There have been good games so far in 2021, but we’re still waiting for the first great one. That wait may come to an end soon, as we’ve played a few hours of a small game called Olija (pronounced oh-lee-yah, if you were wondering), and we’re smitten enough to pause the review and sound the klaxons: this could well be a GOTY contender.
Olija came out of leftfield for us, as it doesn’t have much of a pedigree. While it’s published by the reliable Devolver Digital, the developers are one-game outfit Skeleton Crew Studio, whose previous was an arena battler called BackSlash, which barely made a ripple. They’re a Japanese studio out of Kyoto, with a multicultural staff, and they’re clearly ones to watch.
The seeds of Olija are in BackSlash. That Smash Bros-style battler used a retro pixel-art style alongside stylish, extravagant animation in the same way that Prince of Persia, Flashback and Another World did. It gives the combat a slick and dynamic feel, and we don’t blame Skeleton Crew Studio for porting it almost directly into Olija. The Japanese background of the studio helps to give Olija authenticity too, as – although it’s set in the imagined world of Terraphage – it’s soaked with south-east Asian influences.
Olija is deceptively easy to describe. It’s a 2D action-platformer, not too far removed from Dead Cells, Hollow Knight and the rest. While it’s not exactly a Metroidvania – you have a ferryman to take you to discrete islands, so it’s not one contiguous landmass – it feels a lot like one, with a map made up of individual rooms, secrets hidden in nooks, and areas locked behind abilities that you don’t necessarily have yet. You’ve got a hub called Oaktide, which reminds a little of Bastion, as your adventures will cause you to stumble over castaways and natives who will join you and set up shop. They’ll offer you health upgrades, hats that buff you in combat, and even a sailor who’ll travel the region and bring back spoils.
In honesty, though, Olija is more than that, and it’s in the atmosphere, story and pacing that it looks like it will be special. We are fascinated to see whether Olija can keep the standard high until the end – it will be reviewed fully come its launch date – but there is barely a room in the game that doesn’t add a new idea, story element or baddie to fight. It glues you to the experience, as you can’t predict where it’s going next.
The story is a riff on something familiar: it’s a tale of Western privateers castaway in an alien Eastern land. You play as their captain, Faraday, who has been destined to wield a legendary harpoon that will rid the land of evil. That destiny is intertwined with Olija’s, a mysterious queen-like character who travels the region with her entourage. There’s the outline of James Clavell’s Shogun, or The Last Samurai, but instead of fighting samurai you are fighting Lovecraftian horrors.
That all might feel familiar, but it underplays what Olija achieves. It has a hugely oppressive atmosphere, to the degree that you feel like you’re descending into the circles of hell. That’s partly down to the audio that’s almost entirely ambience and threat, the realistic motion capture of the animations, and the gory detail in the environments. But it’s also down to the world-building, which seems to marry Western horror with Eastern environments to make something unsettling. We’re never truly comfortable as we play Olija. If we were to summarise it, we’d say that Olija is ‘rich’: it’s dense with ideas, atmospherics, secrets and story, and we are determined to take our time with it as we play it.
Like a marathon-runner who starts with a sprint, we are wary that Olija won’t be able to keep it up. Metroidvanias tend to have dozens of hours of gameplay, and we’re fascinated to see if Olija can keep the pace it has set for itself. We will let you know when we review. For now, though, keep the name Olija memorised, as it will be – at the very least – a wild ride.
Olija will launch on Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PS4, Nintendo Switch and PC come January 28th 2021. Keep an eye out for that review.