I find El Hijo to be extremely dearth in its presentation, as it breaks the stealth genre down to a few core ingredients. On one hand, it’s a stark reminder of the ways in which stealth games feel so rigid in their motion, while on the other hand it proves that many of these titles would be much better off being branded as strategic puzzle games rather than true stealth experiences.
Out of the so many self-proclaimed “stealth games” you can play today, many of them end up doing two things. First, there’s the repetition of venturing from point A-to-B, opening up new ways to get ahead by solving environmental puzzles and evading guard patrols. Secondly, they treat the AI of these enemies and the world state as something that is so easily resettable, like a quick flicker of the switch between ‘alerted’ and ‘not alerted’.
El Hijo does both of these, which is why I’m more inclined to call it a puzzle game with stealth elements rather than a true stealth experience. Enemies feel more like obstacles rather than real threats you need to assess and deal with accordingly. They’re mere inconveniences, problems that can be easily resolved by moving back into a shadow or distracting with a noise.
El Hijo disappointed me as a stealth experience but I found it to shine a lot better at being a puzzle game. Each level is its own self-contained riddle as you guide Hijo’s escape from a treacherous clan of monks, across a dangerous Wild West, to reunite with his mother. Being a small lad, he can hide behind barrels, inside small containers and under tables to avoid detection, as well as using darkness to cover his tracks. Enemies operate on repetitive movement, often looking or moving back and forth between two points, so there becomes a rhythmic motion to the way you traverse each level and tackle each problem as it presents itself, and this can be very therapeutic itself in the way everything lines up.
He also has access to different tools which he can use to outwit enemies. The slingshot, for example, can cause noise to temporarily bring a guard away from their post, while the wind-up toy offers a visual distractor to have a guard investigate. Each and every one of them basically has their own counter-tool, and there’s quite a bit of fun in working out which one is best for the job. The variety isn’t huge, but it warrants the right challenge.
To break up the cyclic A-to-B levels, optional objectives are also present in the form of enslaved children you can interact with. On the command of the adults that control them, these kids are forced to perform manual labour and are kept in a miserable experience. If you manage to reach one without being caught, Hijo will use his playful imagination to inspire the child to hold onto the sparks of their childhood as they await freedom.
Slavery in El Hijo is framed as a bad thing, as it rightfully should, and it makes sense for why it’s presented in this childlike way. Hijo is a six year-old boy, and therefore isn’t strong enough to be the face of a revolution. He’s a kid on a mission to find his family, and he only wishes to fix the harm he sees on his journey to the best of his abilities. The developers have chosen to add this juvenile flavour to the story, to give the boy’s actions with the world around him a sense of childlike innocence that you simply won’t get if the character was a different age.
Shortcomings aside, if there’s anything El Hijo does perfectly it’s the depiction of a hostile and dangerous American Wild West. For a young child, being alone in a place where bandits torture you or coyotes rip you limb from limb is the scariest thing to ever happen, and this fear translates perfectly with the sound design, character animation, and quality of the writing. Framing this around a child’s imagination is also the right way to go, as it reminds us that it can sometimes be the greatest tool to see some light in the darkness that surrounds us.
Tested on PC
Also available on PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Developer Honig Studios, Quantum Frog
Disclosure a copy of El Hijo was provided by Dead Good PR