The Cultured Nerd

[Review] “El Hijo – A Wild West Tale” on PS4

See our reaction to Handy Games’ top-down stealth game, “El Hijo.”

Handy Games has delivered a simple but fun stealth game with El Hijo – A Wild West Tale. There’s nothing groundbreaking going on under the hood of the game, but it manages to work for what the team was going for here. Lighthearted stealth mechanics with little pressure make for a nice pairing to its more childlike, cartoony art style. Wrapping the whole package up in a Western setting only makes for an even more pleasant experience overall for this family-friendly indie title.

Narrative, while present, is somewhat arbitrary in El Hijo. The story revolves around the titular “el hijo” and his mother, who lost their home and become separated. Gamers take turns playing as both mother and son in the pair’s united quest at reunification in the Western world. Seeing the story play out, however, can be somewhat hard to grasp. There is no discernible dialogue in either the gameplay or the various cutscenes to help players’ understanding, relying purely on visual storytelling alone.

Environmental storytelling does help to piece some things together, as a corrupt battle in the vein of cops and robbers fills most of the run-time, but it still leaves some questions somewhat murky. Both sides have rounded up children to use for various kinds of slave labor, and who, in addition to monks, will all look to recapture them, if at all possible. The story, therefore, is left with two possible, albeit unclear options for the mother-son separation: either the single mother was in some sort of financial or legal trouble, or there is some kind of rather dark human trafficking-type element taking place involving the children, or perhaps both.

On a lighter note, the game’s visuals are always a treat to behold. Everything from the character designs, to character animations, and every single environment feels like it came right out of a Saturday morning cartoon. Soft, rounded edges are almost everywhere you look from the dark and dreary caverns to the plethora of campsites and hideouts of the various enemies. The game’s charm really shines in the more claustrophobic levels with limited lighting. Not only do the character models and props have some gorgeous shading from the overhead light sources, but the dynamic brightness adds even more fun animations most of the time. Enemies are more likely to be seen strolling around singing or humming on their routes in these sections, and will comically react as they check on a light source you damage in your sneaky journey.

The gameplay is perhaps the shiniest jewel here. Avoiding capture is no small task on a first play-through. During the course of the roughly ten-hour campaign, players slowly start to acquire new tools like a slingshot, wind-up toys, and some speedy sandals, all to aid in maneuvering around the villains’ vision fields. The player combats their enhanced sights by constantly using their trusty dove companion to scope out even more of the map. After planning a few more meters of their path, gamers then are left to decide between hiding in scenery like pots and under tables or creating distractions to remove or reorient an enemy for a short time window. Opening new paths by destroying crates and pottery tends to be the easiest option, but the young protagonist can sometimes be nimble enough to outrun an enemy after being spotted. But whatever the player chooses to do, there are almost always alternative methods that can and should be explored to undermine their foes.

Overall, the sound department is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, the sound effects are all very well done. Alerts, objects breaking, tools being used, and some animal noises all appropriately fit the animated theme of the visuals. On the other hand, the music can be somewhat hit-or-miss. The gameplay score is appropriately structured for whatever is happening on screen- sneaky moments feel suspenseful, the more somber and introspective moments have a sadder tone. The issue here is in what the cutscenes bring to the surface- this is a Western game, and aside from occasional action-heavy moments in those scenes, there are little to no Western-inspired tracks present for the rest of the campaign. On the whole, this factor does little to detract from the game but just felt like a huge missed opportunity, considering how much the game gets right otherwise.

Where the music falls a little flat, replayability lands perfectly. Trophies are awarded for completing different levels and challenges, just adding more to one’s desire to creatively conquer each and every level. Collecting enough trophies unlocks more and more concept art to go through, but the fun is in the creativity and challenge of earning the trophies. Hitting chickens with rocks, making it through a level completely unseen, and navigating other levels without some much-needed tools are just some of the many ways the game encourages them to see their stages from a new angle. If there were anything to improve upon when revisiting a level, Handy Games should absolutely consider patching in an option for the player to use all of their tools for any given level they replay.

El Hijo is absolutely worth picking up, despite some of its shortcomings. A natural charm fills most corners of this family-friendly stealth game. Different music choices and excluding dialogue may be choices that hindered it in the long run, but the game’s accessibility and overall replay value more than makeup for the difference. For only having a roughly seven to ten-hour campaign, the team at Handy Games packed a lot of heart into this whimsical, Wild West tale.

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