The Wild West is full of untold stories. And one is those is that of the child outlaw; the son – El Hijo.
A spaghetti-western that throws us into the life of a young 6-year old child as he looks to be reunited with his mother, El Hijo – A Wild West Tale plays out as a puzzle platforming adventure; one in which you’ll be found taking charge of this youngster as he finds himself separated from the one he looks up to. It’s here where you’ll need to help him work his way through a variety of areas, dodging and distracting foes in a totally non-violent stealth-em-up.
For the fairly unique premise, there’s nothing really included in El Hijo that you wouldn’t have seen before. Taking you through a journey that encompasses a secluded monastery, a desert and a frontier town, gameplay pretty much consists of moving El Hijo around as delicately as possible, attempting to slide by any route-looping foes as best as you can. With a camera that is fairly well-focused on the action, it’s good to see a neat birds-eye view will allow you to expand viewpoints, letting our young hero gather up intel on vision cones that any enemy may well have.
From there you’re pretty much left to walk, run, sneak, hide and crawl through the areas at hand, using cover, jumping into barrels, coffins and mine carts, smashing lights and more in your great escape. The basic premise of each stage is to move from your starting point to blue glowing checkpoints, and then on to further glowing end-of-stage exits. It’s all pretty simple stuff.
To help you on your way though you have a few tools at your disposal. Attached to the D-pad you’ll initially be able to throw stones to distract enemies, dragging them from set routes to ensure that you can sneak on by. You also get access to a catapult (one that is well-placed thanks to a narrative which unfolds), a toy drummer boy which can slowly move across paths, gaining interest from others, and fireworks which can be fired off to stun outlaws and smash open new routes.
These are all limited in their numbers, but various crates can be opened which replenish these fairly regularly. Or you could spend time hunting down other children who are being worked as slaves by the monks, outlaws and folk that frequent the levels, freeing them and inspiring them to better their lives. In return, they’ll sort you out with some further goodies. In fact, even though the likes of the fireworks and drummers are limited, we found that at no point through the entire playthrough of El Hijo did these limits come into play; you’ve nearly always got enough options open to you. And if you don’t, there are the variations in pathways that you can use to allow for further tactical attempts.
Throw in the inclusion of an unlockable sombrero which you can hide under to fool folks even more (seriously, brains aren’t high on the AI agenda), some stamina-increasing running shoes and a cactus flower which lets you hide in a cloud of pollen, and there are some decent ideas running through what the dev team at Honig Studios have created. For the most part though, you’ll find success in El Hijo by taking your time, working the shadows, utilising the environment and making the most of your timings.
However, it’s nice that things occasionally take a turn in terms of basic gameplay, with The Son having to play with the environment, switching up rail tracks and using mine carts to escape chasing bad guys. There are also some brief but delightful spells in which we get to take charge of the mother; her speed and fluid motion is a nice switch from the standard stealth action that makes up the majority of the gameplay. A sequence in which she moves through a train is a particular highlight.
For all the nice ideas that El Hijo comes with though, there’s an overriding amateurish feel that consistently cuts through. Whilst the visuals and sound are nothing to write home about, this vibe is never more apparent than with the AI of the enemies you’ll be ducking and diving between. Much of your progress will ultimately be dictated by how well you time your movements, working through enemy vision cones, but even when you are spotted the AI is more than lacking, giving up on chases fairly easily, and forgetting anything that may have spooked them a mere two seconds earlier. It’s a bit of a shame that there are more than a few occasions in which you can totally forgo the sneaky sneaky and just power through, brute forcing your way through areas.
There are also issues with checkpointing; in particular the saving of levels. Some of these stages will take a good while for you to figure out and work your way through, so it’s strange that progress across full levels is mostly lost should you wish to take a break and head back in at a later time. It’s all fine if something only takes five minutes to work out, but when you’ve lumped 20 or so in, and find your gaming session hitting the clock, the system employed by El Hijo doesn’t help. In my book there is nothing worse than replaying whole sections of any game time and time again, but that’s quite often the case here.
And finally, without spoiling the narrative nor the final moments of the entire adventure, the end sequences that take place are lumpy, jumpy and all too finicky. No matter how good your playthrough has been before it, ending on a sour note is never something you want to see.
For as slow-moving El Hijo – A Wild West Tale on Xbox is, once it gets up to speed and starts throwing clever ideas at you, it can become an enjoyable puzzling playthrough. With multiple routes and paths available, plenty of utilisation of various skills and abilities, and a host of replayability found in helping inspire all children, the initially short feel it emits could quite easily see you throwing high single figure hours into El Hijo. It’s a shame then that the poor AI, basic visuals and a lack of proper puzzling ideas then creep in. That said, for a different take on the many lost tales of the Wild West, El Hijo should be considered.