This game was reviewed on Xbox Series X.
Reviewed by: Joe Cabrera
As I sit sifting through the coming soon section on Metacritic one game just keeps finding its way into my eye line. El Gancho. Despite my attempts to ignore it, as if by magic, a review code popped into my inbox. A glance over the trailer for this game and I was immediately intrigued. A gorgeous retro aesthetic is one sure-fire way to get me excited. But that excitement quickly turned into genuine desire after watching the wonderfully pixel animated main character swing through an array of vibrant levels using what looked to be precision fast-paced platforming mechanics with a focus on outmanoeuvring enemies, obstacles and environmental hazards... And what's that? The game is procedurally generated? So potentially endless platforming fun with no two playthroughs the same? My mind wandered back to my time with Celeste. An impeccable masterpiece with a wonderful story and beautiful pixel art, a soundtrack to rival the best ever made and most important of all, the most satisfying and precise platforming mechanics in any 2D platformer to date. I thought about how I was genuinely sad that Celeste had to end and wished that there was something similar to tie me over whilst I waited for the next instalment from the Celeste developers. Could El Gancho be that wish? Well as the old adage goes, be careful what you wish for.
El Gancho is an arcade-style action platforming game. This game is exceptionally easy on the eye (well, if beautifully nostalgic pixel art aesthetics are your thing anyway). The game is wonderfully vibrant and has a fantastic soundtrack to match. Although the soundtrack could do with having a little more variety because after a few hours of playing this game the music begins to ring around your head like your wake up alarm tone seeping into your dreams.
Developed by Spanish developers Sidral Games and published by Eastasia soft El Gancho is the next game set in the Task Force Kampas universe. (Task Force Kampas being their first game) The story is... well, just barely a story and whilst I hoped there would be a little more to it. This kind of thin concept is commonplace in games of this nature. They tend to do their talking through the gameplay rather than their storytelling.
The Pogovon Empire has invaded Cocodu planet and captured the cocos! In their search for an unlimited source of power amongst species from across the galaxy, the Pogovons learned about the unlimited happiness of the cocos. Now apparently this unlimited happiness is the Pogavons desired fuel needed to power their galaxy shredding superweapons. Like I said... Thin. Anyway as a result the Pogovons have taken over the planet and enslaved the coco race! You play as an unnamed Coco who has evaded capture and stumbled upon an experimental laser hook. Ideal. As you may have guessed it's your mission to save your coco pals and ultimately save your planet by banishing the Pogovons.
So let's talk actual gameplay. The main feature of this game is your laser hook. It's supposed to be El Gancho's defining feature. You can also jump and shoot in El Gancho but these are secondary and used only to get yourself out of tight spots. The main way of dealing damage to enemies is by using your characters trail. As you swing your coco leaves behind a trail and when this touches an enemy it hurts them. Reading that sentence in this review, you may be nodding your head thinking "okay, that makes sense". However, controlling that mechanic in-game is an entirely different story. It feels very awkward and imprecise and because your trail is behind you it follows your trajectory. Yet you are supposed to be using this to kill enemies. So you avoid enemies by jumping over them or swinging around them and by proxy, your trail follows you meaning most of the time your trail will also miss the enemies. It's an uncomfortable mechanic that is more frustrating than it is fun.
The laser hook, you know, the thing that is supposed to be the main selling point of this platformer, isn't any better. For a game based around swinging mechanics, the laser hook feels counterintuitive. It's incredibly clunky and lacks the smooth motion needed to tackle the level design in the game. As you progress through the levels, they become increasingly more fast-paced and require an ever-increasing amount of platforming precision. A level of precision that is next to impossible to deliver using the tools the game gives you to do so.
To add insult to injury the layout of the controls is a decision I can safely say was made at two A.M. at the Sidral Games Christmas party. The game plays using twin sticks, one to move and the other to aim your hook. Then you need to press and hold the right shoulder button to fire the hook. That's three actions you need to take to perform the simplest of movements on the game. This same mechanic could have been done using a single stick and a single button press to fire the hook. I think about the grapple mechanic in the Ori series and how fluid it feels. This allows the player to move at pace through hectic environments without having to think too hard about fiddly controls. El Gancho demands that you do this on later levels but you are required to do it using a control scheme that isn't fit for purpose. You wouldn't cut through a block of wood with a butter knife. I mean, it's possible with enough perseverance but it's hard work and incredibly frustrating and just not very much fun. That pretty much sums up El Gancho.
As if all of the above wasn't enough to make the veins in your head want to bulge out of your skin as your blood beats round your body filled with pure undiluted frustration. The game is a procedurally generated roguelike. What that means is that when you die, and you will, a lot, you restart right from the beginning of the game. And when you do, all the levels have changed. Procedural generation is something I'm a big fan of but for it to be enjoyable, the gameplay needs to be tight and very well put together. The reason being is that if the game world and levels are ever-changing, then the mechanics need to be the thing that upholds the value of the game's playability. I.e. no matter what level the procedural generation spits out, the game should always still be fun to play. This isn't the case here. The algorithm is too random. The parameters are too open. It means that some levels are far too spacious lacking enough well-placed blocks for you to grapple from to keep your movement consistency going, and others are far too cluttered which reduces the traversal speed that the game demands. There is a sweet spot where you will find a nicely generated level that allows you to string a few good swings together but unfortunately, these are few and far between.
I always feel a small amount of guilt when I roast an indie title, and I truly wanted to enjoy my time with El Gancho but I would be doing myself, and you guys a disservice if I didn't give you my honest assessment. The aesthetics of El Gancho are wonderful and the music is annoyingly addictive but unfortunately, that's about where it ends. There are multiple wonderful looking environments with some excellent environmental hazards that should have made this game fast-paced, frenetic and fun. It should have been a classic addictive 'die and retry' game. The reality, however, is slow, clunky, frustrating and unbalanced gameplay and when you die, you cant even retry. The mechanics feel like they belong in a game like Sperlunky but the environments play as they belong in Super Meat Boy. The game has plenty of enemy scrubs and six bosses for you to take on but regrettably, the most difficult enemy you will have to face are the controls themselves. I wanted to like this game. I really did. But unfortunately, El Gancho was a swing and a miss.
Reviewed by: Joe Cabrera