Olija is, at its simplest, an action-platformer with a harpoon that lets you grapple up to different areas. If you played the fantastically dynamic Flinthook – or you've used Zelda's Hookshot – then you'll recognise the mechanic: shoot hook, dash to hook, repeat. The harpoon can (and should) also be used as a weapon, alongside a host of secondary weapons that you unlock as the game progresses.
The enemies you'll be slaying come in a few different forms: slimy things with gaping jaws that mostly exist to be batted out of the way; human-shaped enemies with bows and swords; and bosses, who have various powers to whittle your health down quicker than you can say "call me Ishmael".
Olija's main character is Faraday, a man who lost everything in a shipwreck and finds himself marooned on this limbo-like island, helped by a mysterious sailor and a weirdo who is more than happy to sell hats to you. Upon finding a (maybe magical?) harpoon, he seems to awaken a curse that has gods and monsters alike chasing after him. One day, he meets the Lady Olija, and finds himself entranced by her, but she is whisked away by her attendants and guards, and Faraday finds he needs to see her again – whatever the cost.
Most of that story, however, was learned through the various trailers and the game's website. Olija's tale is a little hard to follow while playing – it's obscured by poetic dialogue and chunky cutscenes. Pixel animation is not always the easiest to decipher, especially at a resolution this low, and even more so when played on handheld mode.
Olija's aesthetic style is both its greatest asset and its biggest weakness. Although the pixelated graphics convey little in the way of detail, the colour palette and the animation are more than enough to carry through a lot of the narrative and the horror without being too explicit – which makes it even more creepy. However, the enemies are all similar colours, similar styles, and similar sizes, making it really hard to differentiate between the types. In an action game, there's often a "brute" of some kind that you want to take down first, since they deal the most damage, but when they're all angry orange pixel blobs, it's a little more of a crapshoot.
Moreover, the items and unlockables are near-impossible to understand, sometimes. One thing might clearly be a necklace, but another is only obviously a music box because there is literally music coming out of it. It doesn't hugely matter that you can't quite parse things, but it does feel like you're watching a movie without your glasses on. The aesthetic is certainly a choice, and a brave one at that, but it doesn't always pay off.
There are a few redundancies in the design, too. The money you get from breaking boxes and slaying enemies can be spent on health upgrades and hats, but you'll quickly find that you've bought them all not that far into the story. The hats you can purchase give you small upgrades, like the ability to regain health every time you hit an enemy, but some of the hats' abilities feel a little too specific to be of much use, and there are only a handful of them to choose from, anyway. Recovering health is quite a bother since it's limited entirely to finding healing items in levels or, better, a magic pool to drink from. There's no agency for the player to decide when to heal, making some fights more difficult than they need to be.
Still, there's a lot to be impressed with in the way Olija chooses to tell its story. There are times when it feels like watching that unnerving sea-madness movie, The Lighthouse, in the way the dialogue appears, the abrupt cuts to black, or the enforced walking sections that create tension and drama (even if they are annoyingly slow). All the characters seem either a little bit unhinged, or completely soulless, resigned to their depressing fate. The music is booming, strange, and unsettling, with the occasional raspy voice whispering Olija to send shivers down your spine. Occasionally, it feels like the sense of mood is prioritised over making the story easy to follow – but hey, The Lighthouse did the same thing. It comes with the territory.
The platforming, much like Flinthook, is wonderfully fast and dynamic, with plenty of secrets to find once you understand how the world works. Extra mechanics, like the ability to carry an electrical charge inside the harpoon, can be fiddly to get right, but there's usually not much of a penalty for having to try again. The combat is fun enough, with secondary weapons including a rapier, a gun, and a crossbow, all of which change up fights in interesting ways. Later on in the game, it gets really puzzley, and while the puzzles are very light in difficulty, they're entertaining and interesting nonetheless.
Most of the levels end in a boss fight. There are powers and beings on these islands who do not agree with Faraday having the harpoon, for various reasons, and they will attempt to kill you. The boss design is nicely varied, but because the combat abilities are so limited – it's quite a small game in terms of unlocks – it can quickly get repetitive and boring. Faraday isn't really built for doing big damage, so the boss battles often consist of a lot of dodging, and getting a small hit in where you can. The boss arenas, much like the rest of the levels, are extremely wide but not very tall, making it difficult to get much movement in. Still, the boss battles can be pretty fun – they just might be more fun with more options.
In some ways, Olija is incredibly tight and well-designed. It's a game with a specific, small scope, and the limited number of weapons, levels, hats, and enemy types are all a part of that. It's not bloated, and it's not over-compensating – it knows what it wants to be, and it achieves it in a few hours of game time. It would be pointless to wish for more when its entire design wants to be compact. Still, there are moments where its design doesn't quite have the impact it perhaps hopes for. Because the harpoon is powerful, fun, and downright cool, the hats and the secondary weapons tend to feel a bit like being offered fast food for dinner when you just had wagyu beef for lunch.
Olija is a piratical adventure that really, really pays attention to atmosphere. From its bombastic music, which echoes similarly pirate-themed Return of the Obra Dinn, to its arthouse-cinema-style sudden cuts to black, Olija is possibly the most cinematically dramatic indie game we've seen in quite some time.