REVIEW: El Hijo - Surprisingly simple stealth sweeps us off our feet
Updated: Feb 8, 2022
Stealth in games can be incredibly intimidating. The stress of hiding yourself away before waves upon waves of guards descend on your position used to give me the strongest anxiety. For that reason, I skipped many of the genre's best releases until my heart strengthened later in life. Until I was able to trigger a guard alert without having a panic attack. (Only partially a joke.)
After playing El Hijo - A Wild West Tale, all I can say is I wish I had this game when I was younger, because it's the perfectly charming gateway drug into the world of Metal Gears and Hitmans I was deprived of.
Just the Facts
Developer(s): Honig Studios and QuantumFrog with support from Medienboard and Noromedia
Platform(s): PC*, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series S and X, Nintendo Switch, Google Stadia, Android, iPhone *platform reviewed on
Relase Date: December 3, 2020
Key provided by Evolve PR.
El Hijo released on December 3, 2020 and was developed by Honig Studios and QuantumFrog, published by HandyGames, all with support from Medienboard and Noromedia. By the time of this article's publication, El Hijo has released on just about every platform out there, but my time with the game was spent on PC.
The stealth puzzler puts you in the hands of a six-year-old boy, simply called El Hijo. As with many Westerns, characters go unnamed and motivations are simple. El Hijo and his mother are attacked when bandits raid and burn down their homestead, and in the aftermath, she leaves him to live at a monastery, going off on her own revenge quest. While stuck in the monastery, El Hijo begins to fear for his mother's life and he plans a breakout, starting his journey of family reunion in earnest. El Hijo will have to sneak past monks, bandits, soldiers, and even wild wolves to make his way back to his mother. She's on the move as well, finding herself caught in shootouts along the way. The story is simple and cute, doing its job to showcase the real star in the title, the gameplay and its systems.
El Hijo's stealth is straightforward, cribbing the best of the genre's tools and simplifying the process to make things as accessible as possible. It's a stealth game that knows its limits, allowing you to run just out of sight of vision cones, stand in front of guards as long as you're in the dark, and generally avoid failure as long as you're patient. The simplicity both works for and against it, as it makes for an experience that is easy to hop into, but one that rarely surprises you.
Each level, presented with an angled top-down camera, is a mini-stealth sandbox that provides you with multiple options to sneak your way through. Whether you're smoke bombing your way past a guard or sliding past enemies using bits of environmental cover, you'll be able to find your way to each level's end goal.
There are genuinely fun ways to experiment with the game's tools to sneak through, but it all amounts to the same simple concept: Make it from Point A to Point B.
There are side objectives in each level, in the form of other orphaned children that El Hijo can find and cheer up. Unless you're a completionist, there's rarely a reason to go out of your way to seek them out — and it's a shame, because some of the game's trickiest stealth segments come in while trying to nab these side goals. If you bypass them, you'll be surprised with how how quickly and easily you've finished the experience.
El Hijo is easy to look at and listen to. It's Sunday-morning-cartoon levels of charming, bright, colorful, and non-violent. Between levels, there are fully animated, silent cutscenes that always delighted. That same cartoon style comes through beautifully in the game's 3D art and expressive animations. The soundtrack has an appropriately epic Western flair, with the tension of a showdown between pistol wielders replaced here with the tension of a vulnerable young boy's sneaky journey through dangerous environments.
But we're here to acknowledge it all: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, if you will.
El Hijo can be a frustrating play, as the game's intermixing systems may not react in the same way every single time. You kind of need them to when you're expected to find the perfect path through. So when your enemies ignore a distraction that pulled them away from their post in every previous attempt, you're left with nothing other than a fail state and a frown.
On the other hand, there are a lot of fun ways to game the system and get through even without the intended solutions. Situations where I felt I had all but soft-locked myself, with no way forward beyond a full reset of the level, were surprisingly solvable thanks to the game's sneaky set of tools.
Over the 7+ hours I spent with El Hijo's 31 levels, there were a few glitches that hampered my experience. Oftentimes, the game would not revert back to its gameplay state after cutscenes, with the camera stuck in a certain position, my user interface invisible, and generally leaving me unable to get a proper look at my surroundings. I'd be able to continue playing but inevitably get caught thanks to the error, which would (only sometimes) fix the scene and set me back on my way. I'd also get stuck on elements in the world, requiring full level resets to be able to continue to progress, which would be alleviated by a few timely checkpoints but was still an annoyance regardless.
The stealth can be frustrating at times, the bugs can be grating, and it can be simpler than you might want it to be, but El Hijo still has a lot to love. Honig Studios have crafted an incredibly wholesome experience with a freedom in choice about how to approach each scenario that leaves things nice and flexible. It's an extremely breezy experience, one you can glide through in a few sittings, that I think this industry needs more of.
video games are good and El Hijo is... GOOD. (6.5/10)
+ charming in all aspects, simple and to the point, with the freedom in its systems to experiment with stealth systems
- buggy at times, lacking in surprises and incentives to complete the best parts of the game
When a friend asks about hopping into Hitman, Metal Gear Solid, or Dishonored for the first time, wary about what the stealth genre has in store for them, consider recommending El Hijo to them first. They just might find themselves better equipped to face the darker environments that await when they've spent a little time sneaking past a monk distracted by a toy soldier.
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