There is something to be said for the onslaught of Roguelike titles that continues unabated. While there is certainly a fair bit of dross working to saturate the market, there still seems to remain a deep well of opportunity for developers to iterate on the concepts. We continue to see a couple shining examples of that iteration come to market every six months or so.
Flinthook is one of those shining examples, taking a variety of cues from the Roguelike design playbook and applying them to a fast-paced platformer focused on a brilliantly realized hookshot mechanic.
Developer: Tribute Games
Publisher: Tribute Games
Format: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Released: April 18, 2017
Set in the far away Mermadion Galaxy, Flinthook‘s jaunty adventure revolves around a mystical lighthouse powered by spirits that local pirates have a history of putting in bottles so they can be better pirates.
The game is cute and light on plot, delivering all you need to know through brief animations, but does feature an extensive library of collectible lore fleshing out the world and characters. And let’s not discount those animations which — like all of the visual design in Flinthook — exhibit a deep love for and attention to craft.
With the emphasis in “space pirates” firmly on the “pirates,” there’s an undeniable charm to character designs and the environments pack in about as much detail as the pixels could provide.
The gimmick of a grappling hook is nothing new, but its execution in Flinthook ranks among the best.
Primarily used for navigation and opening doors between rooms, pressing its button fires a projectile which attaches to diamond-shaped targets and pulls the player in their direction. It requires accuracy to use well, but the size of the hook projectile provides a good bit of wiggle room if your aim is a little off.
Fine control of velocity can be achieved by releasing the hookshot button to stop accelerating, allowing for both quick movement and sudden stops.
Character movement and aiming are both handled with the same analog stick, which may sound counterintuitive but works in favor of the hookshot. Where that tool is concerned, the tying of movement to aim really just means you’re already starting to move toward your destination.
It’s a bit less friendly in regards to the pistol, but the game does try to compensate. A skill awarded following the tutorial allows you to hold position and aim while on the ground, mitigating this issue where it would be most keenly felt, making it a minor issue at worst.
Rounding out the player’s basic skills is the ability to slow time on command, limited by the use of a recharging meter. While only necessary to pass through certain barriers and to defeat one specific enemy type, leveraging it to carefully time use of the hookshot or make it easier to respond to the movement of enemies makes it an invaluable addition to the arsenal.
Used together (along with a highly useful wall jump) these three tools can produce supremely empowering encounters as you zip from one side of the room to the other, squeezing through tight spaces, blasting enemies and snatching up the gold they leave behind.
Play proceeds through a series of platforming stages working toward the defeat of a pirate captain of the Cluster Clan, with each defeated captain providing access to the next. To reach a captain, the player must first complete raids on vessels under their command, collecting spirit gems to feed a magical – and slimy – compass.
Once the requisite number of stages is completed, the run ends in a boss fight against the captain.
Before beginning a run, the player may customize their strategy through the selection of perks that allow you to define a play style. Perks offer improvements to many basic elements, like maximum health, damage resistance, movement speed, pistol damage and rate of fire which can help make up for some skill deficiencies.
They can switch up gameplay in more significant ways too, changing the pistol’s firing pattern or giving access to additional moves such as a double jump or air dash. Others simply improve the value of what’s collected during runs, allowing more gold to be earned or increasing the effect of healing items.
There are limits on how many perks you can take. Each perk has an associated point value and the total value of selected perks cannot exceed a maximum threshold. While that maximum may expand over time, some of the more potent perks cost more than half of what’s available once fully developed, which means giving up two or three other useful buffs.
That said, it’s a rather flexible system and fun to experiment with.
New perks are acquired by the collection of booster packs, awarded as part of a multi-track progression system that resembles the ones found in free-to-play games without any microtransactional bullshit.
Flinthook has most of the trappings: An experience based level system that rewards the player with randomly assorted upgrades at intervals, drip availability of those same upgrades and a specialty currency only used in a shop outside of gameplay to provide character growth opportunities, all contributing to a sense of constant progress regardless of individual skill.
What it doesn’t do is ask for more of your money, which is classy of it.
Each of the Cluster Clan ships consists of a randomly assorted selection of connected rooms containing traps, treasures and pirates. Some rooms exist only to be traversed (often rewarded with a chest of gold), but many will lock the player in until they have successfully defeated one or more waves of enemies.
Other rooms offer curses that provide passive effects in exchange for greater XP growth or contain shops where the player can spend the gold collected on their current run in exchange for health items or more perks.
You do have some control over what you’ll face in each level, with a choice of three ships of varying difficulty. Along with a challenge rating, the game provides clues as to special characteristics each ship has through a list of modifiers. These modifiers indicate the presence of special rooms, the quantity and difficulty of enemies, or if the stage has a particular emphasis on certain traps.
They even make changes to basic elements, increasing the size of enemy bullets or altering the gravity.
An impressive variety of enemies populate the ships. Many are stationary with ranged attacks that pass through walls and floors and dealing with them requires no less traversal skill than the enemies that wander in patterns or give chase.
Parrots drop bombs while starfish spin invincibly through rooms. Perhaps the most annoying pirate has no attack at all, instead shielding all other enemies in impenetrable bubbles, forcing you to deal with them first while avoiding fire being spewed all around you.
But while there are a great variety of enemies, there is little variety to their action. All but a couple follow an immediately predictable pattern for their type, performing their attacks and movements like clockwork. Over time, this simplicity lends a puzzle solving aspect to combat as it becomes second nature to prioritize targets at a glance and eliminate them one after another.
Flinthook‘s approach to room design is smart, taking a solid stock of layouts and augmenting them with a wide range of patterns for enemy spawn and hazard placement.
Basic room designs become wildly different just through the addition of spiked balls moving in orbits or a few strategically placed pirates, and most rooms will feature a combination of elements. Some patterns lack any safe ground, requiring constant deployment of the hookshot through narrow passages to avoid taking damage, others go the other direction and provide no diamonds for the hook to force use of core platforming skills.
With over half a dozen distinct types of environmental hazards (several with multiple patterns, sizes and other tweaks) and the wide range of enemy types, the variety of room permutation is enormous. As familiarity with the basic layouts grows, previously unseen configurations become puzzles you already know part of the solution to but may need to approach in a new way, contributing to a satisfying sense of skill progression.
Boss stages consist of an entry room followed by a large chamber in which a Cluster Captain is fought.
Just as the standard enemies serve to provide traversal puzzles as part of their spawn patterns, so too do the boss encounters, requiring greater dependence on the hookshot with each successive foe. But they’re mostly considerate of the player in their design. The pirate captains incorporate attacks similar to those used by earlier enemies, so there are no total surprises out of left field; they’re things you’ve already seen and negotiated, possibly presented with a new twist.
The problem is the final boss, which winds up both underwhelming and out of step with this design, using attack patterns both poorly telegraphed and previously unseen yet not being particularly difficult.
Hell, the entire final run is a bit of a problem, depending on how you look at it.
Once you’ve defeated the three captains of the Cluster Clan, the last mission is to take them all on in sequence, separated by three of their lesser ships, with the final boss at the end of the road. For those keeping score at home, that’s nine full stages and four boss encounters. That should make one wet one’s pants.
Unfortunately, this final run shatters the difficulty progression the game has previously established.
A big cause of the difficulty prior to this run is the gradual increase in room complexity. Each ship is generally a bit more challenging than the one before it and this progression is reflected also between the last ship of one armada and the first ship in the next.
Since your progress resets every time you take on a new boss, the game naturally remains difficult, since you have only your starting perks every time you play.
By putting ships from all three previous runs in sequence for the last chapter, the game completely deflates a huge aspect of its challenge. There is plenty of opportunity to pick up lots of gold, buff up in shops, and take on pretty much whatever there is to offer because you’ve already done it with less.
Of course, you’re welcome to make it harder for yourself by selecting ships with more difficult modifiers and the game provides no shortage of additional challenges for those who can’t get enough of the gameplay.
A survival mode – Infinite Raid – actually addresses the difficulty progression issue found in the final assault by lopping off a percentage of your maximum health after each ship, making it quite challenging very quickly.
There are also bonus stages hidden within the four main levels which require special conditions to access (some necessary to achieve a “good” ending), plus a wholly optional hard mode, score attack and time attack challenges for each stage. Each assault also has leaderboards and there are daily and weekly challenges on offer for the competitively minded.
All told, Flinthook is a damn good time. It’s demanding with its difficulty but provides all of the tools necessary for success; not so cruel as to seem unfair but steadfast in its expectations of the player. The core mechanics are satisfying to use and well balanced, while offering the player ways to upset individual aspects of that balance through perks and carve out their own style.
If the wave of Roguelikes were to break today and nothing of note were to arrive in 2017, Flinthook alone would still make it a pretty good year for the genre.