So yeah. Flinthook. That’s what we’re talking about today.
You know, Flinthook! The indie title from 2017 that had its time in the sun and then went wherever it is most indie titles end up, far from the eyes of consumers. As an indie title from a developer with only a handful of games under their belt, that developer being Tribute Games, Flinthook cannot be expected to be a perfect game. But for what flaws it has, Flinthook is fun, and its flaws can be analyzed for what can be learned from this experience. So this is like a review with a game development lesson I found along the way.
First thing first are the visuals, because people like good-looking games, and Flinthook delivers on that front. Its use of pixel graphics in a SNES-style looks marvelous, especially when in motion. The amount of fluid animation in this game is astounding. One big example are the hooks from which you swing, watching them shift and sparkle as you hook to them and even as you just pass them by. The people at Tribute behind the animations in this game have created some top-notch work here. The background detail in the various areas you traverse is nice to spot, and the character designs are solid. Just by looking at the characters in game, you get a solid feel for who they are, even if their characterization is limited. There is some lack of distinction between what is and is not part of the background, which can lead to some accidents in gameplay. The music is good, action-y, upbeat, and with that retro feel that Flinthook is striving for, if a little repetitive if you happen to be going through areas repeatedly. Overall, with its music and pixel art, Flinthook has excellently captured an atmosphere of whimsical space piracy.
On to the gameplay. Alright, so one of the main features of the game is a hookshot a la Legend of Zelda. It’s a traversal tool that allows you to hook onto the rings hanging from the ceiling, and Tribute absolutely nailed it. Using the hookshot feels amazing, chaining shots to traverse the rooms in an instant, shooting around the room and dodging enemies, it’s just a glorious feeling. Just upon picking it up, you can feel the potential for acrobatic wonders this tool bestows upon you. Mastering it, on the other hand, is a more difficult task, and you will end up running into hazards frequently while trying to get a handle on the hookshot.
After the hookshot comes the Blasma Pistol, a rather simple weapon with a short range projectile. It feels good to fire, as again the sound design for the game is up there, and using your hookshot effectively will get you past enemy projectiles and not range of your adversaries. As your second tool for traversal, you have the Chronobelt, which lets you slow down time for a few seconds, allowing for some input adjustments to get past bullets and hazards. The Chronobelt charges fast, so don’t be afraid to spam it and get a better handle on using it. You also get a secondary weapon, which can be a few different things depending on what you can find, which can deal damage, freeze enemies, or make you invulnerable for a short time. With all of these tools, there is the possibility of some high-level action-packed gameplay once you master using them all in conjunction with one another.
The story is set up through cutscenes with no dialogue, so it might be better to show than tell. The basics I can gather is that you are one of seven lighthouse keepers, and your quest is to raid the ships of pirates to find the other keepers that have been scattered throughout the galaxy. But there is someone else gathering keepers and stealing them away, a large hooded figure with magic powers and unknown motives. You start off with a bounty looking for a pirate boss. To find the pirate boss, you go through the fleet of pirate ships, raiding them for ghost gems, which then show you the way to the boss. Defeating the boss gets you the next bounty for the next pirate boss. So, it’s a relatively simple story, and a gameplay loop that isn’t complicated either, but its execution is somewhat lacking in Flinthook, and the main reason I feel is this: Flinthook is a roguelike game.
So what does that mean? A roguelike game derives many of its key gameplay features from Rogue, in this case including a dungeon crawl through numerous procedurally-generated levels and if you are to die, you must start that section over. This gets more complicated the further in the game you are, as the higher bounties for bosses require move levels beaten to get to them. As an example, the second boss requires four ghost gems to find, which means you must beat four levels to find him. If you die on level 4, you have to go back to level 1, restarting your progress on getting to that boss fight. This leads to a lot of time spent going back through similar levels to reach the same end goal and not making a lot of progress in the meantime.
In other games, you might try to memorize the levels and enemy placements and practice each encounter as they come. In Flinthook, that’s not entirely possible, as the levels are procedurally-generated. Each time star a raid or complete one part of a raid, you are given three randomly generated levels, each with different modifiers and difficulties. These modifiers range from the inclusion of shops and places to pick up collectibles to more enemies and laser traps. These modifiers can help you decide which level you want to take on, but the issue is that what each level modifier does is not explicitly stated. A number of abilities, modifiers, upgrades, and other rules of the game are not explicitly explained, leading to some trial and error in a game already based around having to take multiple attempts at fighting bosses and making progress. So every time you die, you start over with a new set of levels with different enemy layouts and platforming challenges, hoping to find the right combination forward.
So if you die, you go back to start. Is that so bad? The game gives you the ability to upgrade yourself permanently through two different means, passive upgrades and perks that can be customized. You gain experience points after a raid, successful or not, and leveling up gives you random perks. This means that further attempts are (a little bit) easier as you become (a little bit) stronger. Of course, there are some issues with this system. Many of the permanent upgrades you can get are bonuses to experience point gain, indicating the game wants you to be going through the stages multiple times, either through failure to complete the level or grinding for more upgrades. A large portion of the upgrades also includes more perk slots to use perks with. Now, you start with 3 slots, and perks require usually 1 to 4 slots, but some use as many as 8 or 9 slots. Getting more slots is useful, because you can equip more perks before going on a raid. The issue lies in that the way to get more perks is usually by leveling up, and these perks are random. So you can be level 20, and have multiple duplicates of the same perk, which may not be one you want 3 or 4 of on a raid. The only way to fix that would be to get more different perks by leveling up, spending time grinding experience points just to possibly make the game easier.
And the issue I have with it is that a number of these perks feel like upgrades that you should get in a game for completing various concrete milestones, not just randomly leveling up. Things like a longer slowdown time for the Chronobelt, a stronger Blasma pistol, the ability to double-jump or dash, they just feel like normal upgrades that a player would get through progressing through the game, but instead of being given to the player, are randomly handed out and must be chosen over other benefits. Do you want to be able to dash? Or have +30 maximum health? Or be able to shoot faster with a chargeable blast? Some of the customization options are cool, but some of them feel like they shouldn’t be optional.
These optional upgrades that feel like main character progression upgrades takes me into my next point: how the roguelike elements interrupt the story. The story of Flinthook is there, but I feel like a plot a simple as this to be spread so far apart between successful raids, it’s easy to lose track of and forget why you as the player are here raiding ships in the first place. I feel that if Flinthook had some more structure and less random elements, that it could have been a better game. As mentioned earlier, almost all levels you play through are random, meaning you can’t improve at any one level, and the perk system is a bit of a mess seeing as you get random upgrades throughout the game. If there were more levels with set layouts, levels that you are meant to complete at certain milestones in game, and set upgrades that you are given after certain accomplishments, that the overall experience of the game would be more consistent and stable across multiple playthroughs. With more stability to its main gameplay loop, Flinthook would feel less like a slot machine of a roguelike, and more like a platformer with roguelike elements.
So this article veered more towards rambling this time around, but I wanted to get my ideas down about how I felt about this game and its flaws, because they were flaws I saw not just with this game, but with one I had made myself. A number of the issues I see in Flinthook, namely the use of randomization in level design, I remembered utilizing in my own mobile game Bashteroids. In Flinthook, this level randomization felt like a cheap gameplay extension, and now I see how frustrating it must be in my own game. It was just so surprising an experience, to see such a similarity between games, how these issues affected my experience in Flinthook, and how I could better my own game. And this isn’t to say that my poor experience with Flinthook has been everyone’s experience. Flinthook’s review scores were solidly in the 70s and 80s, and was good enough to warrant a port to the Nintendo Switch in 2018. Ultimately, it just had little in way of sticking power in the arena of indie titles. In the end, no project ends up perfect, but there’s always more to learn and more ways to improve.