by Jed Pressgrove
Flinthook has some of the ingredients for a good 2D action game: an engaging set of mechanics, a compendium of interesting foes, and a rousing soundtrack. These strengths are sadly counterbalanced by poor fundamental design from developer Tribute, making Flinthook little more than a curious footnote in an oversaturated market of wannabe pixelated classics that treat randomly generated levels as the Gospel.
The kinetic possibilities of Flinthood are impressive, going well beyond the grappling-hook dynamic referenced in the game’s title. To survive, the player must creatively integrate the protagonist’s abilities (hooking, jumping, shooting, slowing down time) to dismantle and avoid ever-changing obstacles. Using the grappling hook in particular is adrenaline-charging: after hooking to a diamond-shaped metal ring, the hero automatically flies toward and past the target, meaning that you have to guess where momentum will take you, lest you run into an enemy or trap.
The game’s aiming system is a head-scratcher, though. As in Contra, you aim and move with the same stick, but Contra never felt this clunky. At times, I would aim up, and the character would end up shooting at a diagonal angle. Given the difficulty of the game, these puzzling moments of inaccuracy are unacceptable. The aiming problem is at its most irritating when you intend to grapple onto a specific ring but instead connect with another nearby ring, resulting in damage or death. Although the game does give you the option to lock the protagonist in place and aim (like Contra III: The Alien Wars), you have to earn and equip a perk to even use this basic ability — a pointless bureaucratic nuisance that is indicative of the modern action game’s awkward obsession with RPG/adventure elements.
The personality of the various enemies might make you forgive the issues with the control. You fight everything from suicide-bomber ostriches to squeaking puffer creatures that expand and shoot spikes upon death to teleporting, rocket-launching menaces who suggest a gene splice of a lizard and mangy cat. The bosses are real barnburners, too, requiring patience and precision as you hook yourself away from multiple types of projectiles and trap-ridden floors. While the prospect of offing all of these adversaries is appealing and rewarding, Tribute’s insistence on arena-fight cliches, randomly generated rooms, and item collection sucks the excitement out of the game.
Following the lead of games like The Legend of Zelda and The Binding of Isaac, Flinthook traps you in certain rooms during pivotal fights with regular enemies. While such isolation can increase drama and suspense, Flinthook telegraphs so much of its danger that the action comes off as blandly constructed. For example, a humongous red exclamation point signals when random enemies are about to appear in waves. Defeat one wave, and another one begins, but as in 2016’s Doom, you can briefly see where enemies will materialize before they start attacking or moving, depriving the environments of a lived-in quality that could have conveyed a compelling sense of place. The contrived randomization suggests Tribute took the easy way out with level design, especially when you enter rooms that seem no different from previous ones.
Like the obligatory perk system, the paths to the scintillating boss fights amount to another dull excuse to include an extra layer of bureaucracy. To encounter a boss, you must collect items from a series of various ships that you select from a menu. If a boss slays you, you have to start over and wade through another series of procedurally generated ships. Tribute’s reliance on randomness is an effort to keep players from getting bored, but the experience feels like you’re forced to endure sloppily designed, unremarkable levels just to get back to the most inspired conflicts of the game. Unlike contemporaries such as The Binding of Isaac and Downwell, Flinthook shows limited evidence that randomly generated trials can make for electrifying art.