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Review: Olija

28 Jan 2021

It’s always refreshing to review a game that isn’t trying to be anything other than itself.

There’s more to discuss when it comes to Olija, of course, but one of the things that struck me early on was the fact that, unlike all too many games that are attempting a spin on X formula or Y genre conventions, Olija is a game that is resolutely and definitively itself. The broadest genre strokes only serve to give you an idea of what the game is, rather than giving you a complete and comprehensive portrait of what it’s supposed to be.

Olija is itself. The question, then, is whether “itself” is something that’s particularly fun or if it’s ultimately kind of a wash despite that trait.

The game releases on Steam, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on January 28th; the Steam version was played for this review.

Thus Did Faraday’s Troubles Begin

The story of Olija starts pretty simple. Faraday, our main character, is the lord of a small fishing village that’s dealing with an ever-decreasing haul from the sea. He sets out on an expedition to deeper waters, gets shipwrecked, and winds up in the land of Terraphage with fragments of his crew trying to find a way back home.

In the process of trying to get home, he comes across three things. The first is some inky black oddity that seems to be connected with the violent and unfriendly natives of the region; the second is a magical harpoon that comes when it’s called and allows him to teleport. The third is the eponymous lady Olija, the ostensible ruler of the region.

What follows is an ongoing process of Faraday exploring the area and having encounters in which he is only somewhat an active participant; it’s very clear early on that he’s stumbling into something much bigger than himself, and the story is relayed through a sort of distant, mumbled narration giving the sense of a far-off tale told by a faintly uncertain observer. It’s clear right away that there’s a connection between Olija and Faraday, and that he’s not entirely clear on why he needs to do things; he is a disrupting influence in an area that was already rather sinister, diving into things quite possibly best left alone.

It’s a fairly straightforward and arch story, but it’s relayed in a charming way. Those who prefer stories that are told more as pseudo-mythic tales compared to character pieces will probably quite enjoy it. The feeling is faintly sinister, but more ethereal than anything.

It Was in This Way Faraday Dispatched His Foes

While the story is important, it’s hardly the biggest part of the game; indeed, the story is punctuation between moments of gameplay. And here’s here where Olija becomes a more complicated experience.

At its core, Olija is an action game. Faraday has one button for his main attack, one button for his secondary weapon (of which there are several), and a third button allowing him to throw his harpoon in any direction. The harpoon will embed itself in any enemy it hits, allowing Faraday to instantly teleport-dash to the enemy by holding toward the location and hitting the harpoon button again.

Most notably, once you do the teleport dash, your attacks become more powerful. So this is the heart of combat – dash in, unleash a combo of strikes, then dash again. Use the harpoon to ensure that you can cross great distances and neutralize ranged foes along the way. If your life bottoms out, the game is over.

You engage in battle across a variety of different maps opened up periodically by finding, well, new maps that lead to new surrounding islands. I’m reluctant to call the whole thing non-linear; it’s pretty clear that you’re just doing a slightly more elaborate form of level selection. But it does add to the air of mystery in the proceedings, that sense that you’re fighting because you’re being attacked rather than being the aggressor.

So how does the combat actually feel? Pretty good… but that is, in and of itself, part of the problem I had with it. It feels pretty good. It always feels pretty good. It never elevated itself beyond that point.

Part of what bothered me is that it’s really hard to tell when you’ve managed to take damage. There’s not much hit-stun or momentary loss, so I found it easy to get hit and just continue on attacking like nothing was happening. But another part of the problem was simply that once you understand the flow of “teleport, attack, kill the enemy,” there’s not a whole lot more to it. If you’ve played this sort of game before, you can probably get a solid sense of the game pretty early on.

That’s not to say it isn’t satisfying. Faraday’s attacks land with a solid crunchiness, and enemies tend to have enough life to be interesting without being overstuffed with durability. I never found myself dreading getting into another boss fight or skirmish against several enemies. But neither did I ever find myself looking forward to it, or particularly relishing each new puzzle of teleporting between platforms and figuring out how to navigate everything.

That’s not to dismiss the game, of course. None of this is bad. It just occupies this odd niche of being halfway to more of a metroidvania-style game, halfway toward more of an action-oriented title, and never quite occupying either slot. It does a lot of things on its own, and that is commendable, but those looking for a more solid and focused experience will need to look elsewhere.

To Look Upon Faraday was to Understand

The lo-fi aesthetic is shot through the entirety of Olija, and it definitely gives the game a distinct feel. The graphics, obviously, are a pixelated mass that suggest things in broad strokes with flat pixel artwork, and it’s a testament to the artistic skill with which each vista is presented that it’s pretty much always easy to figure out what you’re looking at in a given scene. It’d be really easy for everything to become a blob of non-distinct features.

More than just standing out, though, the graphics animate wonderfully. There’s a real artistry to ever single move and swing that Faraday makes as well as his foes, with almost every enemy and ever landscape feeling like a bespoke creation rather than stock types. It’s clear they are stock types, broadly, but everything looks and feels unique within a given vista.

The voice acting in the game is in what I believe to be a vaguely Portugese sort of Simlish, murmured and muttered like everything is being narrated through gauzy cloth. It shouldn’t work, but it does, giving the game a rather intimate and austere feel. This is enhanced by the game’s soundtrack, melancholy and haunting as Faraday explores ruined landscapes and inhospitable wreckage.

Whatever weaknesses the game may have in other areas, in presentation there’s very little to fault within the game as a whole. It is, arguably, the strongest element of Olija on a whole.

Faraday, Himself, was Ultimately the End

The big problem with Olija is, for some people, not going to be a problem at all. It’s not a bad game in any real areas, aside from some minor stumbles here and there, and I appreciate that the game doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be anything other than itself. The problem is just that what it is feels… well, rather limited.

Its story works and it’s well-presented, but it never really grabbed me with an urge to know more. The combat is never bad, but it’s never really much more than “pretty good.” So many elements of the game other than the presentation wind up in a melange of “pretty good.”

Obviously, that means that I can’t call this a bad game because it isn’t. It’s objectively a good sort of game. But it’s not a game that really lit me on fire in any way. I almost feel like part of me would have preferred a more flawed title in some ways, something that felt like it was reaching a little more in an area other than just raw presentation.

But some of this might just be me being cantankerous. I can’t say Olija is all that great, but it’s definitely a solid game that aimed at what it wanted to be and hit it squarely. It’s unlikely to be anyone’s favorite game, but it is – at least – doing its own thing with no small degree of confidence.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by Devolver Digital for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Devolver Digital.