App Reviewed on: iPad Pro
User Interface Rating:
Replay Value Rating:
El Hijo is a nice--and even innovative--stealth action game about a young boy sneaking his way through wild west in an effort to help his mother fight some bandits. Things about its design I'd love to see in other stealth action games, but my time with El Hijo quickly grew sour because the game as a whole has a severe communication problem that makes it hard to enjoy, particularly on mobile.
El Hijo opens with a wordless cutscene showing a woman placing a young boy in the care of some missionaries before riding off to fight some bandits. In this game, you play as that little boy, who wants to go join his mother in the fight. The only problem is: you're a little kid and the monks watching over can easily prevent you from leaving.
But, if these monks can't find you or don't know you're even trying to leave, that's another story. By sticking to the shadows, you can avoid detection, escape the monastery, and stay on the hunt for your mother. Once you get out into the desert, there's even more dangerous people and animals there, so you have to make sure you sneak carefully and employ a few gadgets to help you along the way.
In a lot of ways, El Hijo just replicates a lot of tried-and-true systems and mechanics of stealth action games for its overall design. Enemies have vision cones that give you clear boundaries of how to avoid detection; a light and shadow mechanic makes it clear when you are visible and when you are not; and certain actions you perform can create sound, which radiates visually and might draw the attention of patrolling enemies to go check it out.
What makes any of this interesting is how El Hijo uses these tools within the context of a game that clearly wants to maintain ludonarrative harmony. Since you are playing as a young boy, there is no point in the game where you can suddendly kill or otherwise subdue the people you are sneaking around. You have to rely on your wits and ingenuity to get past every obstacle, which sometimes involves whipping out your slingshot (but only ever to break locks or make distracting noises). Some additional tools like a faithful bird that gives you a better view of your surroundings (including vision cones) and cactus pollen to create smokescreens make for a game that feels a lot more like a puzzle action game with some flexibility as opposed to a playground where you have to exploit AI through a lot of trial and error.
That was the good, now for the bad and ugly
The small toolset and intentional design around stealth challenges is a neat idea, particularly when El Hijo's levels end up being these nonlinear playgrounds comprised of a string of varied stealth challenges stitched together. But, all of this stops being enjoyable every time El Hijo decides that it doesn't want to tell you about how anything works or why you're failing, which happens with greater frequency the further you get into it.
El Hijo is clearly designed in a way where all of its stealth sequences have very specific solutions, to the point that some can't be cleared unless you do an exact set of steps properly. This is ok in theory, but in practice it leads to situations where items you've never seen before need to be manipulated in a way you can possibly have guessed, or the rules for how certain mechanics work when applied to certain enemies is just no longer the case for this specific sequence. You can pick up on any of El Hijo's solutions eventually, but usually involves trying and failing the wrong thing until looking up a guide or just trying to find some weird alternative until something makes sense. When you're in the throes of one of these stealth experimentation periods, El Hijo's controls also out themselves as being frustratingly unresponsive and imprecise.
In these moments, I wanted to take a break from El Hijo so I could rebuild some patience for its challenges, but that highlights another problem with the game. Despite saying upfront that a blue spinning square icon indicates the game is saving your progress, this is not true. Your progress gets saved between levels but if you hit a checkpoint and a blue square pops up, you cannot resume your game from there if you leave the game and come back to it.
The bottom line
El Hijo gives you just enough tools to master its stealth mechanics, but it arbitrarily takes your capabilities away from you and limits your ability to control your character precisely. These are bad decisions made worse by the deceptive checkpointing system that can trick you into losing a lot of progress. Although there are some things to admire about El Hijo's design, there is too much working against the game to really enjoy much of it.