'El Hijo' is a Spaghetti Western stealth game with heart

Stick to the shadows and you might make it through the desert.

The art at the top of El Hijo's website says it all. A young boy in a red poncho stands at the edge of a cliff, overlooking a sun-bleached desert valley with a stuffed bear dangling from his fingertips. His shadow unfurls across the rock behind him, the teddy bear transformed into a pistol. This little boy is a fighter.

El Hijo

El Hijo is an isometric stealth game starring this 6-year-old as he traverses the desert, searching for his mother. She left him at a monastery, for his own protection, after their Wild West village was ransacked by outlaws. El Hijo -- Spanish for "The Son" -- decides to escape the monks, and the only way to avoid detection is to stick to the shadows. It's a puzzle game that plays with light and darkness as a mechanic, sending the young boy on an adventure across the Old American West.

El Hijo inverts the Spaghetti Western genre, which is unabashedly macho and violent, by placing a child at the heart of the game and removing all offensive tools from his arsenal. The game is due to hit Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Switch and PC in mid-2020.

El Hijo

"Stealth made perfect sense, because if you're a child in a very violent war, like the Wild West, then the only way to move around is to trick your opponents and sneak around," Honig Studios co-founder Jiannis Sotiropoulos said.

Despite the gun imagery in the game's cover art, El Hijo doesn't carry a firearm. Instead, he's equipped with a slingshot, stones and similar tools designed to distract and disarm enemies.

"He is a kid, so he sneaks," Sotiropoulos said. The young boy hides inside boats and freshly dug graves, ducking below low walls and slinking behind curtains. He distracts the adults with the slingshot, and he picks up new tools from other lost children along the way. They give him toys, like stink bombs and a spinning top that attracts attention, and eventually fireworks that cause tiny explosions.

El Hijo becomes complex quickly, with monks and outlaws roving among pews and cattle stalls in overlapping routes, their fields of view criss-crossing. As long as El Hijo is in shadow, even a sliver of darkness cast by a budding cactus, he's safe. But the second he steps into the light while an enemy is looking his way, the chase is on.

El Hijo spends a fair amount of time crouched in corners and behind low walls, waiting for the on-screen adults to avert their gazes. Even in these moments, the game is enjoyable, ramping up tension before players actually make their moves. It's also a beautiful game, with intricate, sizzling landscapes presented in a hand-painted style that wouldn't look out of place in a children's book.

El Hijo

There's nothing magical or fantastical about El Hijo; it's grounded in the hyper-stylized reality of a past age. El Hijo does dream, sun-struck, in the game, but even those scenes are devoid of mystical elements. Honig Studios decided against the addition of surreal creatures early on in development. After all, for a child wandering the desert alone, humans can be scarier than monsters.