There are times in Flinthook when I enter a zen-like state, effortlessly swinging across the room, with my gut determining where I should head next. It plays into my favorite part of platforming, a sense of motion derived from exploring a space. I felt that way recently, and it lasted until I found myself unexpectedly trapped in a room full of spikes—a literal difficulty spike—promptly died, and found myself losing a full hour of progress. The best roguelikes make death a teachable moment, a lesson to note when charging back into the breach. In Flinthook, I mostly feel exhaustion, knowing it'll be a while until I get that far again.
Flinthook, the latest from the nostalgic pixel pushers at Tribute Games, is deeply satisfying to play precisely because it's a pleasure to control. When you can find enjoyment in swinging around a room, rather than attacking enemies or making meaningful progress, that's a notable achievement. And as has become a welcomed tradition with Tribute Games, Flinthook is gorgeous to look at, magically capturing the SNES-but-better aesthetic they've been playing with since the studio's overlooked debut, Wizorb, and its Contra-inspired Mercenary Kings.
The basic structure of Flinthook is familiar—fight through a few levels, beat a boss—but in the same way Mercenary Kings took inspiration from games like Monster Hunter, Flinthook mashes up its classic aesthetic with something more contemporary: roguelikes. The closest relative to Flinthook is one of my favorites of the last few years, Rogue Legacy, in which players are forced to start from scratch after dying, but with the chance to buy upgrades and perks that might make the next run more successful. Unlike Spelunky, Flinthook doesn't send you all the way back. Once you've finished a boss, you can move onto the next one.
Some roguelikes are about progression in the traditional sense, where you want to see the next area, the next boss, and eventually beat the game. Some roguelikes are about the story of that run, with new areas, enemies, and visual trappings acting as a new storytelling devices. It's why I can tell you about specific runs during my 100 hours with Spelunky, like the time I meant to hit the jump button to leave the shopkeeper's room, but accidentally dropped a bomb, triggering him to attack me, and ending an otherwise successful run. In a sense, it was successful; years later, I'm still able to tell you about what happened.
Flinthook, however, is more about traditional progress, and that's where me and Flinthook have been having problems. I'm currently on the game's fourth boss, but reaching his arena takes roughly an hour of play. Twice, I've made it to his doorstep hobbled and with little health. That'd be one thing if I had a bold strategy for how to take him out, but instead, I'm still learning how the boss' mechanics work, and by the time I've made any headway, I've died and it's back to square one. I now have to fight another hour to put those ideas into practice, and that's assuming I don't run into one of those nasty trap rooms I outlined above.
It'd be easier if I could regale you with stories of my many failures on that journey, but Flinthook's rooms are often a blur. Moment-to-moment, I'm having a good time, and I'm never going to tire of swinging around, but the grind takes its toll. It doesn't help the game has a limited number of enemies and visual styles. I'm at the point where my character is upgraded in a way that makes me balanced and effective, and given how many Souls games I've played over the years, I've got no problem with having to sprint through a level for another shot at a boss, but Flinthook's balance gets out of whack as it goes along.
Bosses can't be fought until you collect enough tokens to reveal their location. Each level unlocks a token, and more tokens are required as you progress. I'd love an opportunity to take on a tougher level and gamble my skills on an opportunity to get more—or all—of the tokens necessary to take on the boss again.
If I'm being honest, in my heart of hearts, I wish Flinthook was structured differently. I wish these mechanics and visuals were dropped into handmade levels, Mega Man-style. Maybe that's part of why I'm bouncing off of it. There's so much about Flinthook that is everything I enjoy about games. It sucks to not love it more.