There are plenty of great 2D action games about exploring dark, mysterious worlds. Think Hollow Knight, Dead Cells, or anything inspired by Castlevania. Aside from similar themes, these games have something else in common: they’re almost always incredibly hard. Olija goes in a different direction. It still takes place in a world full of terrors to fight and secrets to uncover, and it features fast-paced action with lots of interesting weapons. But it’s also much more approachable. I wouldn’t call it easy, but it’s satisfying without being frustrating. You get the same haunting vibe without all of the stress.
In Olija, you play as a man named Faraday whose ship crashes in an incredibly cursed part of the world called Terraphage. He has two main goals: rescue his fellow castaways and get the hell back home. Terraphage is made up of a series of islands, and the game mostly involves traveling to each one to find survivors and gather up maps and keys that let you explore more islands. You’ll even build a small town, which grows as you rescue more people.
The main twist on Olija’s action is a magic harpoon that lets you zip around; you simply throw it at something, and you can teleport to its location. You can use this to warp across broken bridges or land a devastating attack on a faraway enemy. The side-scrolling action is fluid but has a nice weight to it, with every jab of the spear resulting in an upsetting spurt of blood. You can also mix things up as you unlock secondary weapons like throwing knives and a shotgun.
Most of the regular enemies aren’t particularly tough, so I never really had much trouble slashing my way through hordes of undead workers or one-eyed monstrosities. But the fast-paced action and satisfying weapon meant that it was still fun. That level of challenge rises considerably when you hit the bosses, however; sometimes it can feel like a sharp difficulty spike. But once I learned the patterns — which took a few deaths in most cases — I was able to get by no problem.
This all may make Olija sound like a fairly standard action game, but part of what makes it work is the vibe. The world is like a cross between Lovecraft-style ancient terrors and Japanese folklore, and — despite the fact that dialogue is minimal — it’s full of interesting characters. My favorite is a musician who seems to appear at random, doing things like playing music for a “lonely tree,” but I also love the boatman who silently takes you where you need to go. The one trade-off is that Olija is smaller in scale compared to similar games; it won’t take as long to beat as something like Dead Cells, nor does it have the same kind of replayability.
The developers were able to use the familiar side-scrolling format to create some truly incredible scenes. There’s a terrifying escape when you’re charging out of a cave while zombie-like creatures latch on to you, and another sequence where you have to fight screaming horrors in complete darkness. Perhaps my favorite is a stealth mission where the end goal is to deliver a flower to the region’s queen. Despite being a game about exploring darkness, Olija also has plenty of warmth. I loved the comfort of returning to town after fighting through a dungeon so that I could talk to the townsfolk or slurp down some health-replenishing stew.
Really, Olija is proof that you can have a tense and satisfying action game without a punishing level of difficulty. Its harsh world made me feel uncomfortable — but it never made me mad.
Olija is available today on the Nintendo Switch, PC, Xbox One, and PS4.