A few hours in
Well, I mean. On the one hand, no.
But also, on the other hand, yes.
The date is still the non-specific space future; the time, a handful of hours later. I’ve played a bunch of Flinthook at this point. I didn’t particularly get very far, but that’s not due to lack of trying: Turns out this game is really challenging when it puts its mind to it. Crucially, it’s not due to lack of wanting to try, either. Keeping up the positive mood of the previous page, Flinthook has cemented itself for me as an impressive piece of ludic design. It’s gorgeous, mechanically engaging, rich in detail and options, and just downright fun. I think it’s a fun game, at least, and what’s more, I think it has staying power. Flinthook, I think, is a game that we will see people play over and over, months and years from now.
As always, aesthetic praise is the easiest to support, because look at it. Just look at it. Flinthook‘s visual design is outstanding: Every environment is rich in colour, and full of detail and motion. There’s always something going on, making the disparate weird-punk pirate ships you visit feel alive. Flinthook‘s audio design is equally impressive, particularly when it comes to the background soundtrack: This soundtrack is so good that I remember it being good. I just stopped writing for ten seconds to hum a few bars of the recurring theme to myself, that’s how serious we’re talking here. In a crowded train.
On the level of controls and kinaesthetic engagement (to just shift at once from talking about an abstract topic like visual design to mechanical nitty-gritty), Flinthook generally satisfies as well. It’s a game that’s fun to handle, with controls that are smooth and intuitive… as long as you’re playing with mouse and keyboard. Flinthook‘s controller use is just weird, there’s no better way to describe it. I genuinely have to idea why aiming and moving are tied to left stick with right stick unmoved; you could try to make the case that it’s intentional, for particular ludic effect, but then the mouse-and-keyboard control set does explicitly disentangle moving and aiming. I just can’t wrap my head around it. Maybe there is some deeper meaning to it? Maybe it ‘just’ takes getting used to, or there’s some gameplay-controls connection that I’m missing. Whatever the case, using mouse and keyboard Flinthook controls fine, which is to say that controlling your little ghost pirate is fast, responsive, and fairly intuitive. For a game like this, that puts mechanical engagement front and center, that’s at least as important as the impressive nature of the aesthetic theme… And os far, Flinthook is two for two.
But the real meat and potatoes of Flinthook‘s predicted staying power is its broader gameplay mechanics. I would describe Flinthook as a procedurally generated roguelite that leans heavily on platforming and 2D combat (and let’s all take a moment to reflect how weird it is that those words in that order make any kind of sense at all). Bits of DNA can be traced to such games as Spelunky, The Binding of Isaac, Crypt of the Necrodancer, and Rogue Legacy, which Flinthook combines into multiple stacking layers of mechanical engagement.
On the lowest level, the ‘room’ level, Flinthook is a challenging platformer about frantic combat and obstacle course traps. A pervasive focus throughout the game is that everything is energetic: Flinthook would prefer that you stop moving as little as possible. Combat is always high-risk, high-reward: Enemies can spawn everywhere in the room, and while they generally have accurate long-range attacks, your little pistol blasts peter out after only an inch or so. What this means is that you can’t wait and snipe enemies out: You have to get in there, quickly, while dodging enemy attacks and any potential traps that are still active. In my case, heavy combat sections would generally end in one of two ways: Either I’d take massive damage, because I zigged somewhere I should have zagged, or I took no damage at all, because whatever gambit I was going for ended up paying off. There’s very little slow boredom in Flinthook‘s fighting.
Similarly, the traps and obstacle courses that Flinthook throws at you tend to reward reflexes and quick thinking. You see this in the rooms with fast-traveling buzzsaws, or the rooms full of trampolines, or the rooms with appearing and disappearing blocks suspended over bubbling acid. In all cases, the message is clear: You’re not going to take your time sussing this one out. Just get in there and hook the right hook.
One level higher, Flinthook‘s rooms are connected into dungeon-like ships. If room-to-room gameplay takes some cues from 2D platform-fighting games like Spelunky (as well as the Metroids and the Castlevanias of the world, and their successors), ship gameplay has more in common with The Binding of Isaac. I specifically mention Isaac here instead of its venerated Zelda ancestor because that game and Flinthook share strong similarities: Both focus on procedurally generated dungeons, made by stringing together more-or-less prefabricated rooms into a maze of interconnected boxes. There’s locked doors, boss rooms, treasures, traps, figuring out where you’re going; You get the idea. Granted, Flinthook‘s levels are generally less of a maze and more of a main corridor with a bunch of side rooms. Let’s call that Jarenth’s Hot Flinthook Tip: If you ever move from one room into another and the new room has one or more direct exits, you’re on the main path. Use that information as you will.
On the ship level, the Flinthook experience can be summarized as: Make it to the boss room without dying. Each room is generally one of four things: A combat room, where waves of enemies spawn in and the exits lock until you kill them (and get rewarded with treasure); an obstacle room, which you must traverse to get somewhere; a treasure room, which is a special dead-end obstacle room where a treasure chest waits at the end (with or without enemies to complicate things); and ‘other’ rooms, such as shops, map rooms, upgrades, or lore. The whole thing is essentially a gauntlet in the same high-risk high-reward theme that characterizes the individual rooms. You can try to make a beeline for the boss, such as it is, and you’ll probably arrive there faster and with more health than if you did exploration first. And also with less gold. And less upgrades. Are you really going to go into that boss area when you know there’s an unopened room right there? It might have cool treasure… Like new abilities, or new subweapons, or the money you need to buy that shield from the shop. Or maybe it’ll just be a bunch of enemies, that could also happen.
One aspect of Flinthook‘s procedural level generation that I enjoy (which I also liked in The Binding of Isaac) is that it encourages learning over time. On one level, that means figuring out what everything does: Flinthook is stingy with information on enemies, items, skills, and even map icons, meaning you’ll have to work most of that out yourself. But on another level, something that you can learn to deal with is the actual challenges of the rooms themselves. Since dungeons are made up of rooms pulled from a common pool, you can expect to repeatedly see more-or-less the same challenges. Which means that, over time, you can practice with them, prepare for them, get ready to handle them. It’s mechanical player improvement through repeated exposure, also not entirely dissimilar from how you get better at Spelunky.
One level higher still, Flinthook branches off in really its own direction by combining the ship-levels into ‘raids’. Every mission, be it a story mission to take down one of the captains or one of the daily or weekly missions, involves tackling several ships in quick succession. So far, so standard, that’s how all games do it. But Flinthook puts a surprising amount of freedom in the player’s hands by letting them select one of a small set of ships (I think it’s always 3, but I might be wrong) in every step of the raid that isn’t a pre-ordained boss fight.
Of all Flinthook‘s innovations, I love this one the most, and I’ll tell you why: It solves two things that I experience as problems in the roguelike/lite genre.
See, I love Spelunky. I played a ton of Spelunky back in the day, when me and all my friends were racing to get good enough to reach the City of Gold and we were trying to outdo each other on the leaderboards. But I stopped playing Spelunky because after a while (admittedly a long while), repetition started to set in. It was always four levels into the mines, then the jungle, then the ice world. Always trying to get the Udjat Eye, to find the Black Market, to rob that for optimal score, to get the Ankh, etcetera, etcetera. Its structure was relentlessly linear, in spite of the procedural world generation. At some point I just couldn’t go through the whole rigmarole every time.
Flinthook avoids this ‘problem’ (which I understand will not really be a problem to a lot of people, but it was to me) by putting responsibility for level selection in the hands of the player. It’s never going to be ‘the same stuff in the same order’, because you get to choose. Sure, on a base mechanical level there will always be some repetition, I understand that. But there’s a big difference between a level that’s labyrinthine, and a level that has a strict time limit, and a level where your map is just turned off, and a level where ghost clouds spawn every time you switch rooms. In my experience, at least, the difference between ship types is often noticeable.
On the other hand… Actually, raise that other hand if you’ve ever played a doomed game of The Binding of Isaac. You know the one: You start a game, and the first treasure room has garbage items. And you find no keys. And the slot machine doesn’t pay out. Randomness is necessary for games like these, but an essential consequence of having difficulty ride on randomness is that sometimes, the house is going to win. Which translates into wasted time and frustration. Sure, again, losing is fun, difficulty can be challenging. But sometimes I just want to play a fun game of crying at disgusting monsters until they explode. Not get hit with boss after boss I can’t deal with and item after item I can’t use.
Flinthook sidesteps this problem by putting responsibility for level selection in the hands of the player. Every level neatly tells you its general difficulty, and any special modifiers that apply. Within the ships you’re offered, you can choose your own path. Do you want to go for particular bonus objectives, like extra food or lore, knowing that that means a higher general difficulty as a result? Or maybe you’ll trade lower difficulty for particular hazards, reasoning that it’s easier to deal with the fist you see coming. Hell, at any time you can seek out the hazards that you want to try and tackle, or the obstacles that you think might be fun, just for a laugh. Maybe this time you’ll want to have a devil room! I don’t know why you’d want to have a devil room, but if you do, it’s there for the visiting. Go nuts.
In broad strokes, you get to decide the ludic theme of your own Flinthook playthroughs. Slow and steady, higher risk for higher reward, a focus on lore or relics, weird trade-off rooms. It’s not always guaranteed you’ll get what you want, but you always get to choose. There’s still an element of repetition, which means you will get better with practice — if for no other reason than that you’ll slowly suss out what all of those icons actually mean. And there’s still an element of randomness, meaning life can come at you fast. But in giving the player choice, the two take the edge off one another: There’ll never be One Optimal Route through the whole thing, and there’ll rarely be a danger that you literally had no way of intuiting. Of all the reasons I think Flinthook has staying power, this is the biggest one: It lets you put one crucial hand on the steering wheel. Not everything, but enough to chart a bit of your own course.
Finally, on the highest level, Flinthook‘s raid campaigns are strung together by a Necrodancer/Rogue Legacy-esque persistent upgrade system. Clearing levels earns you green ghost emeralds, which can be traded on the ‘Black Market’ for character upgrades. Some of these are straight stat increases, like more health or more experience, or new character skills, like the ability to stand still (no, really) or the ability to get rewarded for clearing fights quicker. Other upgrades unlock new items in the dungeon, and yes, having new playable items unlock through a rare in-game currency is enough for me to compare a game to Crypt of the Necrodancer.
The Black Market also ties into the perk system, the last bit of mechanics I haven’t discussed yet. Basically, you get a small number of ‘perk points’ that you can use to equip perks before each raid, which are styled as playing cards and give you small playstyle-defining upgrade. This perk gives you extra health, that perk lets you heal from kills, this perk heals you every time you start a new ship. There’s also perks that don’t relate to healing, believe it or not. Interestingly enough, the Black Market doesn’t actually let you buy perks, only perk points. Instead, perks are gained by leveling up from the experience you gain after each raid. Every level gets you one ‘booster pack’, which contains one perk card. This… is frankly a bit of a baffling system: It doesn’t tie into any of Flinthook‘s extant systems or themes, and I don’t really understand why it was included in the form it’s in. Specifically, I can’t tell if perks are actually randomized or not. If yes, how does that jive with long-term play? If I don’t randomly happen to get the perks for the play style I like, I would just be boned, particularly since there’s only one perk per booster and you can get duplicates. If no, this whole system of booster packs — which at least imply randomness — would be nothing more than an elaborate ruse for a linear perk delivery system. Either way is strange?
It’s a weird delivery mechanism, but the perk system itself works fine. Picking and matching perks is not unlike picking a class, particularly if you focus on perks that unlock new and exciting options. But even only going for healing perks and health boosts is a statement: A statement that you’d like to actually beat one of these goddamn raids, sometime. Bloodlust and Time Stop and Bonus For Speedy Fights are all nice, but those don’t help much if you fall into an unseen spike floor and die for the tenth time in a row and beyond.
Not, er. Not that I would know anything about that.
If I had to pick one flaw about Flinthook… Well, it’d probably be the controller control scheme again. But if I had to pick a different flaw, it’s that individual raids can feel like they take long. Like Spelunky, getting through all of Flinthook can be a time investment; unlike Spelunky, your Flinthook ghost is actually quite durable, so between that and many loading screens it can take a long time to either get somewhere meaningful, or die. I generally only play one raid per day, maybe two if I’m feeling feisty. Yes, that’s my big end-of-review complaints: The atomic play units of the game take so long that I only play it once per day.
Beyond that… Nah, I don’t really have anything. Flinthook is just that good. The aesthetic is amazing — just took a few seconds to hum more bars — the controls are good, and the stacking engagement of rooms, ships, raids, permanent advancement has great long-term draw. If you like pirates, ghosts, pirate ghosts, subdued treasure hunting stories, and slowly getting better at a challenging platforming/combat roguelites that combines procedural level generation with player choice to great effect, Flinthook‘s 15 dollar price tag is incredible value for money. Go check it out, why don’t you?
Jarenth only know figures he could have tried to work some terrible pirate jokes into this review. Literally right now, while typing this closing sentence. OH WELL. To celebrate (the fact that he didn’t), follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?