Every possible twist on the roguelite is being represented on the Switch eShop right now, and it's fair to say that there are a few great examples. From the twin-stick robotic shooting of Neurovoider to groovy dungeon crawling in Crypt of the NecroDancer, many conventions have been tried and tested, almost to the point of saturation. Every so often a game comes along with such swagger and style that it's easy to be ensnared by its charm and enamored by its personality, despite its rigid genre criteria. Flinthook is one of those games. While on the surface it might not do that much different than any other in its category, you'll more than likely forget about it because it's just that damn fun.
You play the role of a haunted space pirate zooming across the galaxy to provide sustenance to your sentient and globule-like navigational companion in exchange for the whereabouts of the game's pirate captains (bosses). You'll have to collect a certain number of ghost gems hidden in space shells to feed your compass-shaped friend and in exchange, he’ll share their location. You'll choose a craft to drop anchor on based on a difficulty rating represented by skulls and a brief yet cryptic description, outlining the layout and type of rewards you'll reap.
The titular hook is more integral than any other power up or ability, even the hero himself. Not only is it a faster means of travel than running or jumping, but it's sometimes needed to tackle certain enemies. In addition, early on you'll acquire a Chronobelt enabling you to slow down time. This ranges from being necessary (when trying to out run laser beams) to being a tool used to string together gloriously acrobatic moves, dodges and take downs to increase your combo meter without getting hit.
As you enter a room, if the red warning sign appears and the music speeds up, it's go time. Enemies are likely to come in waves, and traversing a particularly heavily guarded room requires timing, skill and utilisation of all your attributes in order to progress. You'll get to know different enemy traits reasonably quickly, and the strategy of how to deal with certain attack patterns or prerequisites before moving on becomes instinctive. Some subsequent waves spawn in extra hazards as well as enemies, so you are always on your toes, using the environment, your reactions and your arsenal.
Whether you enter a 'battle area' which needs to be cleared before you can move on, or more straight up platforming sections, a fair percentage of the rooms in a typical run are single screen (or close to), so the action is tight and it all happens at a relentless pace, demanding dexterity, skill, and a pinch of strategy.
Where Flinthook succeeds is the accessibility of the controls, sense of fluidity and momentum. While it does take a little practice to perfect, the risk reward of wall jumping and slowing down time, combined with the hook shot that is accurate, yet forgiving enough in the heat of combat feels great only using the right stick. Escaping a line of cannon balls in mid air only to disappear into a pipe that links the rooms together is always gratifying. The game also rewards backtracking and encourages exploration to grab more of that precious gold by finding keys that unlock more passageways.
Of course, you'll want reward for all of your nimble platforming and critter shooting, and put all that precious booty to good use. As with a typical rogue lite, there are a wealth of collectibles that you will loot in Flinthook. After a few failed attempts and plenty of plunder gathered, you'll have to make a visit to the black market, and there you'll trade green tokens for item slots, and in turn, various perks.
Playing your cards right before a raid is pretty important, as you'll have a designated number of slots to fill with health, accuracy and ability upgrades. Whether it's extending the length of your hook shot or becoming more resistant to certain types of hazards, these perks are pretty useful once you've had some time to figure out your play style. Want to be a master blaster? Inflict heavier damage with a higher risk to yourself. Struggling at the end of a run? You can get a much-needed apple at the start of each stage.
Inside a level, it's all about the coin and gems. Enemies drop money which can be spent at the local shop on temporary upgrades or health boosts. In addition, there is a map to collect which shows the full level layout, booster packs to mash open and lore to read. A word of advice - once you open the big chest at the end of the level, you exit, so make sure to collect any booty you've left behind. Likewise, if you meet a surly merchant but are in decent health? Maybe best to come back after a hard fight. There's also a ton of relics and lore to be found from across the Mermadion galaxy, extra modes and challenges that pop up daily and weekly. Luckily, perks earned are available in the standard single-player.
From the insane intro that's worthy of having its own spin-off animation series to the swashbuckling sea shanty soundtrack that's more catchy than scurvy, Flinthooks presentation is on the whole splendid, filled with wacky characters and bosses, smooth, fast animations, witty banter and a wealth of particle effects more accomplished than most other pixel art games. While the game is an absolute blast, there are a few aspects that may grate after a while. The procedurally generated nature of the game does cough up some really frustrating difficulty spikes and structural assets could have been more varied, but the action makes up for these shortfalls.
Make no mistake about it - Flinthook is a really well crafted, charming and fun experience. To a certain extent, however, it feels impeded by the constraints of its genre. It is one of tightest action platformers and addictive rogue likes around, but due to the randomly generated levels, you will encounter the odd frustrating spike in difficulty or structurally very similar areas in close proximity. These complaints are reduced to niggles though due to its charm, personality and action packed gameplay. This trek across the galaxy is sometimes a tough and repetitive one, but it's also incredibly enjoyable.