Roguelikes aren’t particularly uncommon on the Nintendo Switch, even now only a little over a year since the revolutionary console’s birthday. The eShop already has staples like The Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon, games that have stood the test of time and still have players coming back to daily years after their release. So how was Tribute Games’ 2017 release Flinthook going to stand out among some of the all-time greats on the Switch? Well, the answer might be a little too easy. Give the player a hook, of course!
In Flinthook, players assume the titular space captain on his hunt for bounties on some of the galaxies most colourful characters. Armed with his hook, blasma pistol, and slo-mo belt (that just happens to look like a gigantic watch), he uncovers treasure in various pirate ships while slowly making his way towards his current bounty, who he finds by feeding his slime compass gems. No, I didn’t just make any of that up. In terms of story, that’s all you really need to know about Flinthook. Other than a quick tutorial on starting the game, you are pretty much on your own, floating through space just preparing for your next run at a bounty. This is where the real fun begins and the roguelike mechanics of Flinthook rear their head, for good and for bad.
The thing with roguelikes is that it’s hard not to compare them to their counterparts. It’s easy to say that Flinthook takes its dungeon-esque ship maps straight from The Binding of Isaac’s floor maps, or that preparing for a run feels a lot like Rogue Legacy. Those comparisons may be accurate, but they aren’t where Flinthook’s biggest draw lies, which is its amazing game-play. The hook adds a verticality that Flinthook’s counterparts lack. When you really get the hang of it, you’ll be swinging through rooms with incredible ease, and flying around enemies before they even get a chance to attack. It’s a unique mechanic that really helps the game stand out on its own, and makes for some surprising platforming sequences that can be both satisfying and rage-inducing all at once.
It also makes what could have been a boring combat system much more intuitive, and at times even more challenging. The blasma pistol is your basic weapon, you can shoot in any direction but the shot type and distance depend on what perks you start with or happen to pick up along the way (more on those later). Without the hook, this would be a very simplistic system. But with the hook, the developers are able to add enemy types and platforming sequences in combat rooms that really flesh out and complicate the simple base that the combat is built upon. It also makes some rooms unbelievably difficult, even by roguelike standards.
These standards, however, cause Flinthook to fall into some genre traps that could drag the game down for some. The first thing some players might notice is how grindy the game can feel, even for a roguelike. In Flinthook, players are able to add perks to the captain before beginning a run. These perks range from additional health to rewards for finishing combat rooms swiftly, and they can make or break a run depending on the ships you pick to raid and what rooms you might stumble upon. The thing is, unlocking these perks is completely random. You get packs of cards each time your rank increases, but no matter your rank, the cards you get in the pack all depends on luck. This results in players having to grind ships with experience perks, or buying experience items from the game’s store, the Black Market. So if you need Long Shot to help you beat Admiral Goldfeathers, you’ll have to hope you get it in your next pack. It makes the entire perk system feel lopsided and RNG dependent.
Another trap that Flinthook can’t avoid comes in the form of the ships that the player raids. You get to pick one ship out of three for each stage, each with different traits, special rooms, and difficulty. They also each have a different name for the different type of ship they are. Yet for some reason, every single ship looks exactly the same. Sure they are all different and depending on which traits they hold, it could be foggy, or maybe even haunted. But despite each ship having a different “class,” the surroundings look exactly the same as the last ship. It makes runs blend into each other, and eventually, you’ll know exactly what to expect from a room within seconds of entering. It’s just disappointing that a “Barrel-Runner” class looks exactly the same inside as, say, a “Pile-Driver” class.
Thankfully, the roguelikes charming pixel palette and the vast array of charming characters make up for this misstep. The music is retro in the best way, always ramping up when the action gets hot. It’s hard to ever really get sick of it. Plus the game is gorgeous, there’s no doubt about it. Every enemy is unique, from the most basic Flyaxe to the hilariously named bosses; it’s hard not to appreciate the character design. Even the NPCs who give you advice in storerooms or map rooms feel inspired. A lot of them feel like a blend between Samurai Jack and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends: cuddly yet deadly all at once.
And they can be deadly. As with all roguelikes, difficulty spikes in Flinthook are rampant. Going from a “2 Skull” difficulty ship feeling like a god to a “4 skull” and barely getting out with your HP intact is a common occurrence. It comes with the territory of the genre, but it does feel like some of the platforming sections can be a bit unfair, especially when they are matched up with enemies shooting around every corner. But when a run clicks, it clicks. It never doesn’t feel satisfying taking down that bounty that you’ve been stuck on for 30 runs. It’s that feeling that keeps you coming back for more and more, and proves that Flinthook can be just as addictive as any other roguelike.
In a lot of ways, Flinthook feels stuck in its roguelike inspirations. It does a lot of things right; amazing pixel art, a goofy cast, and some tough-as-nails platforming sections. Unfortunately what doesn’t work holds it just back from greatness. There are just other games that roguelike better, and it’s a shame because Flinthook has a whole lot going for it. That being said, Flinthook is still an addictive, charming indie that deserves your attention. It makes a great addition to any Switch collection; it was practically made to be taken mobile for quick runs…if you don’t get too sucked in when you boot it up. It’s a great game made good due to genre restrictions. But what works, works. The satisfying hook mechanics, awesome character design, pixel art and music will keep players coming back to finish bounties time and time again.