Once More Into the Breach
I’ve been eager to write this review for a while. As I said in my earlier preview coverage, Olija is a strange, fascinating, and compelling tale. There’s so very much that Skeleton Crew Studio gets right, so I can see why Devolver decided to help publish it. And yet, for everything Olija does well, there’s one cardinal flaw – the adventure is over far too soon. Keep on reading to see if you feel that this game full of monsters, mystery, and beautiful women is still worth the price of admission.
The Twisted Terraphage
As I said in my preview coverage, Olija revolves around a shipwrecked captain named Faraday. He and his mates are lost in the strange realm of Terraphage, and they are eager to escape. Many of your crew has been kidnapped, though, so it’s up to you to rescue them. I didn’t actually manage to find them all in my time with the game, but luckily the game didn’t hold that against me. Ultimately the story is about finding all three spectral keys to open Shadow Gate, and thus escape back to your world, which is a good idea since Terraphage is full of inhuman horrors.
Fancy Hats Are All the Rage
When you aren’t sailing about looking for keys and magical artifacts, your HUB area is Oaktide. It’s a small settlement cobbled together with wood from other shipwrecks. It’s that sort of attention to detail that really impressed me about the game. Everything is there to affect you emotionally or bind together the tapestry of this strange world. As for Oaktide itself, while there, you can recuperate, healing your health, as well as a few other tasks. You can pay money to a man to scavenge supplies for you, or talk with fellow castaways. Perhaps the best use of your time is to visit the hat shop. I know, I was skeptical too, but this is no ordinary shop. The owner is one of the first characters you’ll rescue in your adventures, and his hats are magical in nature. Some will turn into darts and attack foes, some will make you immune to acid, and a whole host of other options besides. I only managed to gather enough materials to craft a handful of hats in my time with the game, but each one served a distinct and helpful purpose. However, if you’re a purist, you can always go hat free to beat the game without any advantages.
Powerful Weapons and Hideous Monsters
As you play the game, you’ll come across maps that open up new areas to explore. The world map shows primary items that can be found in areas, such as keys. It won’t necessarily tell you things like where your crew is hidden or if a powerful artifact is close. You’ll eventually find a handful of secondary weapons to make the game easier – a pistol, a shotgun, a fencing sword, and something called the Moonblade. The latter is nearly as powerful as your main weapon, the cursed harpoon. Both the harpoon and Moonblade allow Faraday to draw them to him from a distance and teleport towards them. Also, the Moonblade can be plunged into switches to keep doors open, and even lights up dark alcoves. That last capability is put to good use in one pitch black area full of monsters and curious machinery. Altogether I appreciated how all the weapons allowed me various ways to play, though I mostly stuck with the harpoon, Moonblade and fencing sword. Mostly cause they struck faster and hit harder in most cases. Not to mention they had unlimited uses, while both guns required a steady source of ammunition on hand.
I Hope You Like Horror
Though most of the game is exploring, fighting monsters, and returning to Oaktide to heal, there are also some stealth segments in the game. These mostly revolve around breaking into Olija’s compound. I wasn’t clear what was happening at first, but eventually realized I couldn’t fight my way through them. You’ll have to help Faraday hide, scampering about when guards aren’t looking your way. Though that might frustrate some, you’ll be rewarded for finishing these segments with key items you need to proceed. As an added benefit, all your interactions with Olija bring her and Faraday closer, eventually culminating in a romantic moment. I thought she was a good foil to the shipwrecked captain, though I do wish I knew more about both characters. Especially since the entire game is named after her.
Plenty of Mystery
Honestly, the lack of clarity was something that tore at me. On the one hand, I understand Olija is supposed to be about discovering things for yourself. After all, it’s a game about being shipwrecked in a strange country. And sure, the mystery is part of what makes the game so unique. But I would have killed to find some hidden ruins that revealed more details about Terraphage, or a scroll or two making it clear why Olija herself was initially captured. I especially wanted to know more about the Rottenwood clan, and the background of the twisted god, Yellow Cloak. The game does have some cutscenes that are nominally supposed to illustrate key details, but more often than not they weren’t quite clear enough for my tastes.
Clever Puzzles and Tricky Artifacts
Despite those concerns, I really do enjoy the loop of Olija. The gameplay is frantic and fast-paced and doesn’t require perfection to succeed. I used a 360 controller to play it, and it was quite intuitive. X is your primary weapon, Y is secondary, B throws the harpoon and lets you teleport towards it, A is your jump, while the right trigger does a dodge roll, and left trigger switches your secondary weapon. It’s simple, but nuanced enough to keep things fresh. Most battles against basic foes are over quickly, but boss fights will get your blood pumping. The vast majority of the bosses are demonic entities, though a few are altered humans. One notable boss, Tam’Tak, looks totally normal at first, but quickly transforms. Whenever you damage him enough, his twisted form spits out the human component, giving you a few moments to slash him before he reintegrates. All the boss fights are pretty great, even if they are over a bit too soon.
Who Likes Spiders?
This brings me to one of the pleasant surprises about Olija. Though I knew it was a mysterious game, I didn’t expect it to be a horror game. There’s some truly monstrous entities you’re up against, but perhaps the best example was in one area full of Lost Ones. These washed out, soulless vessels were once human, and generally are pretty docile whenever you encounter them. After I got past them, I found a key. The moment I grabbed it, the Lost Ones turned on me, groaning loudly in dismay and then rushing to attack me. They hurled stones, leaped upon my back, and tried their best to stop my escape. They actually succeeded the first time, leaving me quite anxious. Though that’s perhaps the best example, there are other horrifying moments, many of them involving Yellow Cloak. He delights in his cruelty, and his amorphous form is more than capable of twisted acts of madness. Though you only fight him a couple of times in the game, he’s constantly hounding you and making things more dramatic. And he only gets more deranged the farther you get in the story.
Visually, I really was impressed by Olija. It may not look like much at first, but there’s a fluidity here that defies expectation. I especially loved the menacing designs of the foes you face. The hanging eyeballs, tooth-filled blobs, and demented soldiers of the Rottenwood clan. But as much as I enjoyed the artwork, it’s the sound design that truly impressed me. The music matches the intensity and emotions of the game, and it really drew me in. There’s lots of quasi-Spanish notes, not unlike the intensity of a bullfight. I even liked the gibberish language spoken by the castaways, which sounded like some sort of pidgin Spanish. I especially appreciated their cheers for Lord Faraday whenever I returned to Oaktide. But perhaps my favorite was the guttural, twisted intonation of Yellow Cloak whenever he speaks. This game really highlights developer Skeleton Crew Studio’s artistry and makes me excited for whatever they create next.
Love in a Lost World
Now, unfortunately, we come to the negative portion of this review. Put simply, Olija is too damn short. I managed to beat the game in about 4 hours, and confirmed with the PR that there are no alternate endings. I’m really torn here, cause while that might not sound so bad, I was just getting lost in the realm called Terraphage before the credits suddenly rolled. The game does so much right, it just astounded me it was over so quickly. In my preview, I said Olija could be a Metroidvania, but even the shortest of that genre is at least 8-10 hours long. And sure, there are a few achievements I didn’t unlock, but that’s still pretty barebones. Though this didn’t ruin the experience, it definitely kept me from rewarding it with a higher score.
A Brief, Albeit Delightful, Excursion
Overall, I’m still quite pleased I got the opportunity to review Olija. Devolver has a knack for publishing quirky and unique fare, and that tradition continues here. I just wish it wasn’t so short. Because the world of Terraphage is a fascinating one, and I really wish I could have gotten more lost in it. But those complaints aside, this is still a very solid game worth checking out. Here’s hoping the next project by Skeleton Crew Studio is a bit more robust.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: Steam (reviewed), PS4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One; Publisher: Devolver Digital; Developer: Skeleton Crew Studio; Players: 1; Released: January 28, 2021; MSRP: $14.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.