Sneaking Its Way into My Heart

HIGH Gorgeous vistas. Great storytelling without words.

LOW Repetitive backtracking. Finicky movement.

WTF Why do priests and bandits hate windup toys so much?

I’m generally not a fan of stealth games.  I’m just not that patient, and endlessly waiting for a brain-dead guard to slowly mosey past my position so I can move a few inches and then repeat the process ad-nauseum doesn’t generally do it for me.  That said, El Hijo managed to charm me with vibrant landscapes, an adorable protagonist, and (mostly) non-violent nature.  It wasn’t a flawless experience, but I enjoyed seeing the journey through to its end.

When bandits ransack his home, six-year-old El Hijo’s mother sends him to the local monastery to keep him safe while she seeks justice.  Little does she know that the monastery isn’t all that it seems, and that her precocious child is far more capable than she realizes.  With his quick mind and some improvised weaponry, he’s ready for his own adventure.

I can’t give the developers enough credit for telling an incredibly satisfying story without a moment of spoken or written dialogue.  Character motivations are always apparent, and story beats are obvious through impressive animation and facial expressions.  While I didn’t always understand the full depth of every motivation (some folks are evil just ‘cause, I guess) I enjoyed the narrative and wanted to see the villains get their comeuppance. 

After a brief tutorial providing the basics of running, sneaking and hiding, our pint-sized hero attempts to escape the monastery.  Players control El Hijo from a third-person isometric perspective as he makes his way across an expansive map without being detected by enemies to escape to the next area. There’s usually natural cover or darkness that helps to remain unseen, and being spotted is an automatic failure. 

In general, being detected is non-violent in nature — a bandit fires a revolver into the air to signal the game is up, or a monk grabs El Hijo by the scruff.  However, packs of wolves encountered later will begin to savage (and presumably eat) the boy — extremely disturbing, although no gore is shown. 

Controls are fairly responsive, but I noticed El Hijo often had difficulty crouching against objects — an action that should be automatic.  This wasn’t a huge problem, but it did make a few moments more tense than they needed to be, and I was captured a few times I shouldn’t have been.

Besides hiding and using shadows, El Hijo can use several items such as a slingshot, fireworks, and wind-up soldiers to create distractions that allow him to pass by guards unhindered.  These items display their radius of effect, allowing the player to determine the best place to deploy them.  Unfortunately, the game sometimes requires El Hijo to stand in incredibly specific spots to avoid detection while launching these counter-measures. 

Another sticking point is that as the game progresses, the player will be required to create combos of these items in order to pass deviously-arranged enemies. This strategy is not immediately obvious, and players may try (and fail) numerous times before figuring out a path forward.  Checkpoints are fairly generous, but the ability to save at any time would have made things more palatable.

El Hijo‘s spacious levels are a treat to look at thanks to a vibrant color palette and incredible use of light and shadow, but they require far too much backtracking, and it’s too easy to pick an incorrect path, making players repeat entire sections in reverse as they make their way back to a point from which they can make progress. 

On the other hand, finding off-the-beaten path routes rewards the players handsomely.  El Hijo can find other children to have brief interactions with, and not only are these moments adorable, but finding them often leads to areas with fewer guards and an easier journey.  Unfortunately, it takes too much trial and error to locate these other children and as I said, I’m not that patient

El Hijo is a tough sell for me.  I appreciate the aesthetics and was charmed by the hero, but the campaign was simply too long due to excessive backtracking, unclear level design and some rough edges that often made sneaking and hiding frustrating. A tighter, more streamlined campaign would have made for a more enjoyable experience overall.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Hoing Studios and Quantumfrog and published by HandyGames.  It is currently available on PC and Stadia. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E – EVERYONE and contains Mild Violence. The official description reads as follows: This is a stealth strategy game in which players assume the role of a boy and his mother on mission to foil bandits’ plans. From a 3/4-overhead perspective, players solve puzzles, avoid detection, and use stealth tactics (e.g., hiding in shadows, ducking into objects) and a slingshot to distract/hit characters. In one sequence, players can prep dynamite and trigger an explosion.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles cannot be altered and/or resized. There is no spoken dialogue in this game.  Occasionally characters make guttural utterances similar to “Simlish,” which are not subtitled.  These utterances do not affect gameplay, as all audio contextual clues are accompanied by a visual cue.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.

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