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.