Olympia Rising

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Paleozoic for PC, Mac, and Wii U, originally released in 2015.
Olympia Rising is based in Greek mythology and stars a young warrior named Iola who lost her life and has been sent to the Underworld. Iola must battle her way up through the many levels of the Underworld, fighting mythical beings along the way – including Cerberus, Cyclops, and Hades himself – in order to make her escape and enter Olympus. In addition, Charon the Ferryman requires payment before he allows Iola to pass through each of the Underworld’s gates, blocking progress into the next level if his purse is not properly weighted.

Each of the themed regions of the Underworld is named for one of its rivers, with the player passing through Styx, Acheron, Cocytus, Lethe, and Phlegethon. These areas are not themed based on their mythological origins, but rather consist of caves, forests, ice areas, and fire areas, per platforming standards. Many of these levels are open and may be freely explored, but often the player must race through vertically-oriented levels and flee a sea of rising acid that spells instant death when touched.

Iola has a 2x nonvariable jump, a double jump that can be initiated from a jump or a fall, and the ability to grab walls and wall jump, and she can jump repeatedly to work her way up any vertical surface. Iola carries a sword that can be swung with a short range while she is standing on the ground, or in a wide arc while she is in the air. Her sword swings are quick, and when jumping, she is able to swing her sword multiple times in the air.

A magic system grants Iola some additional abilities which draw from a magic meter. At the start of each level, the magic meter is empty, and Iola must break vases to collect potions which add to the meter. Once some magic has been collected, the player can double jump and then hold down the JUMP button while pressing in any direction, sending Iola spinning freely through the air – draining her magic meter as she goes – during which time she is invincible.

Aside from the opening tutorial area, this aerial move is not strictly required to complete any of the levels, but it comes in handy when the player needs to move quickly to a high ledge or pass a tough enemy in a narrow passage. Unfortunately, it is possible for the player to accidentally expend small amounts of magic by holding the JUMP button for too long after initiating a double jump.

Other magic abilities are gained by collecting scrolls, each of which grants a magical spell that may be initiated by pressing DOWN and ATTACK, and only one type of magic is available at a time. These spells include Pyr, which casts a continuous spray of flames over a long distance; Hydor, which acts as a shield that prevents any attacks from affecting Iola, but she is not able to move while using it; and a lightning attack, which allows Iola to initiate a stronger and longer-range sword attack, depleting a bit of magic each time it is used.

Progress from one level to the next is made entirely by gathering coins. Coins are dropped from enemies, with a single coin dropped from weaker foes, and several coins dropped from tougher ones. Coins may occasionally be found in vases as well, and there are valuables spread around the levels which have higher monetary values, such as chalices and piles of jewelry.

Even if the player manages to complete the level, he cannot pass into the next without the required number of coins for the ferryman. There is no additional bonus for bringing more coins than are needed, but excess coins do carry over into the next level. However, these extra coins are lost if the player is killed.

In the early going, the player only needs a small number of coins to pass each level, but this number trends slowly upward as the game goes on, resulting in longer levels, and lengthier sections of gameplay where the player needs to stay alive. The player begins the game with three hearts, and a new one is added each time a boss is killed, but getting killed returns the player to the start of the level.

In levels where the player is tasked with collecting hundreds of coins, this can mean a lot of repeated gameplay upon death. Some health can be regained along the way by breaking red vases and grabbing the meat contained within, and full health is restored on level transitions.

The game auto-saves at the start of each level, and the last save may be reloaded from the main menu, but the game also features a password system, allowing players to return to specific levels. Aside from the possibility of carrying over extra coins, there is no gameplay purpose for returning to previously-completed areas. There are more than enough coins in every level to pay your way to the next, provided you take the time to destroy enemies along the way... which becomes more difficult in levels where acid is slowly rising up from below.

Outside of boss encounters, areas are split into two varieties: open exploration levels, and vertical ascent levels. In the former, the player is free to explore the environment – most of which have a number of branching paths – gathering coins and trying to survive long enough to reach the exit. In vertical ascent levels, insta-death acid rises up from below and the player is driven along a narrower branching pathway, attempting gather coins under a time limit. The threat of rising acid requires that players balance fighting enemies and gathering coins versus rushing ahead to avoid the acid and potentially reaching the exit before enough coins have been collected. Unfortunately, the game’s enemy design is not especially conducive to either type of gameplay...

From the earliest levels, players encounter bat-like enemies, and these appear in some form throughout the game, with green bats in the forest, fire bats in the fire area, etc. These enemies are common and may be killed in a single hit.

Early on, the player learns an advanced technique where he is able to chain together multiple midair attacks to wipe out these enemies, with a multiplier adding up on each successive strike and awarding more and more coins. The player can jump and swipe his sword in the air to kill an enemy, at which point he is able to jump again, and he earns another jump with each killed enemy, allowing him to hop from one to the next in a string of kills that results in more dropped coins. However, this technique is never actually required, outside of the final level.

There are enough coins in each level that the multiplier has little benefit, reducing the thrill gained by executing the technique successfully, and eliminating the penalty for missing a chaining opportunity. Additionally, since there are no mid-level checkpoints, level designs do not require players to use this technique to cross long gaps (if they did, the punishment for failing the challenge would be to restart the entire level). There are certainly areas where players can cross gaps with this technique, but falling down just means the player can wall jump back up and continue on his way without penalty.

Throughout the experience, the player does not need to learn new strategies or take advantage of new techniques in order to succeed, which means that later levels don’t get harder; they just get longer. After you successfully jump-slash your way to 60 coins in the first area, you simply need to last longer to get to 250 coins later in the game. Yes, the game does introduce new enemies throughout each themed area, but some of these are problematic as well.

The single-hit bats and other weak enemies support the game’s run-and-slash design, especially in rising acid levels. However, there are a number of other enemies that take multiple hits to destroy, including scorpions, rams, and various floating creatures. Even in early levels, there are enemies like the knight which has an incredibly long reach compared to your tiny sword. He also has a sizeable invincibility period and takes five hits to kill.

Taking on this early enemy is risky, because he can kill you outright, sending you back to the start of the level, or you may take so long fighting him that acid rises up from below and kills you. Even trying to kill the enemy from a safe distance with fire magic takes a long time and drains a significant portion of your magic meter. This means that players will need to avoid instances this enemy altogether, or face him and risk their lives, time, and health for a handful of coins.

This enemy design structure means that the player continuously alternates between quickly slashing single-hit enemies and engaging in lengthy fights with heavy-duty foes. In between are some weaker 2-hit enemies that toss projectiles, but these foes can fire at you from offscreen, potentially robbing you of your precious health.

In addition to these combat complications, there are some platforming problems due to inconsistencies in the design of 1-way platforms. In most platformers, 1-way platforms are visually distinct from solid platforms, either by making them thinner or by having them appear to be made of a different kind of material than the surroundings.

In Olympia Rising, however, few visual cues are offered, and platform types change from level to level. This can be problematic when the player is trying to quickly move up a vertical shaft to escape rising acid, only to find himself bumping up against a solid object that he mistook for a 1-way platform. This is particularly true of the forest area where some tree branches are solid and some are 1-way platforms.

At the end of each themed area is a boss encounter. These are typical of the genre, with hulking beasts or smaller quick-moving foes that put the player’s platforming and offensive abilities to task. Bosses take a lot of hits to destroy, but these encounters generally center around short patterns. Pattern memorization is key, and the only penalty for being killed during a boss fight is a return to the start of the encounter.

However, the player is given very little feedback as to how he is faring during the battle. There is no health meter for the boss, nor any sort of color change indication as its health wears down. When attacking a boss, it merely flashes for a moment and lets off a few small particles to register that a hit has made contact; there is no accompanying audio cue, and the boss does not react to your attacks by getting knocked back or alternating its attack pattern. The boss simply cycles through its attack patterns as if the player were not in the room, eventually exploding when enough damage has been done.

Olympia Rising was developed by Paleozoic, a developer based in Albany, New York. Joe Morrow is credited as the game’s designer and programmer, with design and art by Phil Giarrusso, and music and sound effects composed by Joe Jeremiah, who is known for his A Bit of 8-Bit YouTube series. The game was funded via Kickstarter, and this was the studio’s first commercial release.