The Old West is a tough place. An unnamed boy, only called El Hijo, must learn this lesson at only nine years old when bandits destroy his house and his mother’s farm. Left without any means to take care of her son, the woman leaves him in a monastery.
Of course, El Hijo opposes being left like this and quickly prepares his escape. The task is apparently simple: get out of this strange place and come back with your mother. Yet a monastery in the middle of nowhere seems huge to a child, and the child is also particularly well staffed. The only way is calm.
El Hijo takes place in three environments: the monastery, a saloon, and the desert between them. It’s a seemingly short trip, but each of these settings is broken down into ten levels. The more I look around each one, the more there is to see. The levels are like toy chests, self-contained wonderland that I would gladly hang as art on my wall. The careful play between light and shadow not only looks amazingly good, it’s also essential for you to pass undetected. As long as you stay in the shadows and don’t get too close to an adult, they may look in your direction but won’t see you.
The setting is not arbitrary. El Hijo developer Jiannis Sotiropoulos took inspiration from El Topo, a sour western from 1970 in which a young boy named Hijo is left behind by his father in the same way. Despite what games can often suggest, the harsh conditions don’t immediately turn kids into adults – in El Hijo the boy grows into a boy a little longer, including all the puddle splash and gentle nip that entails. It’s not a childish game – its stealthy mechanics are on par with any other title in the genre – but it carries the spirit of a good time thanks to sun-drenched environments and gnarled cowboys and monks who don’t. not seem as threatening to me as they do to El Hijo.
El Hijo is completely non-violent. You can hide behind large objects, in vases, in laundry baskets, behind curtains, etc. In the demo I played, there was always a nice little “aha” effect as I figured out how to use new hiding places. You can take different paths or sometimes avoid hiding completely if you’re quick enough. When things are particularly crowded, it is also possible to throw a previously collected stone or even a toy. Thanks to numerous save points, getting caught never becomes unduly punishing. Wanting to explore a new environment or part of the level just to see what it will look like and what obstacles await you is a defining factor that made my time with El Hijo go very quickly.