Disclaimer: Andy has done a rather spiffing review for the PC version of El Hijo right here. However, he prefaces by saying he’s bad at stealth games. Whereas I love them, so this is another perspective, not a rebuttal to Andy’s opinion.
The mark of a good stealth game is one that rewards you for doing well, but doesn’t punish you with crippling difficulty about halfway through. Whilst there’s a school of gamers that go out guns blazing when spotted, the real thrill is in the ghost-like nature of not being seen.
It’s usually more immersive in first/third person, such as your Dishonoured’s and Splinter Cell’s. When the camera is fixed up above (somewhat isometric/top down), however, it often feels like you’re sneaking a chess piece about. There’s no investment if you can’t place yourself in the hero’s shoes, that skin-of-your-teeth, fight or flight moment.
El Hijo doesn’t have that problem, thankfully, as you invest in the titular little rugrat’s plight to escape. But does that repetition hold up throughout several set pieces over time? Let’s sneak through this review without getting spotted and find out…
I Am Not A Numero!
Our tale in the Old West gets rolling on a bit of a sad note. It starts off innocently enough, following your mum around the farmstead and learning how the stealth mechanics work. But this innocence doesn’t last.
Bandits take umbrage with your idyllic, [presumably] self-sustained life and burn the farm to the ground, causing little Hijo and madre to flee. Deciding what she feels is best for the safety of her child, your mother hands you over to the protection of a monastery. Which, sad as it may appear, is actually safer than putting you at risk of being attacked by bandits.
And that’s the tale of how little El Hijo went on to be the best monk that ever monk’d in the annals of the monastery… if this were a short game. Instead, the tactful tike decides that this isn’t the life for him and makes good on his escape to get back to his mother. Who, as there wasn’t televised news broadcasts in the Old West, has been attacked. But as El Hijo doesn’t know that, he still wants to escape.
That’s where his wits, cunning and tools come into play.
Mischief Maker Extraordinaire
As already mentioned, El Hijo is purely a stealth game. There is some leniency if you can evade certain enemies that spot you, but you can’t attack or incapacitate anyone. But just because it favours unseen over action doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with it.
Both El Hijo and his mum (who you play as with at certain points, but I won’t spoil the story) are armed with a few tricks and traps to help progress. Nothing violent, instead utilising distracting rocks, toy soldiers, pollen and catapults to throw off the scent of monks or bandits.
This works in tandem with the occasional block/ladder movement puzzle the game throws at you. In one of the monastery’s later levels, there’s a fountain maze to navigate. A tactical combination of distraction tool and pot plant will test your stealth skills early on, but you have to work out how yourself.
That becomes the standard format for most levels, with varying degrees of challenge and set piece interaction. But that’s not all you can do.
It’s not just a small arsenal that our heroes need to make use of to get through this adventure. There’s also the natural landscape, the use of light and shadow and in a pinch, a well placed vase too. Being a fixed perspective game, you can’t rotate the camera to see what’s ahead of you.
What you can do to get a better lie of the hand is a somewhat basic version of the Assassin’s Creed viewpoint system. Learnt in the tutorial, both lad and mum keep a dove in their pockets (I don’t know why either) that can be “launched” for an aerial view. This lets you see Metal Gear-style vision cones, as well as each enemy’s detection parameter, if you will.
To avoid being spotted, the shadows are your primary method of stealth here. You can’t be spotted in the dark, unless someone walks too close. Thankfully, our helpfully small hero can tuck himself into aforementioned vases, jars, bookshelves and most things. Or when necessary, lean himself Solid Snake-like against a small wall to duck down from a passing looker.
However, the caveat is that sometimes guards will look in these things are part of a predetermined sequence. This results in an instant game over, but the game is pretty liberal with checkpoints so it’s not too much of a momentum killer.
La Revolución Infantil
In terms of additional gameplay features of optional objectives in El Hijo, there isn’t a great deal of deviation. Which is understandable, really. The boy’s looking for his mum, not trying earn a bit of money through looting on the side.
What you can do throughout the monastery breakout and beyond, though, is inspire hope in the other children that are there. They don’t join you like Mudokons do to Abe on his quest for liberation, but they will cause a bit of mischief or at least be cheered up from the life of worship and chores.
Outside of trophies/achievements, there’s no strong reason to go out of your way to chat to them. But if you’re a completionist stealth gamer, are you really going to leave that last child un-talked to when you’ve already got the others on board in the mission…?
It ramps up in difficulty as missions go on, especially when bandits with keen eye and aim have got them captured. It’s just down to whether you want to get the story done or be the liberator of the people. Which is a lot of responsibility for a child…
Even A Monk Will Run Out Of Patience Over Time
At time of writing, I haven’t finished El Hijo. Not through lack of putting a decent amount of hours in, it’s just there’s only so much trial and error in a day. Unless you’re a stealth savant, who immediately spots routes and patterns on the fly, you’re going to be replaying some areas a few times.
Which makes it frustrating when you think you’ve got a patrol memorised and one of the monks/bandits turns on a dime unexpectedly. Or, despite the cone of vision saying otherwise, you’re spotted from a fair distance away whilst in the shadows and get caught. It also doesn’t help that El Hijo has the stamina of a chain smoker, with a sprint that makes Alan Wake look like Mo Farah. Sometimes you might get lucky and cheese it around a wall to break the chase, but more often than not it’s easier to accept fate and start again.
It also seems odd that there’s no hint or checkpoint system. Now, I know I’ve lambasted hand-holding before, but to have nothing is just as bad. Perhaps some kind of optional hint or waypoint system to keep the flow going would benefit here. There are times when you lose momentum and have no drive to aimlessly hunt a tiny glowing trapdoor through trial and error.
Despite the niggles above, El Hijo is a surprisingly fun (if mildly frustrating at times) stealth games. The story, minimal as it is with no voice over or dialogue, is compelling enough to want to reunite the boy with his mother.
Stealth, ultimately, comes down to a player’s own patience with it. There’s no option to flip out and go on a rampage here, instead patience is key. In that regard it’s very similar to the old Commandos games, or even the newer Desperados (reviewed here by me) in terms of gameplay.
The cutesy visuals don’t necessarily make it “baby’s first stealth game” but it is a tad more lenient than the aforementioned examples. There’s no wacky, console-specific gimmicks on hand. Just a simple, introductory sneak ’em up for those looking for something different. A small-scale story that expands into much larger levels to explore, it’s long enough to keep picking away at, making the progression so very worthwhile.
It may look deceptively cute, but El Hijo hides a level of stealth cunning to rival its peers in the genre. Not so much difficult-to-master as tempering your own patience, the reward for persevering is ultimately worth sticking it out.
El Hijo is available now on PS4 (review platform), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Google Stadia and PC.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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