Played on Xbox Series X
A peaceful farm is attacked and a family is violently gunned down in cold blood by a bunch of duster wearing Cowboys and thus begins one of my favourite films of all time – ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’.
El Hijo: A Wild West Tale however, is a far more sedate and considerably less violent affair.
Similarly, a mother and son suffer an unprovoked attack at the beginning of the game. Thankfully, no one is killed, although the family farm is burned to the ground. Leaving her son in the supposed care of the Monks at the local Monastery, the mother sets off for revenge.
However, all is not what it seems in this house of God and the son soon decides to escape and help her to bring their attackers to justice.
Developed by Honig Studios in Berlin, El Hijo is described as a ‘spaghetti western stealth game’. Offering a fixed camera angle, the isometric maps require successful stealthy navigation and puzzle solving in order to progress through three key locations.
These locations are a monastery, a desert and a charming frontier town. They are split into twenty nine levels, with each offering multiple pathways to completion – so if you do not like the look of one route you can generally try another.
Hostile characters need to be avoided at all costs as being spotted for even a couple of seconds will fail the level. Thankfully, a generous allowance of save points stops this from being annoying and reduces setbacks to a minor inconvenience. As with all stealth games, the shadows are the best tool at your disposal, which is aided by a neat bird’s eye view mechanic that allows you to see how enemy view cones are affected by light and darkness. The prologue introduces the key concepts such as stealth, vision cones and so on, so that when the game starts properly players can hit the ground running.
Getting too close to an enemy, even behind them will instantly give away your presence. Over the course of the game various tools become available to you that can be used to lure enemies when they are blocking your path such as a handy Slingshot to create a distracting noise or a clockwork soldier which, when cunningly utilised, can draw someone away from their post long enough to allow you to slip past.
Your slingshot can also be used with stones to smash unprotected oil lamps and create shadowy areas for you to pass through unnoticed. Cactus flower pollen will create a cloud that blinds all enemies within a certain range and a firework will stun people and blow up certain obstacles. Aside from your trusty slingshot, the rest of these tools are not abundant in their availability, and thus have to be used with a certain amount of forethought.
El Hijo is filled with charming little moments – finding a pair of shoes that afford you increased movement speed for short bursts include a gorgeously animated dust trail as you move around. About two thirds of the way through the game a large hat is discovered that gives you the ability to hide in plain sight as someone having a Siesta and looks really cute balanced on top of your poncho.
Most sections are playable as El Hijo himself but two are given over to playing as his mother. This breaks things up before they become samey and also made for some of my favourite parts of the game. Who wouldn’t want to travel the length of a steam locomotive, whilst people on horses ride alongside firing their rifles? It was very pleasing to note playing the game shortly after International Women’s Day that half of the cowboys that I saw on screen were in fact cowgirls in both the villainous and heroic roles.
Interestingly, no conversation takes place throughout the game but that does not in any way detract from the gameplay as you try to avoid monks, a villainous posse, manic miners (see what I did there?), dubious Lawmen and wild coyotes.
Interacting with child slaves discovered around the levels carrying out menial tasks will award you with either a tool (Firework etc.) or the means to get to another area. For example, smashing an ankle chain padlock may allow the child to walk across a room to a ladder on wheels and move it to your location allowing you to climb down. There are a number of achievements available for dedication to this particular child friendly task.
The gameplay on offer could be accused of becoming a bit too familiar in the final stages but this is broken up by a few sections where the task is to keep a speeding mine cart on the rails while either outrunning another cart or avoiding falling obstacles. If you are a fan of Indiana Jones, you will find a lot to like here.
Being a big Ennio Morricone fan the original music used in the trailer for El Hijo mightily impressed me, as it captures his style perfectly and the atmosphere of spaghetti westerns, while almost becoming a character in the game itself.
Although some of the game soundtrack is in the same vein, it is a lot more serene and is clearly used more as background music, so I was disappointed that it was not as in your face as it is in the trailer.
El Hijo: A Wild West Tale is a challenging and fun stealth puzzle solving platform game produced by an indie developer with an obvious love for the Spaghetti Western genre. If this review strolled into your local saloon and piqued your interest, you will not be disappointed by what the game delivers.