Revealed during the Devolver Showcase, Skeleton Crew Studio's Olija is set to launch for PC and Nintendo Switch later in 2020. A demo is available now on Steam, giving you a slice of its 2D action to try ahead of its release. Before its reveal, I had the chance to dive into the game with an exclusive demo for GameSpot, learning about it's crunchy combat, ambiguous and mysterious themes, and the cursed harpoon at the center of it all.
Olija is a 2D action platformer with equal measures of fast-paced combat and small but clever puzzles. Core to both is your main weapon, a cursed harpoon that you can throw in any cardinal direction with a button press and return to your hands with another. Your harpoon can lodge itself in the guts of enemies and certain points of the environment, letting you pull off a quick and satisfying dash to its position.
It feels great to chain together throwing and recalling the harpoon as your soar through the air, and the game encourages you to get comfortable with it. Early enemy encounters are limited to just a few foes at a time, but as you progress, they become more complex ballets where you have to balance positioning and aggression in equal measure. Groups of enemies will quickly overwhelm and kill you, but using your harpoon to fling yourself to a distant enemy--both giving you space and letting you kill them off effortlessly--feels incredibly satisfying.
Complementing your main harpoon are a handful of secondary weapons that you're free to cycle through once unlocked. They range from a lightning-fast rapier to a crowd-controlling crossbow, letting you swap from fast close-quarters combat to ranged options with a bit more space between you and danger. You can also equip different hats after you've crafted them to add unique abilities to your repertoire, including resistances to hazards like acid or adding a flurry of damaging slashes to each of your dashes.
Olija's combat makes you feel every attack, with each landing with a weighty feel and a slight pause on connection to add some emphasis. It's effortless to swap between your weapons as you zip across the screen, making your aerial death-dealing look as stylish as it is effective. It took some time for the challenge to necessitate some of the more impressive routines I eventually got comfortable with, but once Olija struck the right balance between the two it made it difficult to not look forward to the next beg combat arena to flex my skills again.
Interspersed with combat are some small but smart puzzles, some of which are required to progress while others are optional. Many build on your understanding of the harpoon, encouraging you to think of different ways to use the tool across multiple screens. For example, one door linked to a timer required me to leave the harpoon stuck near it before venturing off to flip its switch, letting me dash towards to from another screen entirely and sneak under the falling stone slab blocking my way.
Later, the harpoon gained the ability to conduct electricity too, tying in with puzzles where you have to navigate half-flooded stages while protecting the weapon's charge for a door switch found later in the level. None of these puzzles forced me to pause for too long in search of a solution, but executing the steps still let me zip around each screen with an enjoyable sense of momentum.
Olija features a structure that lets you play some stages in different orders, but each one contains an item required to unlock the next big portion of the map. Returning to the settlement I established near the start of my preview, it was rewarding to see how each new venture helped it grow from a dreary and hopeless abode to a bustling hive of activity, with merchants, jolly sailors, and men for hire. How this settlement will ultimately fare with the monarch who rules over it, and what becomes of it when protagonist Lord Faraday leaves back to the impoverished nation he was trying to save, are questions I found myself asking when confronted with the strange lore Olija presents, including with thematic stylings of an inescapable purgatory and a secret waiting to be unraveled at its core.
Those mysteries, complemented by the engrossing combat and puzzles, are what made me want to play more of Olija. It's a game that might be visually difficult to pick apart from the peers it wants to hang alongside, but the pace of its action and the allure of its world differentiate it enough that it's difficult to see it as just another one of those 2D pixel platformers. That, and the harpoon is just such a satisfying weapon to wield.
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