El Hijo – Nintendo Switch
Developed By: Honig Studios
Published By: HandyGames
Category: Stealth Adventure
Release Date: March 25, 2021
There needs to be more games like El Hijo, where the stakes are high but it isn’t about kill or be killed. Many other stealth games such as the Metal Gear Solid or Hitman series may challenge you to commit little or no kills, but ultimately a core mechanic in these games is the many novel ways to kill your foes. Playing as a 6 year old protagonist is the perfect way to justify why violence isn’t used, a masterstroke from German developers Honig Studios.
You begin as a 6 year old boy in the American Wild West living on an idyllic farm with your mother. As you explore you learn each of El Hijo’s basic stealth mechanics during this initial prologue level and it isn’t long before tragedy strikes and the real adventure begins.
Each level is self-contained, some are landscapes with multiple sections to negotiate and others are lovely diorama-like levels in and around buildings, viewed from a top down isometric angle much like Nintendo’s Captain Toad Treasure Tracker. Levels have you aiming to find your way to the level exit while avoiding detection by enemies, refreshingly without resorting to violence. Whenever you are caught, you are sent back to the previous checkpoint to try again. But thankfully restarts during levels are instant so you are never punished too severely by trying different ways to avoid detection.
You can use the environment to your advantage, such as using things to hide in, using items and making use of shadow and darkness to avoid discovery by enemies. You have a bird companion who will fly out from your poncho whenever you want to get a better (bird’s eye!) view and see enemies’ range of vision and hearing. However so as not to make it too easy you can’t move whenever you go into bird’s eye view. In a nice nod to Zelda there is a stamina gauge to limit how much you can run before tiring, as well as chickens in some levels which you can harass. Similar to Metal Gear Solid you can raise suspicion yet avoid being caught by enemies if you’re quick enough to find somewhere to hide, while other times if you are spotted you are sent back to the nearest checkpoint.
Your default item is a slingshot which you can use in multiple ways, such as to hit or break things and to cause diversions so you can sneak past enemies. As you progress you collect additional items which are each assigned to a direction on the dpad much like Zelda OOT. Also like Zelda, there are chests to open with items inside which even mimic the same animation where your character holds the item aloft. You can’t reassign items on the dpad which is an oversight and also for a game that challenges you to make quick decisions and movements it’s not ideal that you have to make sure you’ve manually selected the item you want to use on the dpad before you use it. This can be frustrating when you have to replay certain sections multiple times and have to reselect the item you want to use.
The introduction of one or two of the later items is a bit problematic. These items sort of break the level design, allowing you to use them as a way to bypass level segments which have been designed and crafted to challenge your skills by the developers. If the items were available from the start and throughout as a way to widen accessibility it would feel more contextually appropriate. But up until the point you get these items to use, El Hijo has masterfully built up your skills and knowledge using its systems to navigate its world and using these items can feel quite unsatisfying. While you can choose to not use these items, the temptation is there unfortunately.
Each level has a sub objective to find other children who will sometimes give you an item to help you. There are also other in game achievements to add a further layer of challenge beyond this and the core game. Occasionally you get to control another character who has their own set of abilities which adds a nice extra flavour to the gameplay and story. Some levels have you negotiating your way to the exit sans enemies and later levels continue to provide new enemies and challenges providing welcome variation. Some of the best levels are found in El Hijo’s final third, The Train is a personal favourite, which combines its use of light and sound superbly at times and challenges you to put into practice everything you’ve learnt so far.
The learning curve is well pitched, with each of El Hijo’s systems and items being layered gradually across the levels as you progress. Often one level will be based around one new system or item which helps to discover it and experiment with it. The enemy AI is pretty good, however there are times where there are chinks in the illusion. You can smash an item which is on an enemy patrol but if this is done when the enemy is outwith the line of sight and earshot of the item they don’t react when they see the pile of rubble.
While the story may be a simple one of a boy and his mother trying to be reunited with one another, it does so successfully. There are some cutscenes between levels which have a gorgeously hand drawn look with warm and sandy pastel colours. Each environment tells its own part of the story, from monks chanting to bandits fighting each other while you slip by. There is no dialogue throughout El Hijo aside from the odd grunt or noise from characters in each level. But in a nod to Zelda Wind Waker, El Hijo makes good use of characters’ expressions to help tell the story and convey characters’ feelings in certain moments.
It has a wonderful use of sound throughout. The soundtrack is quite understated in a similar way to Zelda BOTW where it will play some plinky piano notes or notes on a flute as ambience then dial it up when the action/tension changes on screen. Enemies will be alerted to your presence if you make too much noise and in a lovely touch the music stops when you are in a hiding place.
Performance on Switch is unfortunately a bit mixed. The frame rate often falls significantly when you use the bird’s eye view and sometimes this is coupled with the sound glitching where the music and sound effects echo. There were also a couple of times when the game crashed in the final levels of the game. Load times can be quite long, almost 1 minute to load the game when you start it up and over 30 seconds when you load a new level. Hopefully the developers will improve performance with a new patch in time but none of these issues should impact your overall enjoyment of El Hijo.
El Hijo shows what a non-violent stealth game can be and is much more than a game of hide and seek. It’s excellent and varied level design and simple yet multi-layered systems are introduced and integrated seamlessly with a learning curve Nintendo would be proud of. However some items found later in the game break the feeling of satisfaction to be found by outwitting your enemies and there are minor performance issues that the developers will hopefully address. But don’t let this stealth game evade your attention.