Breathless action combines with perfect pixel art in a game of real character and delight.
There's a sort of voodoo pelican guy in Flinthook - I think it's voodoo, and I think it's a pelican. Anyway, this guy lobs flaming red skulls at you whenever you meet, and those skulls! Oh my! Those skulls are just the loveliest things. They're like the skulls in Towerfall: 2D art and animation of sufficiently magical quality to convince the mind that you're actually looking at a 3D asset as it spins towards you. I could get hit and killed by those flaming red skulls all day. Just as I could be killed by the insouciant guy who throws blades at you, spreading blades that fly from the hands of an insouciant guy whose very demeanor allows the pixel art to convey with real certainty that this character is definitely French. A French knife-thrower in space, a voodoo pelican with an endless supply of skulls. Flinthook is special.
It is possible when writing about Flinthook, an indie charmer that has just arrived on Switch, to get lost in the unimportant detailing, or rather, to downplay the stuff that really matters in order to explain the mechanical clutter that is drawn so swiftly, so brightly, around the spinning core of a roguelite. Let's get it out of the way here, then.
You're a mysterious space bandit in Flinthook, a game in which the cosmos is filled with wacky creatures flapping around in floating pirate ships. Your job is to take down a range of truly villainous baddies, and you work your way towards each mark by raiding and ultimately exploding a handful of lesser ships which have procedural qualities and their own defining quirks. One might be labyrinthine, for example. One might impose a time limit. As you explore you gain loot and various perks that will aid you on that particular run: you might get an XP boost or immunity from explosions, say. Eventually, you find your target and a boss fight ensues. When you die - and you will - you lose all the temporary perks you gained but you can spend a special kind of gem on permanent character boosting stuff that sees you growing stronger from one game to the next.
Some fiddly UI aside, all of this is nicely handled. There is always someone to set your sites on in Flinthook, and there is always something in the shop worth saving for. There is always a new piece of lore to read about that you picked up on your last run. There is always a new level to hit and a button to mash as you burst open the pack of new perk cards you might choose to spend your expanding pool of character points on equipping.
Phew! That stuff is all great, but now it's out of the way let's focus on what's really, truly important. Moment-to-moment, Flinthook is about working your way through the scrambled rooms of a floating space-based pirate ship using a grappling hook and a belt that allows you to temporarily slow time. The belt that allows you to slow time has some special uses - you can zip through otherwise uncrossable laser walls or duck enemy fire as you aim your own retaliation blaster shots. But it's also useful more generally when paired with that grappling hook.
Each of Flinthook's chambers is filled with dangling tether points, so while you can sometimes walk around - buzzing circular saws, protruding spikes, falling drill heads and toxic gas permitting - what you should really be doing is zapping around from one tether point to the next, learning to trust the directional auto-aim, to understand the way inertia and momentum render you fat and springy and filled with acrobatic tension, and to make the most of those few seconds of thick-air slow-down your time-belt affords you between recharges. It's a game about taking risks, about constantly moving. It's a restless rush of improvisation in which you'll often fling yourself into fresh danger while pulling yourself out of danger elsewhere.
The speed at which Flinthook demands to be played, in fact, makes it a rather daunting prospect, but only in theory. When I first saw GIFs of this game - and the GIFs flow freely when you're as pretty and kinetic as Flinthook - my initial thought was: Well, I'm going to be terrible at that. Reader, I am terrible at that, but my terribleness does not affect the pleasure I take in these heady space playgrounds and does not preclude the heart-thumping moments when everything converges and I accidentally pull off something amazing.
The rest, as they say in roguelites, is pure gravy: hazards, enemies, secrets. Every few rooms you get a lock-in, in which you have to kill everybody who spawns around you, the worst of them coming with protective bubbles that must first be popped with your grappling hook. Every few rooms there is a gauntlet to run. The enemies are great: mid-90s Disney confections, I think, straight out of DuckTales with their flapping jaws and flopping limbs. The hazards are classics: things that fall on you, that erupt beneath you. Working together foes and hazards create a kind of musical baseline, they give Flinthook a bit of rhythm and rigour for you to disrupt with your grappling and tumbling and blasting. Then there are the secrets: the pages from lore books, the secondary items you never dreamed of equipping, the prods towards a grander narrative that ties everything together.
Man, what a game - and what a perfect match for Switch, a platform not unblessed with a wide range of clever, characterful roguelites in the first place. Flinthook is still worth your time even here surrounded by so much competition. Its bright pixel art pops in your hands, the way DuckTales once popped on the Game Boy when your screen caught the sunlight from the bedroom window. Its simple ambitions thread together with its precision action and its playful over-arching depths of character progression. Flinthook, in other words, is not to be missed.