Wot I Think: Flinthook

Flinthook [official site] combines everything I loved about Rogue Legacy with far slicker platforming action, based around some of gaming’s greatest icons: grappling hooks and stylish slow motion. It’s a tremendous game that I’ve been hooked on since launch.

You are a space pirate. Your ship fires a massive grappling hook into other vessels, like an aggressive anchor that busts through their hull, and once on board you bring out your own smaller hook to swing and zoom through the interior, seeking booty. The ships are randomly generated, though individual rooms are hand-crafted, and contain a mixture of traps, combat encounters and special situations, including map rooms, treasure hauls and shops. Oh, and bosses.

Structurally, Flinthook is near-perfect. It uses a system of unlocks to give new powers and buffs as you play, but rather than leading to an incremental increase in abilities, all of these unlocks are tied into a deck of cards. Each mission, you choose a loadout, some cards costing more than others, and that means even the toughest pirates have tricky choices to make rather than simply packing all of their best toys and trinkets every time.

All of this works so well because you’re never without an objective. This kind of gradual upgrade system can leave characters drifting around aimlessly, their only goal being to get the next +2 HP card. It’s the gaming equivalent of going to the gym and grinding the treadmills without actually having an end-goal in mind. Flinthook lets you do as many sessions in the gym as you want to, but you’re doing it all because you have awful villains to defeat. In the short-term, you’re trashing and looting individual ships, but each successful mission gets you one, two or three steps closer to the current boss you’re hunting

See, you’re not so much a space pirate as a space pirate-hunter. You’re raiding and boarding and ramming and looting, but the people you’re attacking are a rotten bunch. As you move toward each bossfight, you’ll have to complete a series of missions and you’re always given a choice of three ships to attack. Each has a somewhat vague difficulty level, which determines how close it’ll get you to the boss, and there might be several modifiers on the target ship, dictating everything from the number of combat rooms to the actual layout.

Crucially, you tackle these missions in batches, unable to take a breather and regenerate your health until you’ve gathered enough resources to attack the boss. That gives a simple but effective risk-reward element even on the mission selection screen. Say you need three MacGuffins (you’re feeding stuff into a living compass) to reach the boss and are already running low on health, does it make more sense to tackle a tough ship that’ll give you all of the resources in one haul or would you rather take on three easier ships? The answer will depend on your approach and the specific modifiers applied to those ships. I’d rather avoid combat when low on health because I find it difficult to manage safely, but killing enemies can also be a good way to find health-boosting food and potions.

Essentially, Flinthook always gives me just enough information to kid me into thinking I’m in control of my own destiny, but has enough unpredictability in its design to pull the rug out from beneath my feet time and time again. And even though I’ve been playing for hours, I haven’t once felt frustrated when I’ve ended up on the receiving end of a brutal sequence of rooms. That’s because the actual grappling and jumping and dodging and shooting is superb.

I didn’t think so in the first half hour though. The control scheme seemed counter-intuitive and clumsy, and I thought the game was maybe a couple of tweaks from greatness, but impossible to recommend without those tweaks. That didn’t last though, partly because an early unlock fixes my issues with aiming and partly because I simply learned how to play. I’m still going to complain about the aiming issue because I think hiding the improvement behind an unlock gives a poor first impression for no real gains. This is a game where your character is very mobile, jumping and hookshotting around the screen like a pinball. Often you’ll need to pick off enemies as they approach, or while they’re between shots, and you can’t aim while standing still so end up running into bullets while trying to return fire. Very quickly, you’ll find some boots that let you aim while stationary and that makes things a lot more manageable, but the controls are still tricky to get a handle on.

Flinthook feels like it should use twinsticks, and it does something similar to a twinstick scheme with its mouse and keyboard controls, where the mouse aims and key presses controls movement. Instead, on a controller where the game feels most comfortable, aiming and movement are both on a single stick. That creates a certain rigidity of movement which seems at odds with the speedy way the hook allows you to zip around rooms. I’ve got used to it now and appreciate how it limits my ability to fall into patterns of retreat while firing defensive shots; it forces use of the hook and the slow-motion ability. See, the hook isn’t for swinging chaotically, it’s for firing at set points in a room and using the momentum it creates to move around a level quickly, or to avoid traps.

Once you’ve grasped its idiosyncrasies, the control scheme becomes a way to encourage use of every tool you possess, from jumping and running to hookshots and secondary weapons. And that is the essence of Flinthook. You select a ship, board and make your way through the rooms, and use whatever skills you possess, unlock or develop to find the main treasure room before departing. You can be completionist, using the neat minimap to backtrack and find every doubloon in the hold, and every secret corner. More often than not you’ll be surviving by the skin of your teeth though, and feeling like the swashbucklingiest hero in the world as you dodge incoming bullets in slow motion, then make your way across a trap-filled room in a split second using that lovely hook.

Flinthook’s world is weird, with its space ghost pirates, animal ruffians and giant robots, but as colourful and crowded as some of these screenshots look, I’ve always found the rooms easy to read. That’s important because underneath all of the silliness and the roguelite elements, there’s a tight and challenging game that would be a delight even without its superb structure and flow. With that carefully crafted layer around it, Tribute have made one of the year’s best action games.

Flinthook is out now for Windows, Mac and Linux, and is available via Steam for £10.99.

31 Comments

  1. Beefenstein says:

    THIS REVIEW MAKES ME WANT

  2. lokimotive says:

    I just bought this yesterday and, although I haven’t had a lot of time to play around with it, I can already tell you that it’s a wonderful game with great graphic design. The control does seem odd at first, as the review points out, but it seems much more intuitive as you go on. Ultimately, I think having two sticks would be too fidgety; the one stick approach seems to encourage fluidity and speed.

    I tried it a little with the mouse, but it seemed a lot clunkier.

  3. mcnostril says:

    Er… what’s up with the screenshots?
    I’m fairly sure the game isn’t all blue tinged.

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      Adam Smith says:

      FIXED. I have no idea why my computer decided to make the world more blue. Looks like I was playing night levels. But they don’t exist.

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    reddog says:

    That seems like such a strange palette. Are the colors supposed to be like that?

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      Adam Smith says:

      Err. No. All of my screengrabs came out odd and I hadn’t realised when I was uploading them because I assumed my eyes had just gone a bit blue.

  5. Dewal says:

    Would it be possible to have a way to consult every RPS recommended games ?
    I can’t play this one right away but I’d like to keep an eye on it (and all of the others I missed)

    • Beefenstein says:

      RPS steam curator thing I think?

      • Dewal says:

        Oh, thanks ! I was expecting something on this site but it works too.

      • Nickburger says:

        The RPS Steam curator is ok but what I really want is a list of just the games that got the RPS Recommended badge…. where to find?!

    • April March says:

      I don’t know if this is what you want, but I use isthereanydeal.com as a general wishlist.

  6. Marclev says:

    Flinthook feels like it should use twinsticks, and it does something similar to a twinstick scheme with its mouse and keyboard controls, where the mouse aims and key presses controls movement

    Just checking, you do realise that the “twin stick” thing is the console implementation of the exact M+KB control scheme you just described, which was introduced I believe by Abuse, in 1996, before twin sticks even became a thing on console controllers?

    It doesn’t do something similar to twin stick schemes, twin stick schemes do something similar to it!

    • lokimotive says:

      Uh… no. Twin sticks are an old arcade control scheme that dates back to 1981 with Space Dungeon in 1981. Robotron: 2084 popularized it in 1982, and there have been plenty of other arcade games that use it. Abuse was one of the first (if not the first) to use the keyboard for movement and the mouse for aiming on a home computer, but it’s not true that twin sticks are an attempt to emulate it.

    • Eterne says:

      Thank you so much for Abuse reference. I had completely forgotten what a fantastic game that was and how much fun I had playing it.

      As for Flinthook, it looks great but if it’s not good with a keyboard and mouse, no thanks.

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      Phasma Felis says:

      What Lokimotive said, and also, saying “you do realize” almost always makes you sound like a huge jerk.

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    Waltorious says:

    Does this game have analog movement? If not, I suspect I’ll prefer the mouse and keyboard controls. Thanks in advance to anyone who can answer this.

    • lokimotive says:

      Yes. You move using the left stick on the controller. As the review says, you also aim both the grappling hook and your gun with that stick. It seems odd at first, but functions fairly well.

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        MajorLag says:

        I believe the poster as asking if you could control the character’s movement speed using the analogue stick, or if it was simply mapped to a digital one-speed movement. If the latter, there’s no reason to prefer an analog stick over a dpad or WASD, is what they’re getting at.

        • lokimotive says:

          Ah! Of course, that makes sense. No, there’s no analog movement, at least I don’t think there is. You’re mostly moving as fast as possible, so there’s no need for the stick to do anything except move at top speed.

  8. Qibbish says:

    So, perhaps this was addressed in a commentary I’ve yet to read, but what are the roguelike/roguelite elements of this game? It was a great overview, but I came out of it only barely appreciating that part of its description.

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    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    How Rogue Legacy is it? Purely in level structure (randomly generated castles with an upgradeable character) or is it deeper than that? RL was one of those games I wanted to like but there were a lot of little things that left me feeling underwhelmed.

    What is the resident grappling hook expert’s expert opinion on this grapple hookery?

  10. The Bitcher III says:

    Sounds like the just the thing to ween myself off Crackspeer Lichtspeer.

    • BludStanes says:

      Thank God for you, Sir. I never heard of this game. After your comment I promptly googled the trailer. I need to spear Cyclops Hipsters, and especially ARMORED Cyclops Hipsters in the face. And don’t get me started on that fish.

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    Godwhacker says:

    Maybe I’ve just not attained mastery yet but on controller at least the controls don’t feel quite precise enough for the game they’re attached to. I’ve been enjoying it plenty but it all too often I find myself cursing the lack of finer control over moving and shooting.

    It’s very good, but not quite up there with Spelunky and Nuclear Throne in my book.

  12. funkstar says:

    Hrm, unless its changed in a patch since I last played, I’m 99% sure that choosing a harder ship out of the three *does not* get you closer to the boss than an easier one.

    I guess the mistake Adam may have made is that the icon on the tokens looks very similar to the difficulty icon? No matter which choice you make you get one token to feed your compass. This is borne out in the second/third wave of ships where difficulty is increased and you still get one token. Choosing a harder ship gives you greater opportunity for cash/loot, is all.

    If I’m wrong, please feel free to correct me :)

  13. April March says:

    It seems there are a lot of things I’ll like in this game, but honestly I think “Rogue Legacy but good” would be enough.

  14. BludStanes says:

    My favorite part is where they throw you in the middle of everything, they don’t tell you crap and when you pick the next ship to board you have no idea what their little symbols and one word definitions mean.
    No seriously, that’s my favorite part. Every time I think I’m a total bad ass, slingshotting to the ceiling dropping plasma balls below me, melting anything crazy enough to come close to me…. I open another door and “Mr Cool Pirate” is a pile of ashes. I suck at this game, I do, but I can tell I’m gonna get really good, and I can tell it’s gonna be sooo satisfying.