When I think of the west, I can’t possibly not think of the movies that are called “westerns,” which means the gold rush, the forts, the desert, and those gun duels between good guys and bad guys. Honig Studios has taken advantage of these elements to bring us El Hijo: A Wild West Tale, a title that won the Best Indie Game award at Gamescom 2019.
This proposal takes us to the wild west, where we soon see the peace and happiness of a mother and her son shattered when bandits destroy their farm. With great courage and full of resentment, the mother decides to separate from her son and leave him in a convent. It’s her way of protecting him, keeping him away from her until she exacts her revenge. But of course we are a boy of about six years old and the only thing we want is to be reunited with our mother, so we have only one option: escape.
This is how El Hijo: A Wild West Tale begins, a story full of good intentions, but which shows that it’s not always enough for the result to turn out as expected.
Do you remember that Marco was looking for his mother? Well, we’ll find ourselves in that role a little bit. Being the child that we are, we will choose to flee to find our mother, without fear and without really being aware of the dangers we have to go through to reach her. We are facing a title that revolves around its stealth mechanics. To escape from the monastery we will have to outwit the various monks that are walking around, doing their work but also monitoring the rooms and they will not make our escape easy. It’s all about escaping, hiding, taking advantage of the shadows and any objects that serve as hiding places, whether they’re drawers, jars or even bison. Anything goes if we can avoid being seen.
We are a child armed only with a slingshot that we use to distract the “enemies” we encounter, either turning off the lights and hiding in the shadows, or misleading them by making noises far away . We must be careful and know how and when to hide or move without being seen. To help us in this we have the help of our bird’s eye view, which allows us to fly over the area to see our enemies’ vision cones and decide our next moves. While this is where the enemies’ artificial intelligence squeaks a bit, making them easy to outsmart since you can’t spawn in this cone of vision, they won’t see you if you’re planted next to them. Few licenses that the genre needs.
We talked about escaping the monastery, but the areas we will cross will vary and we will hide in mines, deserts or even crossing trains. Everything faithfully reproduced. Because if something stands out in El Hijo: A Wild West Tale, it’s its visual part. A very careful cartoon aesthetic but at the same time simple that pulls you in immediately. So much care in the artistic section and so unnoticed that the sound section passes by, which could have done a lot more by Western standards.
It’s funny how underneath that cute art, with that warm color palette, and a title based on a wild west with no fatalities, they really tell us a story of enslaved children. A deeper and darker plot than his art first suggests.
Because we won’t be the only kid in this story. As we go on we will meet other boys and girls who have them as slaves. Children who have lost their imagination and memory of what it means to be a child. As a secondary mission or almost a collector’s item, we must talk to these children to “inspire” them, or what is the same, to restore their illusion and make them happier. In exchange, they will give us certain items that will help us mislead these other vigilantes.
And it is that little by little the game will offer us more tools and opportunities to advance. From wind-up toys that serve to distract attention, cactus pollen smoke bombs that we can use to pass unnoticed, or even fireworks that will stun our guards.
While it doesn’t offer huge variations in its mechanics, there is a development as it progresses that even mixes stealth with certain puzzle mechanics. And although we will carry the child for the most part, there will be certain moments when they allow us to control the mother. Unfortunately, the mechanisms they offer us are the same, and what could have offered variety, letting us see the difference between the son’s innocence and the mother’s thirst for revenge, doesn’t lead to any variety.
Throughout the title we can find different save points that will allow us to restart the area in case we get caught. Something that will be appreciated if we fail in the classic “trial and error”, but above all because the controls are a bit imprecise and leave us unnecessarily hanging. Too bad those checkpoints aren’t always where they should be, a design that isn’t the most successful in its approach. YES, on top of that, despite the fact that the level of difficulty is not high, but rather irregular depending on the area, there are certain tiring moments that could have been saved.
El Hijo: A Wild West Tale is an indie proposal that has no more claims or pretensions than it portrays. A title that clearly catches the eye, but whose camouflage fades as you play, which is sometimes repetitive and unfortunately doesn’t offer anything new.
A little more ambition and risk would probably have suited him beautifully to go from a game that’s fun but forgotten to a game that deserves to be remembered. I mean changing the mechanics between mother and son, improving the clunkiness of the controls, improving the AI to be able to take it more seriously, or even taking more advantage of the idea of entertaining children. You have the ingredients, but you don’t use them.
Despite these improvements or risks one could have taken, it leaves a good taste in my mouth. But we have to be aware that maybe it’s aimed at younger ages, for those who want to get into stealth gaming without delving into something deeper like Desperados III, or just want to get carried away into this kid’s skin, who gets caught up in an adventure story getting back together with his mother.