Olija (pronounced o-lee-ya) is a brilliant, swashbuckling adventure swirling in romance and mystery. It follows Faraday and his crew, shipwrecked and trapped in some underworld called Terraphage. It’s a gorgeous mix of peaceful exploration and dramatic action, with tight, fluid combat, and a heartfelt, earnest story. It recalls so many excellent games yet stands out uniquely with its emotive art-style, varied soundtrack, and satisfying gameplay.
Made by Skeleton Crew Studio in Kyoto by a little multinational team headed up by Thomas Olsson, the game explores emotional themes, plays with the player’s expectations, yet never relies on a gimmick. Alongside all its clever elements, it is just so much fun. I’m a big fan.
Story — Romantic Romp
The story opens with Faraday, the lord of a small fishing village, setting out to solve the suffering of his people. In the hunt for a whale, Faraday and his crew are shipwrecked. They sink into this strange land of Terraphage and have to find a way out; or rather you, as Faraday, have to. So, you go out and hunt for your fellow castaways, finding new things along the way. After a little while, you get a camp set up in Oaktide, where you build up a settlement to aid starving castaways. There’s a hatmaker, an explorer, and a strange mystic, all of which support you in your adventure.
As you sail out with your mysterious boatman hunting for a way out of Terraphage, you meet various inhabitants. There are violent local tribes, downtrodden slaves, and strange and varied creatures. You also meet Olija. There is a connection between Faraday and Olija, wrapping this violent tale with a delightfully playful romance. From there, this simple story is told mostly visually, and it goes about how you’d expect.
The real skill in the storytelling here is some of the tricks Olija utilises. I don’t want to spoil anything, but they don’t simply leave the story to the cutscenes. The gameplay is so malleable here that at times it can be a pseudo-walking simulator. It allows the story to silently breathe and open up in a way that is rare to see in a little indie game.
While the denouement of all your trials isn’t the most satisfying part of the game, the whole story flows with a style and gentleness that is incredibly charming. Different characters are voiced with garbled warbles of nonsense (other than the occasional character names which you can make out), giving these characters instant and obvious personalities.
Not only that, but the animation is so gorgeous that they manage to make even the smallest number of pixels highly emotive. I’m a sucker for a heartfelt indie game, but this is something slightly different. It feels more honest than the usual indie darling that crops up — it never feels manipulative, just consistently emotional and oftentimes amusing.
The special thing about Olija (alongside its satisfying, fluid gameplay) is the richness of story and world-building. Little moments you stumble upon that paint a much deeper scene than simply telling you what is going on. The whole space feels fleshed out in every direction, and if you choose to look in those directions you get rewarded with a surprising depth. There is a peaceful generosity to almost every inch of the world.
Gameplay — Slashing Frenzy
This richness extends to the actual gameplay. Alongside combat, there’s really good platforming, simple little puzzles, some rather easy stealth, and a handful of other ways you have to approach levels. Even when it’s not challenging, it’s a really nice change of pace from the frenetic action. When these simpler sections feel a bit too long, the game knows this and gives you a load of enemies and a tricky boss. Nothing actually gets that hard, but the level of challenge feels in sync with its peaceful world and the relative stakes.
You’re introduced to the game with a sort of prologue dungeon, which shows you the world, your character, and basic melee combat. You run around and punch and slash a handful of enemies, spotting these weird eyes sprouting from the ground as you go. For a good chunk of the opening, these just seem like set-dressing, but then you get the harpoon.
The harpoon acts like a grappling hook, and can also be used as a weapon. If you throw it at these sprouting eyes it’ll attach, allowing you to dash towards it. You can also attach it to enemies and a handful of other items, which mixes up combat hugely. The way it helps you traverse areas is instantly satisfying, and that feeling stayed throughout my five-or-so hours of play-time. It reminded me of the strange movement in Dandara, but with the satisfying boomerang effect of the God of War axe as it slashes through enemies on its way back to you.
Alongside your rapier and harpoon, you will eventually get a crossbow, a shotgun, and finally another unique sword. Each weapon adds extra depth to the combat, allowing you to pull-off crunchy combos and watch fluidly animated enemies be dismembered and decapitated in a surprisingly brutal fashion. There are a lot of times when the ranged weapons can feel a bit surplus to requirements, but while utilising them may not feel necessary, it makes the combat a lot more fun.
After you’ve been properly introduced to Terraphage, you can choose where you want to go. The map is split into four sections, and, in each section, there is a handful of locations to go to. Your main destination is the dungeons that hold gold keys. You need them to open doors to the big shining blue keys, which, in turn, unlock the route out of Terraphage.
You can also choose to visit Olija, and these sections serve simply as quiet story moments. The way they parcel these out makes for a really nice break in the mad action of the dungeons. The way you interact with Olija is so playful — and at one point breathtaking — that it allows the story so much more room to become something greater than the sum of its parts.
There are also hats that you can craft at the aforementioned hatmakers. These give you different boosts and make you look pretty nifty. The best thing about these hats is that it isn’t a simple damage or defence boost that you gain, but exciting new combat effects. My favourite was an animal mask that made your harpoon spin around you for a few seconds in a combo. It’s simple and satisfying.
On your third proper outing, you’ll come across a random man in a cage. Rescue him, and he’ll return to Oaktide. This is where you’ll begin to see how much is actually going on. You don’t just go out and fight enemies to find a key to open a big gate; you also return to base camp, talk to people, and fill-out this settlement. This space in Oaktide begins to feel like something out of Kingdom: New Lands, except instead of preparing your settlement for an attack, you’re preparing Faraday for adventure. It makes every achievement in the game feel more tangible when you get to see it at base camp.
In that same area with the castaway, the game shows you even more. If you go through a deep black, misshapen door, you’ll go to a dungeon. But there are also areas outside the black-doored key-bearing dungeon-like areas that are less intense, containing a maze of characters, enemies, different collectibles, and puzzle platforming. It’s so generous and rich, that every corner of the map feels like it needs to be explored. These areas allow you to take your time and not feel too rushed. Soon enough, you’ll always know what you’re getting into.
The visual highlights in combat are always the beautiful, terrifying, and noisy boss battles. They take some serious focus, but never felt like banging my head against a brick wall. Each one is imaginative and exciting to face up to, but there aren’t as many as I would have liked. After beating the final boss, it just made me realise how much more I would love to see.
Visuals & Audio — Bold Beauty
The soundtrack is exceptional, building a rich atmosphere but staying incredibly nimble. It skips from slow, ominous woodwind to rich strings, from creepy pad warbles to skittering sci-fi synths. There’s even a break for some sexy saxophone, with wind chimes and birds chirping in the background. It’s gorgeous, and helps support the many styles that this game showcases both in narrative and in gameplay. The sound design is also wonderful. Every interaction makes a perfect noise, keeping every attack, upgrade, or even just shuffling through a bush satisfying. There are good clunks and clinks to every fall and slash.
The game is also gorgeous to look at. It is initially visually reminiscent of Kingdom: New Lands or Dead Cells, but the art direction is unique, bringing together western and eastern art-styles. The world it depicts is fully-realised, with weird creatures lurking in dark, evil areas, as well as peaceful peoples settling in bright, idyllic locales. This all comes with fluid animation, making everything on screen easy to parse and easy to connect with. This helps the characters feel like people, which is tough to do in pixel art, especially this well.
Everything in Olija is so stylish and heartfelt that it becomes alluring. And the more you see, the more you get. There’s melancholy in coming back to Oaktide, seeing Faraday slumped in a chair, and an attendant commenting on how Faraday has barely touched his food. There’s drama as the screen goes blank, with tiny text announcing some new location you’ve entered. Often there’s beauty, like when dropping a flower on the balcony of Olija’s room, losing your footing, and falling into a bush. These are finely crafted moments, inconsequential to the gameplay but vital to the experience. And what an experience it is.
Olija was reviewed on Nintendo Switch and a code was provided by Indigo Pearl.