There is much to love about Flinthook, a new roguelike platformer that came out about a month ago; superb gameplay, gorgeous retro art style and animation and some of the catchiest music I have heard in a video game in quite some time. That being said, I found myself frustrated with the game in a way that I have not experienced in quite some time.
You play as a space pirate/bounty hunter (who might actually be named Flinthook? I’m not sure.) who flies around space boarding and raiding other pirate ships in search of specific pirates that must be confronted in big boss fights. Each ship is randomly generated and you must make your way through to a random room that has a giant treasure chest that gives you a piece of treasure that allows you to leave the ship and move on to the next one. The rooms themselves can be combat heavy, platform heavy or anywhere in between.
The gameplay is excellent. Flinthook can jump around and is armed with a blaster to take out his enemies, as well as being equipped with a grappling hook and the ability to slow down time at will. The time control is great for attack runs on large clusters of enemies or for dodging their return fire, which can quickly overwhelm you if you are not careful. The grappling hook (is this the Flinthook? WHO/WHAT IS FLINTHOOK!?) is what really makes the game fun to play; it allows you to zip up down and every which way to move quickly around each room, surprising, dodging and bamboozling enemy pirates at your mere whim. The controls in this game cannot be understated; it is a level of joy merely moving around that you rarely experience in games. Every movement and decision feels tight and precise and you always feel like you are in control, no matter the challenges you are facing. Health recovery items drop throughout the game and you are also able to equip perk cards that can do any number of things; added health, quicker grappling hook, longer blaster shots, you name it, the game allows you augment it so long as you have a card and the space to equip it.
Gameplay aside, the visual and audio components of the game are not to be unappreciated. Capturing a modern take on classic 16-bit era graphics, every aspect of the game looks awesome. Levels and rooms look lush, colorful and vital. Flinthook, if that is his real name, darts around and is extremely charming and fun to look at while the pirate designs are bright, unique and engaging. The creators seem to have gone into great detail even with the backgrounds, which pop and add to the fun and chaos of the gameplay at every turn. The music adds to this as well, capturing the nostalgic power of the SNES era with a more complex and modern understanding of what can be done with those tools; it’s peppy, fun and gets the adrenaline going consistently every time I pop into a new room. In fact, listening to the music online got me to try the game out before I had even seen any gameplay or even knew what it was about.
That all being said, there is a pretty big caveat to this game and that is its roguelike nature. While not having all the elements of a roguelike, it does randomly generate each pirate ship you invade. The rooms are also of maybe a dozen designs with small changes thrown into each one to make them feel different and death ends each play through and forces you to start each bounty hunt over. You also do grow stronger after every death, so technically speaking, you are not wasting your time each play through.
Except after a few runs, you 100% do start feeling like you are wasting your time. Each bounty demands you clear more and more ships and the challenge in that begins to mount pretty quickly. The game is hard. Hard, but fair, if only. Rooms never feel truly overwhelming, but they often have moments of pretty intense gameplay that will bleed you of a large chunk of your health and make a successful run at the boss, who might still be 3+ ships away near impossible. And while death is not true waste of time, like I said, I also don’t think you are really gaining enough from each run to really make it feel worth it; this isn’t Rogue Legacy, which did a much better job of handling death. After I had sufficiently boosted my character, each playthrough where I didn’t clear a boss, or at least make it to them, felt like a waste of time.
And that makes this game tough to really judge because the moment to moment play of it is fun. Is. So. Fun. Jumping and grappling around really could not be more joyful and intoxicating, but the roguelike aspects of the game really bog the whole experience down. If they had crafted and built a game from start to finish that allowed for the full use of the gameplay mechanics, where each pirate ship is built from the bottom up to add challenging and diverse situations, this would have been one of the all-time great combat platformers, right up there with Super Mario World or Mark of the Ninja. But the randomly generated levels feel just generic and same-y that they hold the rest of the game back. I will continue to play, to be sure, but what could have been will scratch at the back of my head each time I dive into a new pirate ship.
Seriosuly, who is Flinthook? I kind of want to know…