Developer: Skeleton Crew Studio
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Steam / GOG / Epic Games / Xbox / PlayStation / Switch

Reviewed on Xbox Series S

The Bottom Line: Horror meets Indiana Jones in this cinematic platformer – an enjoyable journey that doesn’t hit the same highs as the best in its genre.

What is it with opening cutscenes and falling into the sea? Both this game and the last game I reviewed, Embracelet, kick off by tossing their protagonists into the blue. Is there a game-dev deep-plunge challenge I’m unaware of? Or are developers simply feeling particularly asphyxiated these days?

In any case, the opening dive is about the only thing these two games have in common. Olija is a 2D platformer with a smidgen of everything: light puzzles, brutal combat, pixelated cinematics, and a whole lot of undead. But do all these elements add up to something great?

At the start we meet Faraday, the lord of a poor northern fishing village. Facing declining fish catches from the waters nearby and struggling to keep his village fed, he gathers his best men to search for more bountiful seas. Naturally, nothing goes as planned. Faraday’s ship is attacked and he wakes up alone on a mysterious island.

Just another ordinary ladder

At the risk of aging myself out of relevance, I dare say the art style looks very “Atari 2600 in HD” – if Pitfall were a 2020s indie game, it might look and move like this. I also see clear parallels to Another World and Prince of Persia (the 1989 original). The pixel art here, however, boasts far more detail than in any of the above games. Corpses rot in the background, leaves swirl across the screen, and islands scroll past in the distance. Every scene is unique, and as I scaled walls of dead bodies or slunk around the subtle glint of a tripwire, I couldn’t help but appreciate Skeleton Crew Studio’s attention to detail.

Live by the Sword

Combat is also handled reasonably well, especially in terms of feel. Sword and harpoon strikes carry real weight, each blow delivering a palpable impact. Enemies recoil visibly and the controller subtly hums in your hands at precisely the right moment. Having played many games that seemingly wanted to shake the controller right out of my hands, I appreciated Olija’s nuanced feedback.

Feel can only take you so far, though, and the actual nuts and bolts of combat left me wanting. Most enemies can be dispatched simply by spamming melee attacks, and while I certainly enjoyed watching baddies writhe at the tip of my sword, sometimes I wished they would’ve put up more of a fight. Boss encounters are more challenging but only slightly so. Even the final boss was more bark than bite.

Someone sure knows how to tie a strong knot

Platforming and puzzles, likewise, are straightforward. Jumping is forgiving and the game provides aim assist when you hurl Faraday’s harpoon at distant switches and grapple points. Puzzles, meanwhile, are simple affairs. Most take place on a single screen and only involve one or two variables. If you’re a seasoned gamer they won’t give you any trouble at all.

Putting the Crypt in Cryptic

Then again, lack of challenge isn’t always a minus. If we view Olija as a cinematic platformer first and foremost, the game’s low difficulty becomes more forgivable – or does it? While the visuals are impeccable and the atmosphere is genuinely gripping, the story itself is both too intrusive and too cryptic. Many scenes, like the interludes that play as the ferryman carries you to an island, and are unskippable even on repeat trips to the same location. Then there’s the main antagonist, who would be mysterious and menacing if only he didn’t insist on soapboxing like an anime villain after every major milestone.

This guy is bad

Yet despite all the effort and care put into the narrative, by the time the end credits rolled I still felt unclear about the true nature of the story. But that’s not to say that more clarity would’ve been the answer. In fact, I wonder how the game would’ve turned out if the developers had cut out most or even all of the narration and relied more heavily on visual storytelling.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a quality game and I most definitely enjoyed my time with it. But it’s hard to play Olija without thinking that it could’ve been even better. A few tweaks here and a bit of magic there are likely all this game needed to jump from good to great. As it stands, however, Olija is competent in every respect but lacking that standout feature that could really push it to the front of the pack.

Rating: 80 of 100 Pixels