Let’s get one thing absolutely straight: the whole pixel art aesthetic has been done to death at this point. So much so, that when another such game pops out of the indie pipeline sporting this characteristically retro look, you’re just as likely to hear sighs of weary cynicism as you are yelps of nostalgia-fuelled joy.
It takes a game like Flinthook to remind you exactly how effective that style of art direction can be when done right. Boot it up, and the title screen smashes you in the face with all the vibrant, excitable energy of a hyperactive kid. The game is peppered with confident touches, like the way our eponymous hero whistles to call back his anchor-shaped boarding device after a hard day’s pillaging. Everything feels vital and immediate, and each little flourish is executed with such obvious glee that developers Tribute Games’ obvious mastery of this particular style simply can’t be ignored. They clearly understand what it can add to a game’s production when implemented well.
The music, too, is nothing short of a master-class in chiptune catchiness, with more than a couple of the tracks close to the caliber of the true classics of the 2D platforming genre, and yes, I am talking eight and 16 bit-era Sonic and Mario here, and I don’t make that comparison lightly. Take it from me; you’ll be humming Flinthook’s wonderfully pirate-y themes long after you’ve closed the game down.
In case you haven’t guessed yet, you play Flinthook, a sort of spacefaring ghost-pirate-adventurer type fellow who is on an intergalactic mission to plunder, pillage, collect lucrative bounties, and just generally do all manner of space-pirating activities, all in pursuit of fabulous wealth. The game is described as an “action platformer with rogue-lite elements”, which, these days, is an incredibly diffuse description. Here, it can be taken to mean that Flinthook’s levels have elements of procedural generation, and also dying means having to restart, with a carry-over of some of the stuff you’ve gathered along the way, including your earned experience and rank.
Once you’ve boarded an enemy vessel in one of the game’s raids, you’ll explore a maze of adjacent rooms, avoiding obstacles and taking out any enemies that cross your path. Some rooms contain environmental hazards, some are filled with waves of enemies that begin attacking you, bullet-hell style, once you enter, while others contain treasures or power-ups such as health replenishing fruit. Not only is the order of these rooms partially randomized, but their contents are too, so you’ll never encounter two identical raids. In addition to the usual running, jumping and shooting, you can employ Flinthook’s signature tool: the hookshot. This anchor-tipped grapple allows quick movement across each room by latching onto strategically placed metal rings. The slick feel of this movement gives the game its unique identity, as you glide and swoop around levels, avoiding spike pits, and shooting enemies from above with your 360-degree fire arc. On top of this, there’s a neat time-slowing mechanic which allows some clever gameplay moments, as you hook your way towards a group of enemies, take few shots, then flit away, activating slo-mo safely navigate their return fire. As techniques go, they’re tricky to master, but with enough skill, stylish moves can be pulled off. Which goes for the rest of the game, too. It’s not trying to ape the difficulty of the most punishing roguelike platformers, preferring rather to offer a good challenge to all but the most seasoned platformer-maestros, while never feeling unfair.
Once you’ve found each ship’s main treasure chest and pilfered the ghost-gem inside (you’ll need to bag a few of these before you can face one of the game’s bosses), the raid’s over, and you return to your ship to re-arm for the next raid. You’re allowed some perks in your loadout, mini-buffs which affect the way you play. For example, some perks give you more impressive firepower, some let you start with a greater health (handy, as your health doesn’t regenerate between raids), and others increase the amount of gold you get from discovering treasure. Perks are earned as you play, especially when leveling up, but many are also purchasable on the Black Market, where you can also buy additional perk slots, too.
The perk system is a useful way of making the player feel like they’re equipping Flinthook to tackle the coming battles, but as every raid requires pretty much the same skillset, you’re probably going to be equipping the same perks, too. This is perhaps Flinthook’s most obvious flaw. Though the mechanics are more than solid and navigating the world is never less than enjoyable, there simply isn’t quite the level of variety to each raid I’d have liked, even with the procedural generation aspect. After I’d beaten the first two bosses, I couldn’t help but feel that the new ships now opened up to me weren’t especially different from the ones I’d already been plundering. The game’s progression system kept me coming back for more, but regarding truly novel content, I’d pretty much seen it all.
There’s also has an odd quirk in the form of the game’s controls. Action-platformers are almost always best tackled with a controller, and Flinthook should be no exception no exception, save for one little irritation. Your pistol’s targeting is done with the left-stick, which also controls movement. This means you’ll often find yourself moving involuntarily while trying to target a particularly tricky enemy, and more than once I accidentally strayed into a spike pit this way. Tribute have addressed this issue to an extent with the inclusion of ‘sniper boots,' which allow you to lock your movement while firing by holding a shoulder button, but this seems less than ideal, especially when simply moving targeting onto the right stick when Flinthook is on the ground would solve the issue. It’s an odd situation when the otherwise less than ideal mouse-and-keyboard control scheme (where targeting is handled separately with the mouse) does this part better.
That said, developers Tribute Games deserve plenty of credit for the freshness the game is imbued with. There’s a confidence and vitality to Flinthook, from its top-notch presentation to its satisfying gameplay, that makes the game difficult to put down, even when you feel you’ve exhausted all its possibilities. If challenging platforming with plenty of pirate-y panache sounds like your thing, you won’t go far wrong with Flinthook.