- Developer: Honig Studios
- Publisher: Handy Games
- Release Date: 25/03/21
- Price: £17.99 / $19.99
- Review code provided by Handy Games
Introducing: El Hijo Review
El Hijo is brought to us by German developer Honig Studios, previously known for their app and website design as well as interactive comics and storybooks. This game appears to be their first attempt at breaking ground in traditional console games, while also fitting in with their previous works. Aside from the well-documented indie game formula of a small child with a big head in a scary world, we have a modern example of a Spaghetti Western here too.
Not to be confused with the film of the same name
You play as a child separated by his mother and on the run from desperados, marshals, and worshippers of the Illuminati. At least, I think that was what they were. El Hijo contains no dialogue and exposits its story through voiceless animated cutscenes and occasional scripted events with NPC’s. This makes some sense, because the titular main character and his mother are unlikely to speak fluid English. It also allows you to piece together how a few key events happened to take place if you paid close enough attention. The story is minimal but effective enough at establishing your role in the world and your reasons for wanting to progress.
The Silent Stranger
El Hijo claims to be a nonviolent stealth game, and I found that it lands closer to the puzzle genre because of it. The player is tasked with guiding a small, helpless child through environments teeming with many adults hailing from different factions, all of whom will catch you on sight and send you back to a previous checkpoint. Darkness is your greatest ally from start to finish as it conceals you entirely from their vision cones. You are meant to always keep track of your enemies’ vision, and it is made visible with your character’s ability to stand still and release a bird, who flies above you and makes sightlines and interactive objects visible.
The main gameplay loop involves darting from safe point to safe point. Along the way you also find multiple toys which aid you in your journey, and many objects in the environment are also used as assets to avoid being seen. The environments tend to alternate between light and dark, with light being open areas you run through quickly to avoid being seen altogether, and dark levels being more methodical brainteasers with new mechanics to learn and difficult narrow gaps in vision cones to navigate. There was also one level that stood out for lacking any enemies and only tasking you with avoiding a sandstorm by slowly and arduously advancing and waiting for the winds to die down, I wished they left that one on the cutting room floor. Overall though, I admired how every environment was constructed just like real locations, with attention given to the size and purpose of every room and facility. That is a quality I always love to see in level design.
Honig Studios’ background in illustrative design and storytelling is vividly clear to see here. Not only does the choice of color present a stylized image of the southwestern United States, but the contrast of palettes between lit spots and shadowed margins is an excellent visual aid for the stealth gameplay. There is a solid artistic cohesion between hand-drawn cutscenes and cel-shaded environments and people, with a brushed storybook style to boot.
The audio is appropriately unobtrusive for a stealth game, with more bombastic music sectioned off into cutscenes and sound effects seldom puncturing the low-level ambient sound. The exception is the main characters’ birds-eye view ability, which bafflingly makes a shrill bird song play every single time you press the button for it. The player will inevitably use this ability several times per minute on average while avoiding being seen and heard, and the sudden loudness felt unnecessary and jarring.
The Handsome, the Ugly, and the Stupid
The technical side of things is where the Nintendo Switch port stumbles the most. Honig released this game for several platforms almost simultaneously and it shows. Even though the art style is cel-shaded and makes use of flat colored textures, compromises were made with removing effects like ambient occlusion (used to create more natural shadows around edges and gave the environments a softer look). Alas, it still was not enough.
The first thing in gameplay one will notice is the poor performance while using the birds-eye view. Although it only zooms out a modest amount, it can instantly tank the framerate and stay notably choppy while you attempt to survey the level and pan the camera. If that was not distracting enough, in more populated levels all currently playing sound effects skip and repeat themselves, which is not ideal in a minimalist soundscape to say the least. This is an ability you will be using multiple times per minute, so it can be a rather large distraction.
The loading times are conspicuously long, I timed bootup at 57 seconds and an early level load at 28 seconds. This may not sound so bad, but the game also tends to randomly crash when you least expect it. The game uses a checkpoint system to save your progress and will remember all the collectibles and items you found, but every time it crashes, you need to start the whole level over again. One level crashed more than once and left me paranoid for the rest of my time reviewing El Hijo.
For a Few Dollars Less
El Hijo has a solid foundation as a puzzling stealth game, but this version feels like it was built on sand. I did enjoy my time with it though. Aside from the tutorial level, the game is excellent at pushing you to learn new mechanics and take risks. Honestly, the game looks adorable too. I can recommend the game, but I don’t know if I can recommend the Switch port, not at the launch price.
- Fun and accessible stealth gameplay
- Collectibles found with optional challenges
- Easy on the eyes
- Poorly optimized
- Random crashes
- That sandstorm level