Let’s be honest, grappling hooks are mankind’s coolest invention. Self-driving cars may be the future, and the internet is the only reason that I’m able to work for a British gaming website despite living in America, but neither of those things, nor anything else that humans have invented, allow people to scale buildings in the most impractical way possible. Without grappling hooks, Just Cause wouldn’t exist, the writers of Archer would need to find a new plot device and I wouldn’t have disappointing memories of Battlefield Hardline. More to the point of today’s review, though, without the ability to launch a hook-shaped projectile, Olija would be forgotten about quicker than I forget about my deadlines.
In other words, in Olija, you take control of a guy with a grappling hook, or a harpoon gun if you want to be technical about it. Although your character technically has a name, and the game has a plot, neither one of these things really matter. After a brief introductory cutscene, you’re told to go and do the same thing that you do in every 2D action-platformer (that in this case takes place in a distinctly Asian setting). There’s a big door that needs opening, there are keys spread around the world that will open it, and you need to action-platform your way around four hours’ worth of beautifully handcrafted levels in order to find them so you can beat the game.
Although this lack of a distinct narrative isn’t a particularly bad thing, it draws attention to Olija’s gameplay, which works both in favour of the game and against it. The good news is that, at its core, Olija is a decidedly solid action-platformer. Both combat and platforming sections are designed to make use of your harpoon gun, a weapon that you acquire early on which allows you to attach to enemies and objects in the environment alike. During non-combat sequences, you can zip around the incredibly well-designed levels like a ninja while unlocking doors and discovering secrets. When you encounter enemies, you can do the same thing, albeit at the risk of getting killed when you dive feet-first at whichever one of the game’s baddies was unfortunate enough to look distinctly pole-shaped. For lack of a better description, it’s in these moments when the game becomes unique and interesting. Flying around the world like a proto-Spider-Man is something that few games have managed to pull off successfully, and fortunately Olija is one of the ones that does.
The problem is that, when you aren’t using this hook, Olija’s gameplay slows down faster than an 18-year-old who just noticed a speed limit sign. There’s a disappointing amount of time in the game when you aren’t given use of your harpoon gun, be it while in the game’s hub world where you upgrade your health or when you’re waiting around for the boatman that acts as your transportation between levels. Without the harpoon, moving in the game feels slow and sluggish, and although there aren’t many sections of the game that don’t make use of your hook, the ones that do damage the overall experience to a disappointing degree.
Fortunately, they don’t ruin the experience because of the game’s fantastic art style. As mentioned previously, Olija is a 2D indie game, which if nothing else means that it looks and sounds absolutely fantastic. Although it doesn’t manage to be quite as beautiful as some of the other games I’ve played recently, the graphics are strangely mesmerising and tell a story that’s far more interesting than whatever the lack of a cohesive main plot is trying to say. They work well in tandem with the game’s great audio design to make for something that’s genuinely unique and interesting to both look and listen to in a way that perfectly encapsulates why indie games are so great.
It’s with this in mind, then, that it’s fairly easy to recommend Olija. Although the game doesn’t have a particularly strong narrative, it more than makes up for it with an interesting gimmick and solid technical design. The moments when you can’t make use of your harpoon gun are certainly a low point, but because of how good the game looks and because of how fantastic it feels to zip around levels, Olija is a game that anyone who is into artsy Devolver Digital should certainly try.
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