Faraday, Faraday, gotta get down on Faraday.
Olija is a short, enjoyable experience that never overstays its welcome and provides challenging platforming as well as evocative, bleak art.
Olija begins with the player, a sailor named Faraday, crashing their ship upon a mysterious island. With your crew completely decimated, Faraday makes his way cautiously through the island traversing it’s gnarled rocks and less than friendly inhabitants.
The game’s a platformer reminiscent of early Atari games. While, in reality, nothing this detailed and complex would be possible on the system, it retains the fundamentals of the era’s design choices. Faraday’s face is just a few pixels, but the game juxtaposes this limitation with incredible animation that breathes such life into every character that their lack of facial features is soon rendered irrelevant.
Soon Faraday meets a traveller that is able to take him back and forth across the islands in his small boat, provided you have a map. You travel to those environments, make it to the end of the dungeon and return with a key. There are some light Metroid-vania elements, but the game’s brief length doesn’t leave much room to explore. Combat is satisfying, if very easy. Never more so than when early in the game you’re given access to a harpoon which serves as a platforming tool and a convenient way to liberate enemies from their heads.
It’s very fun, but it ruins the mood somewhat when you began the adventure as a listless sailor desperately trying to survive and rebuild in the foreign land you find yourself in, and then suddenly you’re Scorpion from Mortal Kombat.
The harpoon platforming challenges are fun and never veer into the frustrating, although occasionally the solution seemed to be literally throwing the thing as far off screen as it would go hoping that it’d stick into the correct platformable element. A later boss fight uses the platforming as a key element of it’s challenge and it was my favourite part of the game. It’s a system that’s rewarding to master, even if it never requires the most precise timing.
Later weapons allow for things like electric switch puzzles which are fun the first few times and mercifully stopped right at the moment I was finding them tiresome. The game is incredibly self aware of when you might want to see something new and paces new mechanics and locations out perfectly.
The music in Olija is an incredibly chill mix of slow beats and light strings, it’s eerie and peaceful at the same time, befitting a land where in each new room could hold treasure, or an army of angry locals ridding you from their land. Boss fights pick the pace up a bit, but the atmosphere is never dissolved through bombastic changes in tone.
There’s a very light element of base-rebuilding as when you return to your home island, castaways you’ve found on your travels as well as other NPCs will begin building themselves a new life. It’s not very complex and the number of upgrades you can build is limited, which is a real shame because after I’d completed the last upgrade relatively quickly there was almost no reason to collect the diamonds found in the game’s dungeons. There is an explorer you can pay for a random selection of crafting materials, but it never feels worth it.
With those crafting materials you can take a trip to the hat maker who’ll, shockingly, make you some hats. These have light status effects and can also dictate properties of your weapons. It’s an interesting if shallow system, but to be honest I primarily choose my hat for fashion purposes rather than anything tactical.
The narrative comes to a satisfying conclusion after it’s four or five hour run, but it’s not something that’s going to stick with you for the foreseeable future. I find myself thinking more about the vibe of Olija rather than the game itself. The music will find itself in writing playlists of mine for years to come, but I’d be hard pressed to relay narrative beats outside of the broad strokes.
I love games like this. Short, self contained experiences that know what they want to say and do so without overstaying their welcome. Olija is incredibly successful in this regard. While nothing it does is revolutionary, it’s commitment to atmosphere, enjoyable combat and clever platforming make it a great way to spend a few hours while the rain beats against your window. While I wish the story had been slightly more memorable, the quiet moments sailing slowly with the boatmaster as the strings quietly dance in the background will stay with me for some time.