El Hijo – Game Review

El Hijo is a very casual, charming, non-violent stealth game about a young boy, El Hijo, trying to find his mother after their farm gets torched by outlaws and she leaves him in the monastery. In a true mischievous spirit, and probably fed up with the monks, El Hijo decides to bust out and go look for her.

But he seems to have bonked his head on a candelabra in the monastery and is a bit woozy for the rest of the game, with the controls aptly simulating that.

It’s an undoubtedly beautiful game. Honig Studios crafted a visually arresting Wild West, borrowing liberally from spaghetti westerns. From austere monastery walls to the drunken saloons, you’ll feel the essence of the West. But, instead of guns and dollars, you get a fistful of rocks and fireworks.

Lovely Morricone inspired soundtrack will follow your wanderings and chases through all the locations.

The story is heartwarming, but very sparse, simple and not especially emotional. There are no high risks, hazards and gambles here. It’s told through a few cutscenes where the terrific art style takes over in showing the relationship between mother and son.

The main gameplay of El Hijo is stealth from a locked isometric perspective. And it’s very easy going and forgivable. As long as you’re in shadows, you can stand inches from someone and he won’t spot you. There are no direct combat options, you don’t get to shoot or punch anybody.

Your arsenal is a mixture of children’s toys and nature’s bounties in the form of pollen sacks. There are no shoot outs or teleportation powers if you mess up, you just get sent back to the last checkpoint. There is a cardboard box though, taking the form of a giant sombrero hat you can use to hide in plain sight.

Gameplay

There are 29 levels of slinking and tiptoeing past monks, bandits, soldiers and coyotes by using shadows, hiding in pots, coffins and using all your distraction tools. The levels are puzzles more than free stealth environments, and there’s usually only one “right” path. It’s not that you can’t take different paths, it’s just that they’re much harder and usually annoyingly so.

And this game’s grim collectibles, enslaved children that you can inspire and rouse from their fate in chains, are usually at the ends of those other paths. 

You can use a small bird to zoom out your vision and check your surroundings better, but it’s not enough to form a clear path to the end of the level. Enemies can’t be incapacitated, only distracted and temporarily stunned in later levels. You can also see the precise sightlines of the enemies, removing some of the guesswork.

The levels are still a matter of trial and error. The enemy AI also seems slightly inconsistent, sometimes following you for a long time, sometimes forgetting about you the instant they spot you.

Controls

Controls and the responsiveness are the biggest pitfalls here. They’re very imprecise and occasionally just don’t work. I’ve had El Hijo stuck on scenery numerous times, got him in a weird ladder loop animation, and managed to get out of bounds on one map and had to restart the entire level.

Crouch controls are the worst. At best, they take a few seconds to register, at worst, they don’t register at all, button prompts just not appearing. Aiming is also wide of the mark, at times taking a few seconds to trigger and having problems properly showing you where you’re aiming. I’ve thrown pollen sacks and shot rocks at chandeliers and barrels, and yet, the game was telling me I was aiming where I wanted to.

All those hiccups weaken the entire game since they’re often the only reason you’ll get caught. You could argue that the game compensates for that by being forgiving, but that does not in any way diminish the poor controls and the annoyance of having to restart a checkpoint for the umpteenth time because the button prompts failed to appear or register. All those issues can probably be patched, but for now they’re a flaw.

Summary

El Hijo has a lot of heart and warmth, there’s no confusion there. Enslaved children seem like a miss, not because that shouldn’t be shown, but because it comes off as tacky and a bit distasteful, passing them off as collectibles, in a mostly cheerful game.

The poor controls and the 19,99€ price tag for a 6 hour game with no need for replayability don’t help much in recommending it. Wait for a sale if you’re interested in some non violent sneaking and don’t mind the control issues.

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