For Thomas Olsson of Skeleton Crew Studio, Olija is a very personal project. It’s a game about being a foreigner in a strange land, drawing from his own experiences as a foreigner living in Japan—an experience that can be exciting and awe-inspiring, but also lonely. Olija may take a swashbuckling approach with plenty of sword-fighting and a magical harpoon, but at its core, it’s a game about the isolation that comes with being somewhere unfamiliar.
Like most castaway stories do, Olija starts with a shipwreck. Captain Faraday and his crew, out searching for a way to help their poverty-stricken village, get caught in a storm and wash up in a strange island country called Terraphage. It’s a hostile place full of strange creatures and unfriendly locals, but Faraday at least finds friends on an old boatsman and a small community of fellow castaways.
Not one to rest idly, Faraday sets about to find a way to get back home—but the only way out is through a giant gate, the three keys to which are lost around the islands of Terraphage. As luck (or fate) would have it, Faraday finds himself in possession of an ancient harpoon spoken about in Terraphage legend, which proves to be the key to exploring this dangerous land and braving the many threats that call it home.
But despite this pulp adventure premise, Olija isn’t some high-energy, comical adventure. There’s a constant sense of sorrow and isolation that pervades the whole game; Faraday isn’t some wise-cracking adventurer, but a tired man who’s wrung-out and doing whatever he can to hold on and keep going. Even when he’s not being outright attacked by gruesome creatures, Faraday and his fellow castaways are the subject of scorn and ridicule from the local people.
This melancholy atmosphere comes through every aspect of the Olija, but none more than its lo-fi pixel art style. It eschews the bright colours and detail of your typical pixel art game for something more akin to the likes of Another World and the original Prince of Persia: deliberately devoid of detail in a way that both allows imagination to fill in the blanks and emphasises the sense of isolation, set against a backdrop that has moments of true beauty but is mostly dark, bleak, lifeless.
But not all hope is lost. Olija isn’t just a game about being stranded in an unfamiliar place, but also about taking warmth and comfort wherever you can find them, and maybe even finding a way to call that once-unfamiliar place home. I don’t want to give too much of a genuinely poignant ending away, but suffice to say there’s more to the people of Terraphage than first meets the eye, and more to Faraday, too. What starts as a desperate quest for survival and escape morphs into something more complex, and builds to a bittersweet, beautiful conclusion.
Most of this journey is played out through platformer-style exploration of Terraphage’s different islands. While there are plenty of enemies to fight, exploration and puzzle-solving is the main focus, driven mostly by the mystical harpoon that Faraday carries: when thrown at certain targets, it allows him to teleport to its location, bypassing rocks, solid walls, chasms, and whatever else might be in the way. Most puzzles, then, involve zipping around between different targets, trying to create line of sight (for throwing the harpoon) by activating switches or breaking destructible barriers—it’s a simple concept on paper, but one that Olija carries in many different satisfying directions.
A few upgrades expand Faraday’s puzzle-solving and exploration capabilities. A sword found early on lets you cut ropes in order to drop progress-blocking wooden cages to the ground, shattering them in the process. A repeating crossbow comes in handy for shooting things from afar. An electrical charge for the harpoon lets you activate electrically-powered switches, so long as you can find a way to carry and/or throw the charged-up harpoon from a generator to the switch without touching water along the way.
While puzzles are the main focus, combat is still present and plentiful in Olija. Armed with a throwable harpoon, a rapier, and a few other weapons you pick up along the way, Faraday is a capable fighter—translating into fast-paced, combo-heavy encounters. Often, small enemies attack in large groups, but there are others—bosses, primarily—that emphasise harpooning around the space to avoid attacks or light puzzle elements to create openings to attack. In all these cases, Olija‘s combat comes with an acrobatic quality. Faraday may be tired, but he can be nimble when he needs to be.
But even with this sort of energetic combat, the melancholy in Olija is pervasive—deliberately so. The fights, frantic as they are, carry a sense of desperation, of fighting for survival. That isn’t to say Olija is excessively difficult, because it’s not really; rather, the animations, the grim enemy designs, and the scrappy nature of each fight all work to build and enforce that sense of desperation, even without needing to dial up the game over stakes for the player.
It’s that melancholy feeling that pervades every aspect of Olija that makes it so effective. This is a game about being lost, about being isolated, about being a stranger in a strange land where you looked down upon even when you’re not being outright attacked. It’s bleak, powerfully so. But it’s also a game about hope: a game about finding your own place even in such hostile and lonely world, and about how, sometimes, the most foreign land imaginable can end up being the place you call home.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.