Following a boy who has been forcibly separated from his mother as he ventures across a spaghetti western-inspired landscape, El Hijo is, ostensibly, an isometric stealth game with light puzzle elements. As you strike out across the world, you’re incredibly vulnerable to the monks, cowboys, and sheriffs who seem obsessed with making you, and all children, their slaves.
One thing I do love about El Hijo is how it provides a unique viewpoint into the rootin’, tootin’ cowboy genre, by shifting the perspective to an innocent child.
You’re not a merciless gun-slinger or a God-fearin’ peacekeeper, you’re a boy looking for his mother, crawling through frenzied gunfights, exploded bridges, blasted-out canyons, and a whole host of tropes that make a western what it is.
This isn’t a Red Dead Redemption-style celebration of the genre, it’s a critical lens at it we don’t see all too often, wrapped up in a delightful low-poly art style.
The problems come when El Hijo tries to be a stealth game. Stealth is all about the interplay between the environment, the player, and the AI, and there is very little of that to be found here. It’s not so much stealth as it is avoiding cones of vision on enemies that rigidly stick to their patrol routes.
Hiding is entirely dictated by a binary system of whether it is light or dark, or whether you’re in cover or not. There’s none of the emergent gameplay or storytelling that makes or breaks a stealth game to be found, making the whole experience feel flat and dull.
The game does try to liven things up sometimes by including some very basic puzzles. All too often they amount to pushing a box around or avoiding a swinging light, but there are times when there is a hint of something special.
Hitting a buffalo with your slingshot to make them move and provide mobile cover, or having to traverse a sandstorm by timing your movements provide a nice change of pace, but it’s over too quickly, and once more you’re back to avoiding enemies that feel more like shop window mannequins than cowboys.
With a wonderful art style, El Hijo tells an emotive and serious story of rebellion against authority in a lawless world. But the systems underpinning the game are so basic that El Hijo’s worthwhile message is sadly lost.
The art style is fantastic. Combining low-poly models with a watercolour style helps make the wild west feel vibrant and whimsical, as if from a child’s perspective, and it helps make the environments quickly legible to the player.
Delightful visuals and a new perspective on western tales aren’t enough to make El Hijo more than a rudimentary and dull stealth game.
Format: PC (tested) / Stadia
Developer: Honig Studios/Quantumfrog
Release: Out now