Olija (pronounced oh-lee-yah) is an unassuming game. It wasn’t on our radar, coming from a fledgling Japanese studio called Skeleton Crew Studio, whose only previous release was a little-played battler called BackSlash. Screenshots and trailers didn’t really do it justice, showcasing the same pixel art that we come across weekly on the Xbox Store (and often bores the tits off us, if we’re honest). There was no groundswell of hype; no awards littering its path.
It feels good to be surprised. Olija is an exceptional game, one that will appear on end-of-year lists, and it’s all the more remarkable for coming out of nowhere. In an era where publishers shout about games well before they should, and games arrive with fanfares and umpteen press releases, it’s wonderful to have that feeling of ‘finding’ a game again. Of course, by reading this article, we’re ruining that ‘finding’ for you, but please don’t let that stop you from playing it. Perhaps you should close the article now, go to the Xbox Store and play it without further ado.
Olija feels like it’s arrived from an earlier time. It’s made out of that ubiquitous pixel art, but it’s starkly beautiful, as the rudimentary characters move with mo-cap grace, which also feeds into the flow of the combat. The obvious comparison is Another World – the 1991 Éric Chahi game – as there is a similar flow to the animations, a similar ‘hero in a sparse alien world’ feel, but that would be unfairly questioning Olija’s originality. It’s one of those games that has many individual parts that can be compared with other titles, but the overall feel of the game is unique. It’s a game that should be played to fully ‘get’ it.
Let’s try to describe it regardless. Olija casts you as Faraday, a privateer who is castaway with his crew. You wake to find your crew and ship gone, and the only person about is a ferryman. He tells you that you’re in a land called Terraphage, which has become overrun by hellish, Lovecraftian beasts. He agrees to ferry you to land, where a series of events make it clear that you are a warrior of destiny; someone who is foretold to wield a fabled harpoon and claim Terraphage back. The destiny is intertwined with that of a woman called Olija, who is treated like royalty by the people of Terraphage, moving from island to island in an ornate boat.
Olija isn’t too far removed from James Clavell’s Shogun, if you’ve read or watched it. While Terraphage is clearly an invented world, there are heavy Japanese influences here, and both Olija and Shogun centre on a castaway Western captain who finds himself becoming a predestined hero in Eastern lands. But while Shogun’s John Blackthorne fought samurai, Faraday seems to descend through the circles of hell.
There’s a rhythm to the game that’s not too dissimilar to Bastion. You have a hub island called Oaktide that starts off ramshackle, but improves as you find your castaway crew and other natives in the levels. They bring amenities with them, so you can soon heal yourself, improve your health bar, send a captain out on missions to bring you back materials, and then spend those materials on game-buffing hats. You are waited on, and increasingly revered as more and more people come to you.
From the hub you can hop onto the ferryman’s boat and view a smallish map of Terraphage’s archipelago, where you can see unclaimed keys and where they are located. Travel to the islands, find the keys, and you can unlock larger doors that lead to bosses. Kill the bosses and you get Zelda-like Master Keys that unlocks the end-of-game content.
Nothing sounds revolutionary yet, right? Right. But it’s in the levels themselves that Olija comes into its own. The levels are Metroidvania-like, but they are incredibly – insanely – dense and rich.
They are dense in the sense that they’re littered with secrets, making your eye flick about for telltale signs of a hidden area. You’d be hard-pressed to find a room that doesn’t have something to conceal. They are also dense in that each room and sequence will introduce something new without fail, whether that’s a new enemy, obstacle, scripted event, puzzle or anything else that Skeleton Crew Studio can cook up. The whole game feels authored, with barely a repeated asset, and it makes Olija constantly surprising. Often, in similar games, you can get into a rhythm as you move from repeated enemy to enemy, or jump from platform to platform, but you just don’t get that with Olija. It’s as varied and unexpected as going exploring in the real world.
It may skirt on the edge of pretentious, but Olija can feel like you’re part of an experience more than a game. As you move through an area, the audio shifts as a hidden composer points you to secrets, foreshadows a boss or ally, or adds a creeping dread that’s released by an upcoming event. It never rests. The same goes for the level design: in a section that’s full of mysterious ‘wreathers’, creatures move around in the background and distance, and hanging figures begin appearing more and more. It’s all so orchestrated, and you never get to fall into the safety net of a video game’s repetitions.
In terms of what you actually do, it’s an even spread between combat, some light puzzling, platforming and general exploration, as you try to find a path that you haven’t taken yet. There’s not a duff note in any of them. The combat stops short of being as intricate and kickass as a Dead Cells or Foregone, but there’s still a lot of strategy and flow here. You can flick between an increasing number of secondary weapons, like crossbows and a gun, there are numerous combos that use the game’s two attack buttons, and you can dodge. The MVP is the harpoon, though. You gain it within the first hour of play, and you can launch it at enemies and then pull the harpoon back to you, or launch yourself at the harpoon.
The game has a whale of a time with the harpoon, and it levels up both the combat and the exploration. Since the harpoon only lodges in organic matter, you’re constantly on the lookout for fleshy bits and bobs to hook the harpoon into, flinging yourself across chasms, up into other rooms and whatnot, taking you further into the level. Some of the best moments in Olija come from chucking the harpoon out of hope, only to find a completely new path. Combat, too, gains a whole new layer when you can catapult yourself around by chucking a harpoon into an enemy.
Also enhancing the combat are the levels, which take joy in physics and cause-and-effect. In one sequence, we arrived in a room with four enemies. One was standing on a cage suspended by a rope, so we cut the rope and sent the enemy clattering to the floor. We jumped across and sent a skittish enemy running, but pulled a lever to send it falling into spikes. With the spikes revealed, we used the harpoon to yank the other enemies into the pit and, voila, the room was cleared. It’s this tag team with the environment that makes Olija greatly satisfying.
Bosses aren’t the high point, but they don’t let the side down either. One revels in quiet, giving you periods where you’re not doing anything and instead wonder where the next attack will come from. Another takes the form of three separate characters: knowing which one to take down first is half the challenge.
Ultimately, the flaws of Olija lie in its length. It was always going to be a challenge for Skeleton Crew Studios to maintain its authored feel for long; something was going to give, and it happens to be Olija’s play time. There’s probably four hours of gameplay here. We wouldn’t normally question a game’s length, as some of the best experiences are limited, but Olija feels cut short in a variety of ways.
At roughly the halfway point of the already short Olija, you will have exhausted all of the unlocks. You’ll have gained all the health boosts and the hats, which means that the majority of resources you find in hidden areas become moot. There’s more than enough to keep you playing in terms of the story and the levels themselves, sure, but the lack of a skill tree, loot, and only an extremely slight number of unlocks makes Olija feel thinner than it needed to be.
Olija never really scratches below the surface of who Faraday and Olija are, and the history of Terraphage is only hinted at. You want to know more, and it’s testament to the quality of what’s there that you miss it so deeply. It might be unfair to compare, but Olija also feels similar to modern classics like Dead Cells, Hollow Knight and The Messenger, yet cannot compare to their depth, longevity and replayability. Olija’s diminished by knowing that other, similar games managed to feel more substantial.
You get the inkling that Olija is short roughly two hours in. You reach the limits of the map quickly, and you begin to realise that the looming door, seen from the start, houses the world’s big-bad, and that only three Master Keys are needed to open it. It was at this point that we realised that we would have to ration our time with Olija. We began to play in one-hour bursts, so that we didn’t exhaust it quickly, which isn’t something we’ve done since Batman: Arkham Asylum. It’s emblematic of how good Olija feels to play, but also how long those feelings last for.
Olija on Xbox is a game to be savoured. Everything about it is rich and expertly crafted, from the slick combat to the world of Terraphage, scattered with secrets. It’s over far too soon, so relish the experience while it’s there, as Olija is an astonishing adventure game that you can lose yourself in utterly.