needed for progression and found at the end of each main area, we have 10 captured companions, 8 music boxes, and 40 ships in glass bottles to find. However, it did not seem like any of them did anything significant. Nothing improved my hub or made me stronger, making me utterly confused by their inclusion. I will admit, it was always fun to go out of my way to find them, as they are well hidden and can even lead to some entertaining platforming challenges.
Unfortunately, it is hard to take your time to look out for them when you get no reward for doing so. Should you also finish the game, you have to start it from the beginning if you want to search out for the collectables and will not bring any of the found ones with you for the next playthrough, which is a bizarre setup. At the very least, I wish I could have brought my hats with me, both for some good replay value and to look fashionable from the start. It is almost like the extras does not matter, and I do not know if this was an unfinished part of the game or a theming that was trying to be conveyed, but this aspect of Olija is definitely a mixed bag.
Extra Score: 5/10
This title is an outstanding take on what Eastern action movies present: strong storytelling through the use of its visual media, but now with exhilarating gameplay to boot. The events are intriguing, the atmosphere is strong, and the mechanics for both platforming and combat are engaging and well utilised. If I had more reasons to explore these areas, this could have stood amongst the best within its genre, but Olija is still great from start to finish. A story driven game, that actually has entertaining gameplay.