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If you're after a short and sweet video game that you can knock through over the course of a weekend, Olija is 2021's best option so far. Developed by Skeleton Crew and published by Devolver Digital, this is a fantastically strange 2D platformer that's equal parts action-adventure, hat collection sim, and mini metroidvania.
Olija puts you in charge of Faraday, a captain who finds himself shipwrecked in a strange and inhospitable land while seeking riches to improve the lives of his people - something I wasn't sure the top brass around the world knew was a thing you could do. The core gameplay involves you travelling between islands to explore, fight powerful bosses, and track down items that can open up new areas of previously visited islands. It's fairly basic stuff as far as these things go, but Olija sets itself apart with some slick combat and an otherworldly style that'll make you want to explore every inch of the world to wrestle its many secrets into submission.
Despite the world's simple-yet-striking 16--bit temples, jungles, caves and forests, there's a delightfully believable heft to Faraday and his movements. I was reminded of the original Prince In Persia whenever I threw my hero across a spike-filled chasm or clambered clumsily up a wall. In an age where AAA releases casually crap out stunning-looking platformer segments that feel devoid of any real danger, it's refreshing to see Olija kick it old school and find its peril in something as simple as whether or not the player has miscalculated a jump.
Combat is equally weighty, and hides a surprising amount of depth. Faraday can make use of a variety of tools during scrapes, including a crossbow and sword that can be strung together for combos and multipliers that increase your overall speed. There are also hats that can be crafted using tools found out in the world that grant special abilities, and make you look like one stylish mf. The star of the show, however, is a magic harpoon that you'll find early on in the game.
Like Kratos' Leviathan Axe and Thor's hammer Mjolnir, Faraday's harpoon can be thrown and recalled at any time in immensely satisfying fashion. The added twist is that Faraday can also teleport to wherever the harpoon has landed, making for some excellent environmental puzzles out in the world, as well some incredible frantic combat situations.
While clearing rooms of standard enemies never feels too challenging - I found I could take most bad guys out by stringing together standard and harpoon attacks - the boss battles really demand your full attention. Here you'll learn to use the harpoon as defensively as you usually do offensively, tossing it into the face of a nearby enemy and using its magic to propel yourself away from a powerful boss attack in the nick of time, before dashing back to lay down some punishment on the beast. Learning to combine all of this with your range of secondary weapons can feel a little overwhelming, but stick with it and you'll get the hang of things. If you ever start to feel too overwhelmed, know that there's also a hub island that you can head back to to upgrade your health at any time, so if a boss is giving you too much trouble, simply exploring and upgrading your gear will make things much easier.
I should also add that, like most indies, Olija is a game that refuses to overstay its welcome. You'll have seen everything this one has to offer in under a dozen or so hours, but it uses the time it has to provide an experience that's all killer and no filler, complete with mercifully little backtracking for a metroidvania-style game.
The only real downside is that once you've left the safety of your hub and are out exploring one of Olija's distinctive islands, navigation becomes something of a pain: and all because of the glaring omission of a map. I'm not entirely sure why titles like this and last year's Carrion, which also involves a fair amount of backtracking have started to forgo the inclusion of something as simple as a map... but I wish they wouldn't. It's especially irritating in Olija, given that you're literally playing as an explorer.
But that's a fairly minor niggle in what is, for the most part, a thoroughly enjoyable game that's quite unlike anything I've played in a while. None of Olija's core ideas are particularly original, it has to be said, but it delights in picking the best elements of classic 16-bit adventure games and platformers to produce something stylish, striking, and oh-so strange.
Olija is out January 28th for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Code for review was supplied by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.
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