Flinthook is a prime example of how the execution of an idea is often more important than the idea itself. At first glance, it seems like any other modern roguelike, running from one procedurally-generated, 16-bit era inspired room to the next, shooting enemies for cash that you use to buy supplies and power-ups along the way.
But under the surface analysis, the game does a lot of things to set itself apart. A couple – like the Quick Hook tool that lets you swing between the grappling hooks that litter every room or the ability to slow down time for brief moments – are palpable additions. But most are subtle, stylistic, infusing the game with a kind of charm you don't often see in the genre.
The game's core loop is to collect bounties on other pirates. This requires you to bound from ship-to-ship, avoiding traps and defeating waves of enemies until you fight one of your bounty's lieutenants. These lieutenants each possess a "ghost gem" which is fed your compass until you have enough gems to discover the ultimate location of your quarry.
Again, all of this sounds quite common among roguelikes, for better or worse. What sets the game apart, is its incredibly charming art style. In Tribute Games' previous effort, Mercenary Kings, illustrator Stephen Boutin's designs were a pixelated cartoonish take on something akin to Contra. Flinthook, however, is more like watching SpongeBob Squarepants on acid. Flinthook himself wears a white mask that makes him look like Casper if he'd turned to a life of crime, his expressive eyes darting back and forth mischievously. Your "compass" is actually just a box with a green slug-like creature inside that chomps the ghost gems happily. The enemies that roam each ship would mechanically fit well in a Mega Man game if they didn't look so bizarre; each ship is full of large Godzilla-shaped flies and blue squids with eyepatches and peg-legged pirates with crab-claw hands. The game's music is also catchy and upbeat, aiding the constant sense of motion the game wants to achieve with the hook-shot mechanic overall.
As you finish each ship, you also unlock access to perks and upgrades of varying effects, from boosting states to bigger bullets or even a one-time immunity to death. There's a limited number of perks you can take with you on a bounty, so the ones you choose will depend on your playstyle. You can focus on heavy XP or gold gains if you want to level up faster, or max out your health to go the slow and steady route, and there's a lot of room to mix and match. That said, there is also a ton of repetition in the types of perks you acquire overtime, and it feels like there was definitely space to experiment on Tribute's part.
Redundancy is actually Flinthook's biggest issue, as it also shows up in the game's procedurally generated levels, the designs of which seem much less random over time. Although the aesthetic and enemy designs within ships change as you progress, their overall layout becomes very familiar very quickly. To put it another way, there's less variety in the shape of rooms than there is in the types of challenges within them. That said, the game is no slouch on difficulty – it took us almost six hours just to get through our first bounty, dying repeatedly from human errors like mistimed grapple attempts or not slowing down time at opportune times. While you have only a few tools at your disposal, Flinthook makes sure you get the most out of them.
While some may dismiss Flinthook initially, the game will sink its hooks into you if you give it a chance. The controls are sharp, the progression is satisfying, and the vibrant and unique art style will keep you smiling along the way.