So this was very interesting, my experience with stealth games tends to be very violent: Splinter Cell or, my favorite, Mark of the Ninja. So when I saw that El Hijo was rated E, it made me think what that might say about the gameplay. As a huge Nintendo fan, I don’t generally allow E/E10+ ratings to deter me from enjoying games by prejudging the content. El Hijo is very charming with its simple, yet effective storytelling and steady difficulty ramp. El Hijo is the story of a young Spanish kid who tries to reunite with his Mother, escaping the reach of bandits, cowboys, and clergymen. The AI is pretty well balanced, while there were times I was able to cheese it, the use of visibility cones and shadows very clearly defines what’s safe. I also really enjoyed that you can’t just combat through encounters: this truly is a stealth game. You may be able to distract enemies with items and disrupt their vision, but with few exceptions can you completely neutralize a foe. I enjoy that a lot of the difficulty of the game stems from saving other children in hard-to-reach places. There’s genuinely a feel of “ooooh do I just want to reach the next checkpoint? Or do I go for it?” That’s the other thing I really appreciated: checkpoints feel almost perfectly spaced out, and reloading on fail is very seamless. Although, I will say upfront a huge quality of life improvement I’d suggest is the ability to leave the game and keep your last checkpoint. As of now, if you leave in the middle of a level, when you continue, you start from the very beginning. So yeah mostly a good amount of, well, good out of the way; let’s see if there’s anything else.
El Hijo does a good job making level layouts feel different, with new interactive points and scenery. It leans more into puzzle-solving, which I really appreciated as my success felt more brainy rather than twitchy. I really enjoy that once you get caught, you really can’t just run into cover as they will just outrun you or immediately reveal you. And it’s really interesting to spot enemy patterns actively check areas of cover on their patrol, it makes you have to really stake out your openings. There are times where the space to move between gets really tight, and the inability to move the camera while moving your character can be very fiddly. For the most part, you can find a solution that makes it work, but there is some getting stuck on the corner of walls or objects. I really enjoyed how the game indicates things that can be broken, enemy vision cones, “interactibles”, everything for the most part. It’s also very easy to tell if you’re in danger. Granted, certain enemies can be outmaneuvered if you run out of their range long enough, but there is some inconsistencies to enemy routing you can find based on how you get their attention. There was a time where I alerted an enemy, but another enemy blocked his path, so said enemy started glitching slightly, but eventually it righted itself. There are a few other times where the shadows that are supposed to be safe zones can have slight inconsistencies depending on the geometry of the level, but for the most part it works perfectly.
Over the course of the game, you will find treasure chests that unlock new tools or items Zelda-style. Most of the levels seemed designed to rarely require these items, and there is some clever use of resource management, as you can carry items over through levels. Your inventory management, while simple in execution, can feel immensely rewarding because refueling can feel pretty special. Although, there is satisfaction in using them as little as possible, because ultimately the items feel like a crutch, not a necessity. I think in terms of speedrunning or just saving some time, it’s great to have that flexibility without it feeling completely game breaking.
The story is interspersed between gameplay via small musical flourishes accompanied with quick comic-book style edits. There are a few 2D out of engine cutscenes that are well crafted, and work a very minimalist style to great effect. It’s interesting seeing how minimizing your sound around enemies, and figuring out when you really can outrun enemies can be used to break up the typical puzzle low-execution breakdown. There are some real heart pounding moments with vicious animals that hunt you down if you aren’t careful. There were some do-si-do circular movements I was able to do around boxes to completely bemuse the enemy AI at times, and I wasn’t sure if this was intentional or not. The level designs are varied with gimmicks that feel like they really fit in the world of the game. It’s cool to see levels designed around the Mother and the Boy, and how their movesets evolve over the course of your adventure. Players may feel a little annoyed by having to wait for enemy patterns to have a blind spot to act accordingly as there are times where you miss your window and have to wait else risk your motion rustling the enemies into high alert. Other than that and a few frustrations regarding tight spaces and an inflexible isometric camera, El Hijo is a very fair challenge. There are also times where your limited field of view for the level layout can lead to some confusion and unnecessary backtracking. The Birds-eye view is very helpful, but you cannot move during it, and your vision is capped at the corners of the screen you paused on.
All in all, El Hijo is a great time and has a very satisfying length. With twenty-nine levels, the goal to complete levels without ever getting caught or using items in some cases, and interacting with every child “collectible”, there is a lot to unpack. I tend to lean towards games that are a shorter length, especially since marathon affairs can, very quickly, start to feel like filler to me. El Hijo is very well paced, especially once you leave the cathedral and the levels feel very expansive. Puzzle lovers will appreciate how the game teaches mechanics in a way that points you to what’s needed and allows you to ultimately master the game’s tricks on your own. Some of the children are locked behind pretty risky puzzles or low opportunity window sprints. I highly recommend this game, and I’ll be looking forward to this studio’s next projects. I hope some of the Quality of Life changes I suggested are considered, as I think they will really make this game sing and be more universally beloved.
A review copy was provided by the devs.
Hellfirebam has awarded El Hijo the Indie Gamer Seal of Approval, very close to being a unanimous judgment but a few minor glitches hold it back from true greatness.