The Wild West is a hard place. An unnamed boy, only called El Hijo, has to learn this lesson at just nine years old when bandits destroy his home and his mother‘s farm. Left with no way to care for her son, the woman leaves him at a monastery.
Of course El Hijo objects to being left like that, and promptly plots his escape. The task is seemingly simple—get out of this strange place and back with your mother. However, a monastery in the middle of nowhere seems huge to a child, and this one is also particularly well-staffed. The only way is the quiet one.
El Hijo takes place in three environments: the monastery, a saloon and the desert between them. It’s a seemingly short journey, but each of these settings is divided into ten levels. The longer I look around in each, the more there is to see. The levels look like toy boxes, self-contained wonderlands I would happily hang as art on my wall. The careful play between light and shadow doesn’t just look incredibly good, it’s also vital to you getting around undetected. As long as you stick to the shadows and don’t get too close to an adult, they can look right in your direction but won’t see you.
The setting isn’t arbitrary. El Hijo’s developer Jiannis Sotiropoulos was inspired by El Topo, a 1970 acid western in which a young boy named Hijo gets left behind by his father in a similar fashion. Despite what games may often suggest, harsh conditions don’t immediately turn children into adults—in El Hijo, the boy gets to be a boy for a little while longer, including all the puddle splashing and sweet pinching that entails. This isn’t a childish game—it’s stealth mechanics are on par with any other title of the genre—but it carries the spirit of a good time thanks to environments bathed in sunlight and knobbly cowboys and monks that don’t appear half 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, you name it. In the demo I played, there was always a nice little ‘aha’ effect as I discovered how to make use of new hiding spots. You can take different paths or sometimes avoid hiding altogether if you’re quick enough. When things get particularly crowded, there’s also the option to throw a previously collected stone or even a toy. Thanks to plenty of 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 wait for you is a major driving factor that made my time with El Hijo pass very quickly.