By Gabriel Jones 18.04.2017
The life of a space pirate is the same as any other. It's all about staying active. Of course, that means plundering ships, amassing wealth, and perforating chumps with a plasma pistol. In this rough and tumble galaxy, the meanest brutes carry the largest bounties. Captain Flinthook, whose deeds will eventually become legend, is seeking more than just a fortune. He's after the most valuable treasure of all: friendship. His success or failure is dependent on his trusty quickhook, a time-slowing chronobelt, but most importantly, somebody who knows their way around a controller.
The trouble with bounties is that reaching the heads they're attached to is not a simple matter. There are millions of pirate ships in this universe, and finding the right one requires a slime compass, along with the requisite number of ghost gems. Over the course of a raid, the space captain pirate will invade a series of ships, all of them more labyrinthine and dangerous than the last. Wait, are they really ships? They're more like dungeons. In any case, they're divided into several rooms that are filled with all manner of treasure and danger.
Even though the ships and their layouts are randomized, the person holding the controller still has some idea of what to expect. This is due to variant symbols. Before each invasion, players are given the choice between three ships. The variant symbols determine conditions, as well as special events. One ship might not have life support, which means there's a time limit, but there's also a bazaar on that same ship, so it might be worth the risk to check out what perks they have for sale. Another ship could be loaded with evil pirate battalions, dozens of lasers, and suffers from a flyaxe infestation. Who'd want to enter that ship? Well, maybe it's because the devil has taken up residence there. His curses can lead to some intriguing rewards. Keep in mind that all decisions are final, once the hero arrives at a ship, he can't leave until he's obtained a ghost gem.
Moving about the innards of these space-faring heaps is an effortless task. All of the rooms are designed around liberal usage of the quickhook, so mastering it will make raids that much easier. The physics behind this tool are very well done. It can be used to reach far away locations, evade devious traps, or propel the hero like a slingshot. Soaring through rooms without even touching the ground is really satisfying. One nice touch is that the hero falls at a faster speed when the analogue stick is held down. Having additional manoeuvrability helps in any situation.
When action is getting just a little too hectic, it's time to break out the chronobelt. This handy device slows everything down. The brief moment that it provides could be enough to survive a barrage of bullets. An extra second or two can also be an opportunity for a wayward captain to reorient himself, should his quickhooking shenanigans lead him to a spike-covered wall. Management of this incredible artefact is left entirely to the player's discretion, so make use of it as often as possible.
Flinthook features a lot of combat situations. Typically, each ship will have a handful of rooms that lock up once they're entered, prompting dozens of cosmic pirates to spawn. This is where the blasma pistol comes in handy. Aiming and shooting is just as easy as running and jumping. While all four of these abilities are necessary for survival, one can't understate the importance of watching and waiting. Each pirate has their own pattern and method of attack. Learning their behaviour and responding appropriately will result in less damage taken. The variety of enemy combinations lends every battle its own flair.
Then, of course, there are the bounties themselves. Since these jerks are encountered at or near the end of a raid, being defeated by them is a heart-breaking experience. After all, when somebody dies fighting a boss in a roguelike, they definitely don't respawn at the boss. On the bright side, these battles aren't exceptionally difficult. They're tough, but they're also not 180s. The villains don't break out super lasers that kill the hero in one hit, or fire impossibly dense swaths of bullets. The level of challenge is always consistent, and that's great.
This game presents a slightly different spin on the roguelike formula. While some games prefer to take away everything and force the player to start from the beginning, this one finds a happy medium. "Game Over" is still a worrisome prospect, due to the lost progress, but there are goodies to look forward to, such as booster packs. Booster packs contain perks, which offer all sorts of unique benefits to the pirate captain. Permanent health upgrades and other benefits can be purchased at the black market, which should make the next attempt go a bit more smoothly.
There's also a scoring system to account for. Getting the highest possible score in a raid is accomplished via expedient exploration. Extra bonuses are awarded for entering every room, collecting rare treasures such as relics, and unlocking bonus levels. These hidden areas have unique requirements, and figuring out how to access them is half the fun. Nomad Island, known throughout the galaxy for its riches, can only be found by pirates who never get hurt. Anyone who enjoys getting cursed might find themselves on the dreaded ghost ship. Getting the highest possible scores will require some very thorough and careful play.
As far as the subgenre goes, Flinthook hits just the right balance. Occasionally rooms will have a little more treasure, or slightly less traps, but survival is almost entirely dependent on skill. Luck is a minor factor. The perks the captain comes across are mostly situational, or provide relatively minimal boosts. Unlike some roguelikes, it's impossible to become a walking buzz saw that shoots cannonballs out of every orifice. Above all, raids are tests of endurance. The decently-sized health bar gives off the impression that this game is very forgiving, but that impression won't last. The most common healing item restores 10 hp, but the hero loses 10 hp when he takes damage. With raids taking anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour and a half, there's quite a lot of time for everything to go wrong.
With its satisfying controls and enthralling action, Flinthook is an exemplary roguelike. It gives players the space they need to really come to grips with the titular character's unique repertoire. Each raid presents its own challenges, and there's enough agency to keep every attempt interesting. The constant loop of level-ups of booster packs is maddeningly addictive. There's always something to look forward to, but never at the expense of the game's core. A bevy of extras, such as hardcore and infinite modes, round out this superb release.