If you were to zoom out from a classic Clint Eastwood standoff, and instead pan up the humble monastery up on a hill, you may find a boy skulking around, longing to escape. El Hijo is the tale of that very kid. Left behind by his outlaw mother, El Hijo (“The Son”) seeks to escape the confines of his orphanage and discover the truth behind the destruction of his family’s home.
El Hijo plays as a sleepy Spaghetti Western stealth game. It’s slow and leisurely. But what El Hijo lacks in excitement, it makes up for in charm. The narrative consists of about as much dialogue as your average Buster Keaton film, and instead opts to string the player along by the use of gestures and animation. In most cases, this would leave a game feeling unfinished, but it works here. In fact, it works probably as intended. HandyGames has given us a straightforward plot, and by deciding to forego voice acting—beyond grunts and exclamations—they keep you fairly engrossed. It makes sense when you think about it. It’s hard to resist the pull of a mysterious narrative when you have exactly zero exposition going on.
The atmospheric successes don’t stop there for El Hijo. The animation and visuals are excellently done. The gameplay is so simple that you can imagine it being implemented in multiple settings, and yet the choice of Spaghetti Western seems to be the perfect choice. The usual suspects are all there: cacti, sun-dappled wooden floors, rocky outcrops. It’s familiar in all the best ways. There’s also something about the animation style in conjunction with this setting that adds a refreshing levity to the game. It never takes itself too seriously. It remains a joy to look at the entire time.
You have two primary objectives in El Hijo: escape each stage and inspire other children along the way to rebel. I suppose there is another overarching goal: don’t get caught by the roaming monks.. Oddly enough, you don’t have to inspire all the children to complete a stage. If you make it to the exit, you can continue to the next level. As far as I can tell, there are no requirements to completing a stage other than reaching that final door. Though it should be said that the children can provide useful temporary items as well as offer a bonus incentive for the completionists in the crowd.
Speaking of items, El Hijo offers a variety of ways to make your life easier as you progress through the game. You are first given a rock that can be thrown to distract enemies, but you’ll inevitably come across different wind-up toys, a slingshot, and the like that will aid you in your quest for escape. If I’m being honest, the rock was my crutch for the first ten or so levels. It begins to feel a bit overpowered though. The items are so useful that they basically ensure that you will not reach a point where you will truly struggle.
Unfortunately, the core of the game managed to fall flat for me. The stealth mechanics have been done to death and there is not much inventive here. It’s also painstakingly railroaded. There is basically one route through each stage. Because of this, at its heart, El Hijo might actually be more akin to a puzzle game than a stealth. The majority of my time was spent figuring out patterns of enemy movement and ways to shift objects in my favour. I was never skulking around to avoid being seen; I was simply timing my movements.
As you’d expect, this gets stale fast. Without any freedom to make your own decisions, you sort of jump to the next problem and apply the same logic you used to complete the last one. I swear that 50% of my time was spent waiting for a monk to finish sweeping a corridor and then just slipping in behind him. Simply put, it’s repetitive. This doesn’t mean that El Hijo is unplayable by any stretch of the imagination, but I don’t imagine many gamers will be opting for a second pass after completion.
El Hijo feels a bit like an introduction to stealth games. It’s restrictively linear nature makes it an excellent choice for beginners, but a frustrating experience for inveterate stealth players. Still, its monotonous nature can, at times, be overshadowed by the cutesy, innocent spirit of the game which shines through in spite of gameplay concerns. Oddly, El Hijo might scratch the itch for players that have either never played a stealth or who have played nearly all of them. For those players in the middle of the pack, who still have plenty of options left, your time might be better spent elsewhere first.