Honig Studios has produced an adorable puzzle adventure in which you direct the eponymous Hijo through a series of levels to rescue his mother who has been kidnapped by bandits.
Along the way, you’ll dodge monks, inspire other captive children, and avoid weirdly hostile scarecrows. You’ll learn to manipulate a slingshot, and eventually, assuming you complete the game, reunite with your mother after defeating a bandit conspiracy. If that sounds like fun to you, keep reading.
El Hijo very rapidly introduces you as the player to the world you’ll be occupying for the next 29 levels or so. The game exists in a stylized version of the Old West, particularly dominated by a very Spanish colonial influence, which perhaps explains the game’s title. “El Hijo” refers to “son,” and the game’s prologue establishes that your character lives on a farm with his mother but that his father is dead. Your mother walks you through the initial abilities Hijo has, including the use of a pet bird to gain an aerial view of your surroundings, the ability to sneak, and how to use shadows to conceal yourself from the prying eyes of what the game refers to as “opponents.”
At the end of the prologue, bandits storm your farm, raze your home, and kidnap your mother. The screen fades to black, and you awaken in an adobe structure, surrounded by monks you’ll need to avoid in order to escape to begin the search from your mother. Once you do manage to escape, a whole world opens up for you, and you’re off to the races.
The first thing I noticed about “El Hijo” is that it’s a beautifully designed game. The colors are lovely, and the world design is entirely consistent in terms of color palette and overall use of shape and light. In short, the game is visually lovely.
The lack of dialogue at first seemed odd but eventually turned out to be a solid design choice. Dialogue isn’t required because the game emphasizes nonverbal storytelling, and dialogue would simply have interrupted the visual flow. Given that “El Hijo” is a game designed for handheld devices, Honig has made another good choice in choosing to de-emphasize the background music. Most of the game’s aural experience arises from small bursts of sound related to gameplay elements, by which I mean bird calls, monastic chants, and other related sounds. That makes for a game that will not be overly distracting should you choose to play it while waiting in line or in a waiting area. Playing El Hijo will not elicit angry glares from the people around you, which makes for a more pleasant experience for everyone.
El Hijo is very much a puzzle game, and your abilities relate directly to those puzzles. While El Hijo’s use of the slingshot remains non-lethal, it does serve to create effective deterrents and distractions that aid Hijo in his journey. The game makes effective and ample use of shadows in crafting solutions, so should you play, pay attention to how the game doles out darkness. El Hijo doesn’t use darkness to quite the extent that Tandem did, but a fair number of puzzles require the player to take advantage of how the game positions the shadows.
The birds’ eye view function is also important to gameplay. The aerial view will provide clues to the puzzle’s solution by revealing opponents’ visual cones and whether the opponent’s sight line could be disrupted by any obstacles. As Hijo, you must avoid the entirety of the solid yellow visual cones, but more transparent cones imply the existence of an obstacle that Hijo can use to conceal his movement. My experience with the stealth mechanic was uneven, but the game clearly anticipates that players will rely heavily on the crouch feature.
The game does not require much in the way of one’s reflexes, but it does anticipate that players will have a certain command of timing. Hijo has the ability to run past certain kinds of obstacles, but as with many games, he does have a limited amount of energy and must slow down to recoup energy expended in making that effort. That, of course, would be where the player’s sense of timing comes into play. Timing also has some bearing on the “inspire” mechanic. As Hijo traverses the levels, he will encounter similarly captured children, and the “interact” option allows him to perform some antics to lift their spirits. It’s a nice feature as are the various toys that Hijo can use to various effects throughout the puzzles.
That said, the game suffers from a number of issues. First, the game was clearly designed with the Switch in mind. I played an iOS port, and I did not find the controls to be either intuitive or responsive. I could deal with the former by looking up the controls menu in the main menu, but the latter rendered the game incredibly frustrating to play, especially in situations that relied on stealth or speed for the solution. The controls also vastly complicated targeting the slingshot or the deployment of toys, which, as you might imagine, comprise significant gameplay elements.
El Hijo is also a very linear experience; Honig anticipates a single solution to each puzzle, and I found several instances in which the solution was clear but various aspects of the control system made implementing the solution either more difficult than it should have been, unnecessarily frustrating, or both. The size of the screen—and mine isn’t small—made taking full advantage of the shadows all but impossible because I kept losing visual track of Hijo. Perhaps had I been playing on a docked Switch, I would not have found the game as frustrating as I did, but it is a problem with the iOS port.
Some of the animations also became repetitive. I’m thinking specifically of the juggling animation involved in the inspiration mechanic. While I didn’t quite avoid inspiring the captive children, it was a near thing. Due to this repletion, El Hijo feels very flat in places, and it’s hard to keep up the enthusiasm necessary to finish the game.
Despite beautiful visuals and a tranquil soundtrack, El Hijo features some pretty significant flaws in gameplay. The iOS port feels poorly designed, especially given how reliant the game is on following a set solution for each puzzle. Issues with the controls detract enough from the gameplay experience that I can see most gamers putting it down and never coming back to finish it. That said, a robust checkpointing system does mean that the game recognizes that most players will play in small chunks, which makes the game good for playing in snippets. However, you do need to reach the checkpoints in question, which may or may not make the game suitable for playing on the go.
El Hijo is available for Windows, Xbox One, Xbox Series S, and Playstation 4, and it’s entirely possible that the game benefits greatly from the better processing units present in those platforms. If you’re interested in the game, you may think about being more selective about which platform you choose.
El Hijo retails on App Store for $9.99 and is on deep sale on the Steam Store for $4.99.
Stray Thoughts From Behind the Keyboard
- Be warned, the Steam reviews indicate that the PC version remains fairly buggy.
- Whether you continue playing this game really will depend on whether the platform on which you play it is conducive to it.
- I do like that the game is nonviolent, and it is therefore kid friendly.