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Backlog Twosome | Olija

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As modern gamers, we’re always drawn to the biggest, best, new thing. It’s easy for us to see the latest and greatest triple A title, that’s been backed by millions of dollars of marketing and in-your-face advertisements, and say to ourselves, “Yeah, I definitely want to play that!!!”

However, some of the most impactful games out there are hidden behind unassuming cover art, and intriguing trailers. They may be more of a leap of faith when deciding to give them a try, but when you strike gold, the payoff is palpable. 

Well, Devolver Digital has teamed up with the talented story weavers at Skeleton Crew Studio in the hope to mystify us with a tall tale of a man trying to redeem his lordship after being stranded at sea, in their moody and enigmatic action platformer, Olija. With that said, will Olija harpoon our hearts with its cryptic wiles, or will we be shipwrecked and left looking for greener tidepools?

We watched the trailer for Olija one morning while sipping coffee and I honestly wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the game even after that. Not that the trailer was vague by any means, just that I wasn’t sure how it would all come together. There’s a lot of room for disappointment with such a bold yet simple graphical style combined with a cryptic storyline.

To say it looked wholly unique would be an understatement. But upon putting no more than a few minutes into the game it was easy to see how this was clearly going to be a “don’t judge a book by its cover” moment. And absolutely nothing pleases me more than surprises like that.

I’m an absolute sucker when it comes to developers trying to subvert your expectations when it comes to presentation, storytelling, and gameplay. Especially with pixel art! It amazes me every time I boot up what seems to be your run of the mill, retro inspired indie game, and I am presented with something that is wholly unique.

That’s why I wanted to give Olija a shot! On the surface it seemed ordinary, but after watching it in motion, I found inklings of something memorable. So, when we had the opportunity to cover it, we jumped on it instantly.

I’m truly happy to say that Olija more than holds up! Not only was it a solid game to play from a gameplay perspective, where the controls were tight and the action was satisfying and flashy, but aesthetically it was perfectly foreboding and beautiful. The art direction was a bit strange and felt a tad awkward at times, but really that was only on the surface because combined with the fluid animations during cutscenes and combat alike, it all just kind of worked. Then there was the narrative, which was cryptic in the best of ways, and the “non-language” voice overs only hammered that home.

I especially enjoyed how concise the game was. There wasn’t anything too complicated to wrap your mind around, nor did it try to overwhelm you with its mechanics. It just gives you exactly what you needed, and sets you on one simple task – find three keys and open the big door at the end of the game. Where it all stood out however, was how clever the level designs and puzzles could be. Especially while using your primary weapon, the harpoon. Which could be used almost like a grappling hook.

If you have any artistic bones in your body at all, you can easily see Olija for what it is; nothing short of a little slice of brilliance. Sure the artstyle is woefully simple, but to be able to color and shape such a small amount of pixels into something so expressive and curiously detailed takes a deft hand to be sure!

And not to be forgotten, of course, the story and dialogue for this game is crafted in such a way as to be completely mysterious yet easy to follow. You’ll be putting two and two together yourself in order to keep up, but really that’s part of the fun with a game like this. Everything isn’t necessarily laid out and explained in perfect detail and I think that esoteric ambiance is really what sets Olija apart.

There isn’t a great deal about Olija I would change. Even though the game is on the short side and I usually use that as an excuse to say, “Well give me more!” as what I would change, but in this case I think the length was perfect. A nice, short little tale that can be told and completed in just a few sittings. I felt a sense of satisfaction once those credits rolled and usually that’s a good sign that I wanted no more and no less from what I was given.

If I have to complain about something I suppose it would be that you seemed to collect a lot of the items needed to make the various hats but never end up using 90% of them. A small improvement would be to either make the items required more rare or perhaps allow extras to be changed into money or ammunition. But again, that’s really just a nitpick of no real consequence. The gameplay itself isn’t hindered in any way just because you have too many materials.

Honestly I was having a difficult time trying to find something I think Olija would benefit from, if I were to change and the only thing I could think of was that I would love to see more of it. Maybe add more stages or challenges to utilize the exciting harpoon mechanics. Or maybe even add additional weapons/tools that could expand upon the types of platforming puzzles you could encounter. But in truth, those additions may end up making Olija feel like it was overstaying its welcome. In my mind it was perfectly balanced and paced.

With that said, what I absolutely loved and would be excited to see more of if Skeleton Crew Studio were to gracefully give us more Olija, would be more of its world and to expand upon its lore. I was endlessly fascinated with the almost primordial antagonists and I was sitting on the edge of my seat every time I heard them mumble “Faraday”.

Playing Olija was a great experience. Since it was relatively short and each of the areas were broken up into unique levels, it was perfect for passing the controller after each sequence. Plus, I don’t know if we would have figured out how to actually pronounce “Olija” if we didn’t mimic the guttural tones of the title screen voice over back and forth to one another for the entirety of our playthrough.

Games with stories like these are great to play with a partner because if nothing else they spark conversation. As little bits of the game played out we were often talking and surmising over the newest details. It’s always a positive experience boost when a game leaves us chatting even after the console has long been turned off.

Nothing in the game was terribly difficult or complicated so we just took turns exploring each of the ports and it made for an easy way to break up our turns. We only really struggled with the last boss so we passed the controller a few times trying to master his many tough and chaotic phases, but it was fitting since we both played through the game that we both got to experience the last boss as well.

We had a great time with Olija, and if you’re at all a fan of unique platformers and storylines that leave you thinking, then we can’t help but recommend you check out Olija! With such a fascinating world, filled with equally intriguing characters, and of course rewarding gameplay, we think you’ll have a blast!

If you’re interested in checking out Olija, you can find it right now on the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Steam!