January is almost over, and as usual, the big releases have slowed down after the busy holiday season. Hitman 3 was excellent, but other expected games like The Medium and Cyber Shadow didn’t fully deliver. But sometimes a game can come out of nowhere and wow you, and that’s why I’m so excited about Olija from Skeleton Crew Studios. He’s just released this week, and I’ve had a great time with him so far; it combines fast-paced combat, an atmospheric and alluring world, and engaging settlement building to create one of the first big surprises of the year. Here’s why you should check it out.
History and presentation
I haven’t finished Olija, so I can’t speak to the overall quality of the story. However, I am deeply intrigued. The game opens with protagonist Lord Faraday being shipwrecked among the islands of Terraphage on a mission to bring back treasures and resources to his struggling village. His crew is scattered across different islands, which becomes a sort of rescue mission as he explores spooky dungeons in search of them. Before long, he meets frightening monsters with changing shapes and other hostile enemies, as well as the mysterious Lady Olija. I’m not sure what to think of Olija herself yet, but I’m curious to see what her schedule is as Faraday tries to get his crew back and get rid of Terraphage.
If you watch Olija’s animated launch trailer, it’s easy to get offended by her in-game presentation. Of course, it’s not a sleek animated epic, but the pixel art is smoothly animated from in a way that looks like a modern take on the original Prince of Persia. Cutscenes make the most of it with dramatic camera angles and lots of steep cuts to black. In short, Olija has style. There are also plenty of unsettling moments, usually involving the brutal way in which Terraphage’s monstrosites murder or transform their victims. The ominous soundtrack creates a constant sense of eerie unease, which is fitting considering you face some bizarre supernatural forces.
At a glance, you might not think Olija’s fight would be as fun as it is, but it’s a stylish treat. The core of the experience is a magic harpoon used to impale enemies and items, which you can then use as an anchor to teleport to them. It feels great and is extremely useful both as a platforming tool and for closing the gap against ranged based enemies. Additionally, the Harpoon Recall hits anyone caught in its way, like Kratos’ Ax Recall in God of War 2018, creating additional strategy for setting up enemies.
A variety of secondary weapons are fun on their own. Right now I have a rapier that complements the heavier harpoon with quick melee hits. A crossbow dispenses rapid lightning, and a shotgun-like musket fires powerful shots. Sub-weapons can be swapped out on the fly, allowing for a change of fighting style in the heat of battle.
All of this leads to surprisingly smooth and fast fights with an emphasis on combos. It almost looks like a heavily pixelated Devil May Cry at times, especially since you can throw enemies and juggle them through the air. You can also hit enemies in walls or pits. Special hats lend additional abilities such as allowing players to spin the harpoon like a propeller or fire feather daggers while performing dodge rolls. The combat is enjoyable and is probably the strongest aspect of Olija.
Olija isn’t quite a Metroidvania, but the dungeons have a handful of paths that often require puzzle solving and a little bit of backtracking. There are no level cards (at least none that I have found yet), and that might annoy some players. However, although the levels have multiple paths, they are still small enough that I can easily remember where I had been. Teleporting with the harpoon is fun, as is using it to find secret areas hiding collectible bottled ships. There is also an interesting variety, such as an area that requires complete stealth to pass. So far, I haven’t seen any other area that requires this, so it’s cool to see one-off mechanics like this. The traps and various obstacles are fun to overcome, and there are even a few highlight moments that I won’t miss.
Construction of settlements
Settlement building is suddenly raging, and Olija is jumping on the trend with her own vision. Between missions, players return to Oaktide, a port initially in very poor condition. As players locate and rescue their displaced teammates, Oaktide transforms into a bustling port. Eventually, players get a Potions Seeker who can increase maximum health and order a ship to search for treasure, which you will collect on your next visit. Considering the overall somber tone of the game, it’s good to see some hope in bringing teammate after teammate back to Oaktide. I’m a fanatic of building a home base in games, and while Olija isn’t the deepest example, it’s still captivating.
So far, Olija is my favorite game in 2021, and I can’t wait to come back and see how the mystery unfolds. If you want to give it a try, it’s available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC for $ 14.99. Watch us play some of the game’s early hours in this episode of New gameplay today.