If you have nostalgic love for old Amiga and MS-DOS sidescrollers, Olija is a game that practically demands your attention. Its striking minimalist art style is complimented by a fluidity of movement and realistic animations that will immediately bring to mind games like Flashback, Another World, or the original Prince of Persia. But even if you lack that frame of reference, Olija stands on its own as a 2D action game with exceptional combat, a chilling atmosphere, and a small handful of great boss fights that go a long way toward elevating its otherwise disappointingly short adventure above your average retro-themed platformer.
Developed by Kyoto-based Skeleton Crew Studio, Olija is a game with a story that’s simple but well told: our hero, a penniless lord named Faraday who finds himself marooned in a mysterious land, needs to rescue his shipwrecked crew and find a way back home. The only problems in his way are creepy black goopy creatures, hostile natives, and monstrous beings that have been awakened thanks to Faraday taking possession of a magical harpoon.
That harpoon is what drives the design of Olija, and it’s a large part of why combat and movement are so much fun. Much like Noctis from Final Fantasy 15, Faraday can throw the weapon and teleport to whatever it punctures. In combat, the use of this is obvious: it allows Faraday to instantly close the distance between himself and a foe, and that means there’s a quick and snappy pace for every encounter – but it’s also a super fun tool to use when it comes to exploring the world.
While Olija’s levels are segmented much like a Metroidvania, with the camera only showing what’s in the room you’re currently in, you can still chuck your harpoon into an open room off screen; if it hits something that you can teleport to, you can instantly warp over to that unseen spot. There are many secrets hidden this way throughout Olija’s world, and being rewarded for your curiosity when you throw your harpoon into a suspicious-looking gap in a wall always feels great.
The Boon of The Harpoon
The harpoon isn’t the only thing that makes Olija’s gameplay stand out. Its combat, while simple, feels extremely good at a fundamental level thanks to how impactful your blows are and the variety of attacks you have at your disposal. Basic attacks can be modified by the direction you’re holding – for example, if you want to do a quick combo without a lot of range, you can just mash the attack button without holding a direction, but if you need a little more reach, you could hold forward as you strike. If you want to do a big AOE smash attack that knocks enemies away you could hold down, or you could just jump in the air and use your aerial attack to bounce on enemies, Shovel Knight-style. If you manage to land four hits without taking any damage, you’re rewarded with a super attack that also changes depending on the direction you’re holding, what secondary weapon you’re using, and whether you’re in the air or on the ground. There’s a lot going on!
In addition to that, there are also a variety of different hats to purchase that offer helpful boons which can alter the way you approach combat. My favorite increases your movement and attack speed if you land hits while avoiding damage, letting you punish bosses greatly when you expose their weakpoint. Others are more situational, but still helpful nonetheless, such as a hat that makes you completely immune to poison damage.
So there’s a lot of decisions to make about how you’ll fight, which is great. The only issue is that the enemies in Olija rarely push you to the point where you really need to make these kinds of decisions. The AI just doesn’t have any answer for the mobility that your harpoon provides, nor do the limited variety of enemy types ever present any sort of threat that really forces you to react to what they’re doing. This means that Olija is pretty easy, and with no difficulty options to beef it up, there’s not much incentive to really explore the depth of the combat once you have a handle on the basics.
Boss battles, fortunately, fare much better than standard enemy encounters, both in terms of their challenge and their variety. There are some that are the typical big boss battles where you have to dodge high-damage attacks to strike at flashing weakpoints, but my favorite involves a fight against three hunters who each have their own unique approach to harassing you. One constantly runs away and heals the other two, another tries to keep to the midrange to fill the screen with bullets, and the third sticks to you like glue with aggressive dash attacks and quick melee combos. It’s a really fun fight, and I wish the rest of the levels sprinkled tough enemies like these in regular fights as opposed to just keeping them all locked away in a single boss battle, never to be seen again.
Finally, Olija is also incredibly short. The campaign took me a little under four hours to complete the first time through, and while there are collectibles to seek out, most areas that contain them lock upon completion so you often can’t return to scour for any secrets you missed the first time through. It really is four hours well spent, but it certainly left me wanting either more to see or a good reason to replay what I’d already seen.