Olija progresses screen by screen. There is no scrolling like in most other modern games. Instead, every screen is its own stage; a stage for you to slice, and peculiarly, grapple around. But it's not a grappling hook your hero Faraday is armed with. It's a harpoon. I can't say I've ever played a game where I wield a harpoon, much less one that can hook itself onto conspicuously placed enemies and zip me across a screen.
"The game was not made with the harpoon right from the start," says Thomas Olsson, game designer at the Japan-based development studio Skeleton Crew—though he made the game "mostly" himself. "It was something I found in early research and I think I had a bit too much fun with it. So it became the game's main thing because it was just, you know, it was just too fun to deny."
Olija is an 8-bit action-adventure game, set in the mysterious fictional country of Terraphage. Faraday finds himself shipwrecked here, and as I see in the demo, discovers a possibly magical harpoon. He also meets the mysterious woman Olija, who is introduced briefly at the end of the demo. When it comes to the story of Olija, Olsson tells me it came last in terms of thought in the development process. "The story was kind of made on the fly. It was improvised," he says.
When it comes to making Olija largely himself, that includes the composition of the music. Olsson says it's the most fun part of development for him, "'cause it doesn't feel like work." Collaborators for the lo-fi hip-hop-influenced soundtrack include a local Japanese saxophonist, a shakuhachi player, and even his wife. "I can just start doing it [working on the music for Olija,] and suddenly it's six in the morning and like, 'Whoa, what happened?' It never felt like work to me actually, nor sound design."
As for the major star of Olija: the harpoon acts as Faraday's weapon, but also as a tool for navigation. In fact, it's that very duality that drew Olsson to implement it in the game. Before settling on the harpoon, Olsson explored a spear as well.
Olija may be 8-bit, but it's more fluid than any 8-bit game from back in the day is. When it comes to movement, Olija immediately reminds me of Dead Cells—albeit, with less weapon variety from what I played. Craftable hats, Olsson tells me, will offer more in the gameplay department, as they give Faraday different passive or active powers. "They aren't just cosmetic, though making these hats were much harder than I thought it would," he says. "So I think if I was to make it again, I would probably have them be only cosmetic." The demo, which is a slice of the opening of the game, takes it easy with its combat at first. Then the boss arrives, and all hell breaks loose.
The boss spawns grunt enemies, throws knives, slams down to the ground from up high. Every hit takes off a sizable chunk of the health meter. They do this in such unpredictable order that I was constantly throwing the harpoon to quickly grapple-dodge away from whatever they were doing; unknowing of what would come next. It's, in a word, chaotic. Luckily, in a fun way.
Olsson points to the likes of Moby Dick, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Prince of Persia as primary influences behind the game's darkly nautical atmosphere. Living and working in Japan, he's also seen an unanticipated impact just from working within a multinational team, even if they're largely just aiding in playtesting and giving feedback on Olija in particular.
"[I've] had so much feedback from my Japanese colleagues as well," says Olsson. "And I guess what was interesting is we really don't have the same references, you know? It's like, the Japanese game hype is huge in Western countries, but it's not always the same the other way. And so, [there's] the things for me just made sense, but it wouldn't make sense to them [...] or some very standard platformer mechanics would not necessarily be natural for Japanese players to, or my colleagues, to play with."
Recently, Olija was unveiled during Devolver's Digital Direct. Despite a mix up during the presentation—which stated that Olija would be available that day, when in actuality it only meant the demo—the action platformer nonetheless caught the attention of viewers. When Devolver ended its showcase with the surprise "marketing simulator" Devolver Land Expo, potential players got an opportunity to see a digital expo booth for Olija and other Devolver-published games.
Olsson has nothing but positive words about the collaboration with Devolver for the free Devolver Land Expo game. "They just took our hand and they explained everything, and then they really let us into their super awesome idea of theirs," he says, saying that everytime Devolver followed up with new progress on the project, it was "mind-blowing." Devolver Land Expo is downloadable for free via Steam right now.
As Olija prepares for an eventual 2020 release on PC and Switch, Olsson says the new work-from-home mandate across the world due to COVID-19 hasn't affected his own timeline much. As he describes it, "the very challenging development part of Olija is behind me." Currently he's polishing the game off; fixing bugs, adding music. With summer coming to an end, what Olsson misses most about the now-canceled festivals isn't promoting his game—it's being around others who make games too.
"I didn't get to go to my favorite shows, which are in Asia in Taipei, in Busan, in Korea," says Olsson. "I'm not really a marketing guy. I can't really think about the impact of going to shows and stuff. Like, I just go there to see friends. So I just miss my friends."
Don't we all. Olija is out this year for PC and Nintendo Switch. A free demo is live on Steam now.