I’m a sucker for bright, cartoony games. I know people who absolutely won’t play a game unless they’re grim dark with photorealistic graphics. That’s a shame, because there are some real gems out there. El Hijo is definitely one of them. It’s like playing a game with Pixar art style, but with some seriously fun stealth mechanics. It’s a Wild West tale that doesn’t give you guns, instead replacing them with slingshots, and lots of heart.
El Hijo– A Wild West Tale is a stealth-based adventure game where you play as a young boy—and sometimes his mom—who have to sneak, hide, and otherwise avoid conflict through multiple different scenarios. There isn’t combat—you can’t fight, all you can do is run, hide, and hopefully not be caught. Unlike some stealth games, being noticed isn’t instant failure—I appreciate that, because stealth is the main mode of gameplay here. There isn’t an option to “go loud,” and in fact, there isn’t an option to fight enemies at all—or even sneak up to them an incapacitate them. At best– and this is much later in the game–you can stun people temporarily.
There is a story to El Hijo that is told mostly through cutscenes—and it is completely without dialogue. It uses a lot of spaghetti (and non-spaghetti) western tropes—but turns a few on their head. Instead of a gravelly gun slinging husband who is mourning over his wife’s death, the husband is dead—and the wife teaches her son the ways of stealth and combat avoidance. While the story isn’t specifically poignant, it had its emotional moments, and even without dialogue the fantastic art does an excellent job of conveying the emotions between the mom and son, even if it doesn’t do a great job of establishing the stakes.
Stealth in El Hijo is fast, and fun. Some stealth games feel slow, requiring precise timing. I found El Hijo’s brand of stealth to be more trial-and-error based. There are checkpoints scattered through most levels, and if you fail for any reason, you can restart from these checkpoints relatively quickly. This is great, because it doesn’t punish you severely for making a mistake. But even if you make a mistake, enemies in El Hijo give up the chase rather easily. In fact, one of my chief complaints is the AI—it seems as though the AI is a little too easy at times, forgetting they were chasing someone moments after beginning their chase. El Hijo liberally uses stealth game tropes and logic—but that’s okay, because it’s a fun experience.
Hiding in the dark, and even hiding in objects like furniture and vases are commonly how you’ll avoid enemies, but there are clever, more puzzle-like scenarios throughout. In addition to that, you will have tools to use to make stealthing around a little easier. Unlike most stealth games, however, you can’t kill or incapacitate enemies to remove them from the action—the most you can do is stun them for a few moments. As the mother, you have a powerful slingshot (which gets passed along to her son near the end of the game) that can break locks and vases. The son, meanwhile, has a less powerful slingshot (eventually) or rocks that can be used to distract enemies. The son also gets toy soldiers that work similarly to rocks, but have more staying power and flexibility. Eventually you’ll also get access to cactus flowers, which emit gas that makes enemies blind (you know, just like in real life, or something) and fireworks that break boxes and stun enemies—the closest thing to a weapon in the game. There is also a hat that allows the son to hilariously conceal himself in plain sight—much like the box in Metal Gear Solid. Who suspects the lone hat?
I do have one complaint, though. Some sections of El Hijo are great—tight, well thought out, fun. Others, however, seem to suffer from difficulty spikes, and challenges that are not as well refined. These sections appear somewhere in the last quarter of the game, right when the dogs begin to show up. There was a lot of trial and error for me while I attempted to learn new mechanics that weren’t established as obviously as others. It barely slowed down my playthrough, but it’s a slight blemish on an otherwise nearly perfect game.
It’s great to see a game use the Wild West in a semi-novel way. I adore the art style, and was absolutely charmed by El Hijo. It is a good stealth game—it simultaneous subverts sub-genre expectations while using lots of stealth tropes. If any aspect of this delightful game looks appealing, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed with it.
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