Olija, available on PC and every major console now, doesn’t give much away by its title alone. I wasn’t even 100% sure how to pronounce it when I picked up the game for my PS4 Pro earlier today. Luckily, the very first thing you hear upon firing up the adventure-platformer is a deep, growling voice proclaiming the title for you. But that’s about all the hand-holding that this one-man creation will do for you, choosing to throw you into a fearsome and haunting fantasy world that’s as beautifully entrancing as it is deadly.

That hands-off approach to gameplay mirrors the narrative of Olija. The game starts off with a bit of background exposition for your player character, Faraday, a noble who struggles to provide for his people. On a sea voyage gone wrong, Faraday and his crew capsize, and their own personal journey of survival begins. Hard to get all that plot from the title, yeah? But what Olija does fantastically well is hide a bunch of surprises around every corner. Thanks to the solid foundation of fluid character movement and increasingly complex but satisfying combat, those surprises are able to bloom as you take Faraday through the unfolding map of the mysterious island nation known as Terraphage. And despite some missteps along the way, everything that’s already impressive about Olija becomes that much more so when you realize that the whole package was put together by just one creator, Thomas Olsson of Skeleton Crew Studios.

Image via Skeleton Crew, Devolver Digital

Keep that last part in mind as you read this review since the “one-man production crew” facet helps soften the edges of some of the parts of Olija that don’t work so well; they’re few and far between. The most glaring one was a soft-lock bug that brought my progress to a sudden stop when trying to enter a new level through one of the game’s many transport doors. That’s a bummer for the obvious time loss and interruption that took me out of the otherwise compelling and engaging journey, but also because the save states in Olija are a little wonky. The auto save function has a bit of lag to it, something you can use to your favor should you choose to, say, re-roll the treasure brought to your encampment by your hired Explorator, simply by menuing out and back in. More often than not, it means you’ll have to retrace your steps a bit before venturing back out on your journey. That’s about the only technical glitch I ran into. The other strikes come on the artistic front: The music seems to disappear only in certain areas, and the beautifully designed yet minimalist-by-choice character sprites make it a little hectic to keep track of the action when it comes to combat. That’s it though. The rest of Olija is an absolutely delightful gem you won’t want to put down.

The game’s art style is hard to describe but impossible to ignore. Call it 8 bit-chunky or minimalist pixel art, what it is is stylish, especially when it comes to backgrounds, level designs, and the title character herself, a mysterious otherworldly noblewoman who our hero Faraday has become smitten with. While Faraday may look at bit goofy at times — His body seems to widen out when he’s climbing laders, and he has a peculiar strut when in non-combat situations — Olija is endearing; it’s easy to see why Faraday falls for her. Some of the most fun (and the toughest challenges) you’ll have in the game is in avoiding guards to get just one more glimpse of Lady Olija before your paths separate again.

Image via Skeleton Crew, Devolver Digital

But as a swashbuckling hack’n’slash, I absolutely have to mention the combat. It’s fun and flexible, and it pairs well with a unique style of movement tech that feels similar to The Messenger or the Ori games. Olija isn’t quite on that level; it’s more simplistic, with the legendary harpoon doing triple duty as a weapon, traversal mechanic, and utility item for activating switches, etc. However, there’s no real double jump (there’s a bit of a jump/attack combo with a tiny but noticeable height difference, along with damage boosting), no wall clinging, and no slide attacks. The dodge roll, however, doubles as a long jump, which is handy in a lot of situations you’ll find yourself in. Olija packages all of these pieces together for a well-rounded experience for players who seek action, adventure, puzzle-solving, satisfying combat, and the smile-inducing discovery of shortcuts, secrets, and other hidden goodies.

Surprisingly, Olija also offers a bit of base-building and crafting, something I didn’t expect for a game of this nature, especially with its one-man creator status. Granted, those extras aren’t super deep: There’s a milliner who will create variously powered (and stylish) hats for you to wear (paper tigers like me will want to rock the crocodile-skin backwards baseball cap that steals health from enemies, while speedrunners will want the ronin-style hat that boosts attack and speed after successful combos); an alchemist who maxes out your health bar (for a price) and occasionally chucks acid flasks around the premises; and a few other artisans who will dish you a bowl of healing broth or help you replenish your ammo. (Oh yeah, and the weapon variety, while limited, is heckin’ fun to play around with, from rapiers, to crossbows, to shotguns and more.)

Image via Skeleton Crew, Devolver Digital

I was surprised to find myself emotionally invested in these fellow shipwrecked sailors who banded together around Lord Faraday to make a better lives for themselves in this foreign land. It’s heartening to see what’s really a ruin of a beginner base grow and thrive in short order, and it’s lovely to see the romance-at-a-distance blossom between Faraday and Olija, especially through the reactions of those closest to them. It really goes to show the lengths that Olsson went to in order to make Olija a complete game, not a gimmicky one.

While I’ve yet to beat Olija after roughly 6 hours into the game, I feel like I’m a good chunk of the way through it (judging by my rapidly filling inventory and nearly complete map); it’s a little on the easy side and I’ve yet to feel a real challenge so far. Perhaps that will change in the endgame; perhaps a New Game+ will add more lethality to the map. But this diamond in the rough, which you can pick up now for about $15, was a lovely little surprise early in 2021, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for Olsson, Skeleton Crew Studios, and the always-on-target team at Devolver Digital.

Rating: B-

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