Couldn’t Get Hooked
If you still haven’t gotten around to watching Flinthook’s intro, I highly recommend you do so now. It’s a beautiful piece of sprite art, a cinematic that will remind the older among you of some of the best 90s cartoons, and which perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the game. The goofiness of the villains, the sheer cuteness of the protagonist and the game world, the sense of excitement and adventure – all are masterfully captured in this intro. The only other game whose intro I have obsessed over so much in recent memory is Yakuza 0, and from me, that’s high praise.
So clearly, having watched this intro and a few other gameplay videos for Flinthook, I was determined to love it, a dangerous proposition for someone writing reviews. Hype culture is a very negative thing, especially when you’re supposed to give a reasoned opinion on a game. When I play a game I’ve really looked forward to, I always have to ask myself: was I really having that much fun, or did I just build this game up in my head?
Sadly, with Flinthook I face no such dilemma. While a good game, there are too many annoyances, too many utterly baffling design choices, for me to be fooled by my own expectations.
On the buzzword level, Flinthook is a retro rogue-lite platformer, but its actual gameplay is far more interesting. You play as the eponymous Captain Flinthook, a legendary pirate and bounty hunter who gets his rocks off by boarding ships, killing their inhabitants and, upon leaving, cold as ice, blowing them up, stragglers and all. Each playthrough starts by having you pick the next bounty target. After some setup, you must board several ships – essentially, procedurally-generated levels – eventually facing your target, which serves as the boss of the run.
Beating all levels and the boss without perishing unlocks, among other things, your next bounty target, with each run putting more ships between you and the boss. The in-setting justification for this – a green slime creature, simply called Slimey, who must eat a certain number of gems found in the ships to be able to track down the big baddies – is typically cute and silly.
Your main tools to get through each ship will be your Blasma Rifle (not a typo), and, more importantly, your uncanny ability to slow time, Max Payne-style, and Flinthook does it really well. No matter how much one plays the game, I doubt the thrill of using bullet-time to deftly navigate around a bunch of projectiles and enemies to land a blow unscathed ever goes away.
Enemies themselves are not too numerous, but they all require different strategies to beat. Some are weak but attack in swarms, some only do contact damage but are very fast, and even among the projectile-using foes, there’s a great variation in type. Their design does a good job of riding the line between cute and ugly, and this extends to the bosses as well.
*Record scratch* I bet you wonder how I got myself in this situation
But enjoying this fun and exciting world is constantly hampered by truly confusing decisions regarding controls and mechanics. Your instinct may be to play Flinthook with a controller, which is how I’ve spent most of my time with the game. Yet for some strange reason, in this, the year 2017 (whoops, current year argument!), Flinthook decided to eschew the well-established control scheme of moving with the left stick and aiming with the right, instead opting to have you control both movement and reticle with the left stick. During the tutorial, you get an “upgrade” that allows you to hold a shoulder button to aim while staying in place, but this prevents you from moving freely while aiming. In a preview for Polygon, the devs explained this decision by saying that dual stick controls “would force key actions like jumping, shooting and firing the grappling hook to be relegated to the triggers”.
“…how do you screw up moving and shooting in a platformer-shooter?”
Or, here’s a thought: you could use the shoulder buttons.
The shoulder buttons, one of whom you’ve used up to deal with the very problem created by how you chose to handle the sticks, do you…
Do you see my problem here?
This problem frustrated me to no end until I realized that once you start playing with a mouse and keyboard, these problems go away completely, because now the WASD keys and the mouse work in tandem much like a typical dual-stick setup.
Seriously, how do you screw up moving and shooting in a platformer-shooter?
Other issues are more mundane, but still frustrating. While Flinthook’s shooting galleries are challenging, most of your health will inevitably be taken down by traps. Ships are loaded with spiked balls, movement-triggered spike floors, lasers, rocket turrets, and other various hassles. While in some cases these make for fun and exciting platforming, most of the time – especially when in a room where you are already fighting a bunch of enemies or a miniboss – they feel like annoyances that do nothing to add to the enjoyment of combat. It can really break up the flow of a fight to face off a bunch of enemies and then accidentally trigger a spike trap that is barely visible in normal times and is all the more so in the heat of combat.
This brings us to a general problem with Flinthook, and indeed, many games that are described as being rogue-like: the procedural generation is just not good. Room configurations repeat staggeringly often, and there doesn’t seem to be enough restrictions on how many rooms of the same type are chained together. There also appears to be no relation between the number of levels you have gone through on the current run, the strength of the miniboss you face, and the reward for emerging victorious. I have been on final levels (pre-boss) where the miniboss was pitifully weak and granted me many healing items, and I’ve heard runs with the opposite experience in the first level.
There are other things I take issue with, like the perk system and the subweapons, most of whom I feel have a lot of potential that has been squandered by sloppy execution. But I think the only thing one really needs to know about Flinthook is that it is a beautiful, colorful game with a great intro that shows you how cool it can be to jump and shoot in it, and then does everything in its power to badger and harass you until you forget about the fun you’ve had.
And that’s a real shame, because of all the things I thought I’d say about Flinthook once I played it, I never thought one of them would be that I’m probably going to forget it.