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Olija Review: Marooned With A Magic Harpoon

Ah, Devolver Digital. The premier publisher of oddball indie games. Every few months, this plucky little group of weirdos comes along and drops a title that goes on to become one of my all-time favorites. Enter The Gungeon is my most played roguelike. Downwell is an incredible bite-sized reverse shmup that I still load up from time to time. Carrion was one of the more pleasant surprises that I experienced last year, and the list goes on and on. That momentum doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon, since it’s got a big release schedule set for this year, which includes the very promising Loop Hero.

Of course, not everything Devolver releases is a hit. My Friend Pedro and Ruiner were two rare misses for me. Even though I thought they had compelling premises and settings, the gameplay simply didn’t deliver. Sadly, I feel the same way about Olija. It’s a game that offers an intriguing world but simply didn’t allow me the time and gameplay mechanics that I needed to fully explore it. As a result, this story of a man stranded in a foreign land after a shipwreck feels like it only skims the surface of its potential.

Olija’s story follows the misadventures of Lord Faraday, a man in charge of a struggling fishing village. He wants to help the starving citizens who are under his care, but unfortunately, he’s flat broke. So, like people who live in port towns tend to do, he gathers some men to set out on an expedition to find food or riches. However, Faraday has absolutely terrible luck as his ship is destroyed by a whale. The ensuing wreckage sends him and his shipmates straight to the bottom of the ocean where they wind up being transported to the mysterious land of Terraphage. Now, Faraday needs to gather up the remains of his crew, find a way to open an ominous locked gate, deal with an unknown entity that’s hunting him down, and do all of this while wielding a magical, cursed harpoon. Oh, and there’s some lady named Olija who may be the key to Faraday’s way back home.

The most striking thing about Olija is its graphical style. If you’re a fan of pixel art, then you’re going to adore this. Everything is pixellated, but animated fluidly which gives it a classic look via modern technology. This gives combat the fast-paced feel that we’ve grown accustomed to while still appearing like it could have run on a Commodore 64. The art style uses a lot of imagery from Japanese and Spanish cultures to create a world that feels familiar yet alien. It also does a great job of setting the tone of the game as the colors are all washed out and pale with subtle shades of purple and pink to simulate the day and night. This use of color helps make the world of Terraphage feel like a flooded land devoid of hope.

The magical harpoon that you come across is what the gameplay revolves around. You can throw it like a spear so that it gets lodged into the many floating eyeballs and surfaces covered in black ooze and teeth. You then warp over to that spot, which is how you’ll traverse many of the game’s levels. It adds a bit of puzzle-platforming to the game as there are secret paths to be found that will reward you with collectibles or your missing crewmates.

Besides teleportation, the harpoon is also good for stabbing enemies. The combat is traditional 2D hacking and slashing like a lesser version of Dead Cells. You’re given a few additional options for fighting off the strange monsters of Terraphage, including a rapier, a crossbow, and a rifle. You can craft special hats using resources found on your adventures that give you abilities that will help keep you alive. There are hats that shoot darts out behind you when you teleport or allow you to generate electricity.

The combat is fast and violent, although it felt a little button-mashy. There didn’t seem to be much strategy when it came to dispatching baddies and the dodge roll felt slow and cumbersome. I was hoping some depth would be added by the gear you find, but I didn’t find most of the tools given to me to be all that handy. The projectile weapons didn’t feel great to fire thanks to a lack of aiming mechanics, and the bonuses from the hats didn’t alter the game in a significant way. I just stuck to the rapier and the hat that would heal me from doing damage as they seemed to be the most efficient at keeping me alive.

Olija can be completed in about three or four hours and that may be my biggest criticism. This game is simply too short. It was mostly developed by one man, Thomas Olsson, and I have to imagine that this project took him years to complete. But for the story that Olija is trying to tell, I don’t feel like there was enough time to develop the characters or world. It looks like Olija is trying to weave a cryptic, fantastical narrative similar to games like Another World while also wanting to give us a romantic fish out of water tale at the same time. It’s possible to tell a story like this in a short timeframe, but the pixel art style doesn’t really allow for subtle, emotional facial expressions and there’s not a lot of dialogue.  As a result, I just couldn’t empathize with the characters of Faraday and Olija as they don’t have the time, visuals, or even words to become fully fleshed out characters. The only character I felt anything for was the guy who drove the rickety boat used to ferry you from island to island as he at least had some sort of personality.

It also negatively affects the gameplay as there doesn’t seem to be enough time to get acquainted with all the weapons and hats. The teleporting harpoon platforming is given more emphasis over the combat which is a shame. As I said, I mostly stuck to the rapier because it was the best all-around stabbing utensil and there weren’t enough opportunities to use the others. There’s also a town of castaways that acts as your base that feels undercooked. It initially looks like the game will have some elements of building up this town to have different benefits or shops. That doesn’t pan out as aside from a pot of food you can heal from and a guy who will slightly increase your health there isn’t much to it. There is a ship you can pay to go out and find resources, although those are only used to make hats, so once you have them all, it’s rather pointless.

There were some technical issues that further hampered my enjoyment of Olija. I experienced quite a few moments where the game would stutter or crash. During some boss fights, the game would completely freeze up. There was one odd bug where instead of showing me the ending cutscene I would just get a black screen with watery sound effects. I thought that the game might have been going for an ending similar to the series finale of The Sopranos, but after a couple of restarts, I finally got to see the cutscene as intended. Hopefully, these problems will be cleared up in a future patch.

I can’t say that Olija is a complete misfire. The way that the characters and enemies are animated in this pixel art style is superb. The world of Terraphage is fantastically bleak and it says a lot that my biggest criticism that I wanted to spend more time there. Unfortunately, the combat mechanics and story lack the depth that I wanted them to have. There are some good ideas here, but Olija is a voyage that ends far too soon.

A PC copy of Olija was provided to TheGamer for this review. Olija is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.

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Jamie Latour is a writer and actor based out of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. From his hyperactive childhood to his….Well, still hyperactive adulthood, he’s been writing and performing in some capacity for practically his entire life. His love for video games goes all the way back to the age of 4, playing Mega Man 3 for the first time on his NES. He’s an avid gamer and can be found nowadays either messing around in Red Dead 2, or being cheap as can be as Reaper in Overwatch. He’s still starting out when it comes to making online content, but aside from his writing he can found on his Twitch page under the handle SpontaneousJames. You can also find him on social media as @SpontaneousJam on Twitter (because Spontaneous James was too long apparently).

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