Take Aways: Flinthook

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Hey, everyone! This is a series that I am calling ‘Take Aways’; a game review where I also discuss gameplay elements, game design concepts, and bits of polish or “game feel” that are worth stealing, tweaking, and/or adapting for your own game or project! I am not going to sum up months of blood, sweat, and tears with a number. I am going to highlight moments of genius among a sea of hard work, scope creep, scope cuts, and impostor syndrome. Enjoy!

Flinthook
Welcome to Flinthook! Flinthook is the most recent game to come out of Tribute Games of Montreal, Canada. Disclaimer: I am an acquaintance, if not a very great friend, of almost every developer at Tribute.

tributeThe Flinthook team (credit: Dominique Ferland)

The Basics
“In a galaxy filled with scoundrels and miscreants, everyone seeks treasure and riches! But when a malevolent treasure hunter hatches a sinister plan to unleash an ancient evil to threaten the cosmos itself, Flinthook, the galaxy’s smallest but toughest pirate zips into action! Be ready to jump, zip and blast around the meanest fleets the galaxy has to offer! Whether using time-slowing powers or his trusty Blasma Pistol, Flinthook is ready to take on all pirates, steal treasure and save the galaxy itself!” -Flinthook.com

Their webpage says it all! Flinthook, which shares its name with the charming protagonist, is a 2D action-platformer with roguelike elements. The player must use a grappling hook, time-manipulation, a projectile weapon, and an array of sub-weapons to explore procedurally-generated spaceships in search of treasure! You can enjoy this ever-shifting adventure on Windows, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.

Take Away #1: Fluid Platforming Controls
If you are a follower of mine, then you probably know that I cherish the existence of precise platformer controls with fluidity and visual/audio feedback. Flinthook nails this! In my humble opinion, Flinthook is by far Tribute Games’ best project to date. I strongly believe that this developer’s approach to a grappling hook will be the beginning of a long string of games that use and adapt this mechanic in a similar fashion. To be honest, I sure hope so. Simply put, it is pure fun.

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If I have any critique at all, it is that sometimes you are not 100% sure which hook you are about to fling towards, but this is due to the fact that the designer often gives you more options than you need. This isn’t even so much of a problem as it is added variety in terms of visual feedback. The procedural maps are generated randomly, but they are made up of several rooms that have been carefully designed by hand. That means that each of these hooks are likely placed by a talented designer who knows where you will be headed and why. This allows them to place a myriad of hooks in different locations across the map and allow you to zip between them however you might see fit or just find to be fun or gratifying. As a platformer lover, I could fly around on these all day.

Take note of the details. The cursor, the spark after you have initiated a hook, the bend in the line as you begin to get yanked towards your target, and the hook flashing away to nothing after you have hit your goal. This mechanic gives you control, shows you the wind up, smoothly performs the desired action, and cleans up after itself. The mechanic also pairs nicely with the jump, the wall jump, and the time-slow. When first getting accustomed to the grappling hook, holding the left trigger to slow down time can be a great crutch and learning tool.

Take Away #2: Roguelike Run Persistence
A roguelike-like is a convoluted term for a game that takes inspiration and mechanical ideas from a genre that was born from the game, Rogue.  Typically, that includes perma-death (when you trigger a game over, the game resets rather than returning to a save point) and procedurally-generated content (levels are created via an algorithm rather than by a designer). Flinthook does both of these quite nicely, as well as turns them on their head a bit.

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Above is the Perks screen from Flinthook. This screen is accessed prior to starting a run through of the main game. The usual roguelike formula is as follows: a map is generated, the player explores that map, collects loot, and fights off enemies, and the player does this until they are killed. At that point, the process starts over again. The idea is that the player, as a human being and gamer, will improve in their abilities from run to run. The games are generally very challenging so that you don’t see all of the content during the first run. After each run, you get better and better, until you finally earn the privilege of viewing the final boss and hopefully, the ending credits. That’s all fine and dandy, but I am terrible at video games. I thoroughly love Nuclear Throne, another indie roguelike game, but I am aware of the fact that I will never see the ending. I just do not get better as I pour more hours into the game. Flinthook combats this by allowing the player character to have limited, but persistent growth between runs. This means that you collect a specific kind of currency that allows Flinthook to begin each run a little bit more powerful or allow him a little bit more health so that you don’t have to be quite as careful. This persistent growth is cool because it allows the player to feel more powerful with each run, regardless of any growing ability or lack thereof.

I feel that the trick here is the speed at which things increase compared to the difficulty curve. You don’t want these persistent perks to be too helpful because you want to allow the player room for growth. If the player improves at a certain rate combined with a certain rate of perk and stat increases, the player would complete the game far too quickly. For me, personally, Flinthook seems to have balanced these things well. I am sure that it will differ from player to player. A high variety of content would combat any issues that high level players might have here, but I have yet to play enough to really determine that.

Take Away #3: Content Variety
I compare Flinthook to other games, not to bash on the competition, but to show how Flinthook has embraced change and variety where so many developers have fallen back on clones, as of late. Binding of Isaac is yet another popular roguelike game that has a procedural map made up of several hand-made rooms. When you enter each room, the doors lock, enemies spawn, and you can reopen those doors by clearing the room of enemies. Simple enough! Flinthook, for the most part, does exactly that! However, from the 2D platforming perspective, Flinthook was able to embrace a variety of room types. Some of the rooms are focused on fighting enemies, some rooms are more challenging and you are forced to face multiple waves of enemies that spawn after you finish the previous wave, and then other rooms are all about the grappling hook and just getting from point A to point B. I really, really enjoyed this break from the combat where you got to return to the basics and just enjoy zipping between hooks and avoiding spikes, saw blades, and lasers.

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In this room, the camera unlocks and allows for a large area, across multiple screens, to be filled with several waves of enemies as you spring around and avoid the spike-covered floor. After the final enemy of the final wave has been put down, the doors unlock and a treasure chest spawns in exchange for your troubles! This chest often includes coins, health, keys, and/or a bomb (a common sub-weapon).

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This room is simply about your grappling hook, some breathing room, just looking cool doing it. If you aren’t comfortable chaining together those grappling hook moves, the floor is fairly safe and those barrels likely contain health. This is form over substance, but it is completely welcome in between the chaos found in some of the multi-wave combat areas. Part of me even wants more of this. Perhaps just empty corridors to speed run through?

Take Away #4: Gamify
Gamification is a strategy used to engage people by rewarding them for mundane tasks or masking the ordinary with a game of some kind. This might not be the best explanation for what I am going to talk about here, but this is a bit of polish that is completely unnecessary, but also, completely fun. I am talking about how you receive the treasure at the end of each level.

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Ok, so there could be a plot point related to this, there could have been some mini-game mechanic(s) added as another layer to this, or several other combination of things. The bottom line is that when you open the final chest at the end of each level, you don’t find all of the treasure! You find a minimal amount of treasure, along with some variety of seashell. When you collect the seashell, you are prompted to mash a button until the seashell smashes and reveals the remainder of your earnings. Mashing that shell open at the end of each level is a ton of fun! It is mindless and it is accompanied with particles, and screenshake, and it just oozes that ‘juice’ that game designers talk about. It is a nonsensical, but lovely end to each level that is both gratifying and memorable.

Final Thoughts
I just spent the last three hours gushing about Flinthook, and I am incredibly happy to have done so. I have been a fan of Tribute Games and a friend of the team for quite some time, but to be honest, their games never really stuck with me. I am proud to say that Flinthook is a game that will remain towards the top of my list of favorite games for likely quite awhile. The game has a higher number of required inputs than some (walk/run, jump, wall jump, aim, shoot, grapple, bomb, sub-weapon, and time-slow), so there is a slight learning curve, but the roguelike tendencies of the game world allow you to die again and again without frustration.

If you enjoy platformers, roguelike mechanics, and charming pixel art animation, Flinthook is a must. The aesthetic and the audio mesh very well together and have a very distinct feel and style. Feedback is everywhere! Subtle animations, audio cues, and everything else that you could ask for. I truly believe that Flinthook is the next indie hit of 2017. I highly recommend that you do not miss out on this one!

A special thank you to Tribute Games,
Z

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Take Aways: Flinthook

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