When you think of Spaghetti Westerns, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Probably tense shootouts between bandits and anti-heroic cowboys, dramatic chases on horseback, and lawless saloons filled with ne'er-do-wells. How about a small child mischievously sneaking past monks, thieves, and lawmen to find his mother? It's not one of the well-worn tropes of the Wild West, but developer Honig Studios is seeking to change that. El Hijo: A Wild West Tale is a non-violent stealth game starring the titular "son", who's separated from his mother at the outset of the story. He's taken to live in a monastery but decides he doesn't want to become a monk and effects an escape.
Unlike many stealth titles, you don't have any combat options whatsoever in El Hijo. Rather, you must use your wits, your agility, and an arsenal of distraction objects to help you pass by threats unnoticed. As such, it's more of a puzzle game than a stealth experience; each of El Hijo's levels has an optimal route, and it's up to you to find it rather than trying to discover shortcuts or dispatch enemies. Pure stealth is tricky; it's hard to design a compelling experience in which you can't be found or fight back. Does El Hijo deserve a place among the Spaghetti Western greats, or will it fall by the wayside?
El Hijo's Story Is Beautifully Simple
El Hijo's narrative is quiet, but engaging nonetheless. As it opens, the titular "hijo" - son - is following his mother around the ranch, playing a sneaky game with her. Returning to your home after the shenanigans, you find it in flames, and your mother becomes determined to exact vengeance on the bandits who committed the act. You're sent off to a monastery while she undertakes her grim task, but you decide the ascetic life is not for you and sneak out of your bedroom window in classic rebellious child fashion. The story that unfolds is told entirely without dialogue and often without interrupting gameplay, which makes El Hijo feel immersive and involving.
A large contributing factor to the narrative's success is the atmosphere. El Hijo's presentation is, to put it simply, top-notch. The visuals are breathtakingly beautiful; the style is somewhere between Breath of the Wild and Journey, all broad brushstrokes and bold lines. This has the dual benefit of making gameplay easy to parse and also working within the story. The titular son's perception of the world matches the simplicity of the visual style, which makes the character more endearing. As each new part of the monastery - and later areas which I won't spoil - presented themselves, I always took a moment to simply take in my new surroundings before proceeding.
Sneaking In El Hijo Feels Great, Mostly
While El Hijo's core gameplay loop involves stealth, you won't find Dishonored-style teleportation powers or Metal Gear Solid-esque shootouts here. El Hijo's levels are often sprawling, layered affairs, but there's usually an optimal route through them. Gameplay takes place from an isometric perspective, and each level has a number of "guards" (usually monks or bandits) patrolling its corridors and courtyards. You must use the shadows, your distraction tools, and your natural agility to sneak past them. To help you (or hinder you), levels also often contain organic and ambient elements. These could be noise-making hazards like animals, obstacles to your path like boxes or pots, or even things that can help you sneak past guards more easily, like breakable objects.
Failure never feels frustrating because...El Hijo wants you (and its titular character) to succeed.
Despite the occasional control blip, El Hijo features plenty of anti-frustration features. The controls can feel floaty and imprecise at times, but there are so many checkpoints that being spotted and caught never feels like a serious setback. Contextual button prompts can feel a little wonky, but enemies usually give you enough time to rectify mistakes before they spot you. Failure never feels frustrating because there's a strong feeling that El Hijo wants you (and its titular character) to succeed. That doesn't mean it's not challenging; the levels feel appropriately daunting and enemies have well-considered patrol paths. Through clever design, El Hijo avoids the usual stealth pitfalls of repetition and "gaming the system" by exploiting enemy AI.
El Hijo's Levels Are Huge And Satisfying
El Hijo's levels are a joy to explore. While they start off small, they quickly start sprawling out, offering multiple paths to your objective (although one is usually the path of least resistance, which, in a stealth game, is usually the one you'll want to opt for). There are also optional challenges in many levels in the form of children you can inspire. Throughout the early monastery levels, they're doing chores, praying, or are otherwise engaged in activities kids would rather not be doing. There's no gameplay element to it, but you can teach them to juggle, balance a spoon on your nose, or show them a fun prank to keep their spirits up. It's a delightful way to incorporate El Hijo's non-violent mischief into its gameplay, and I always felt a flutter of joy when I found a new kid I could befriend.
El Hijo's levels are a joy to explore.
At times, the labyrinthine nature of the levels works against El Hijo. The bird's-eye view is invaluable in getting a better idea of your surroundings, but it doesn't stretch far enough to let you properly plan a route through the stage. That's fine if you plan to stick to your main objective; the pathing to help you reach the end of the level is usually pretty clear. However, if you're looking to get as many optional objectives as possible, you'll need to engage in a little trial-and-error, which can feel unfair or annoying at times. Again, though, it never feels truly frustrating thanks to plenty of checkpoints and low stakes for failure.
El Hijo | Final Thoughts
It's refreshing to play a game that asks you to solve its problems through mischievous misdirection instead of violence. El Hijo is a tightly-constructed, rewarding stealth game that only occasionally stumbles. Floaty controls and levels that border on too big are offset by frequent checkpoints and plenty of things to find off the beaten path. If you're a stealth aficionado and you're looking for something more peaceful and contemplative than the average high-octane stealth shooter, you'll find what you want and plenty more in El Hijo.
TechRaptor reviewed El Hijo: A Wild West Tale on PC via Steam using a code provided by the publisher. It's also available on GOG.com.
- Rewarding Stealth Mechanics
- Beautiful Visuals
- Sprawling, Multi-Layered Levels
- Low Cost For Failure
- Floaty Controls
- Some Levels Are Too Big
- Might Be Too Easy For Some