Despite growing up in Mario’s heyday, I have to confess that I was never great at platformers, and that’s still true. However, despite my own inadequacies as a player, Hoa is a very forgiving and really fun little game.
Gorgeous visuals and a relaxing soundtrack make for an immersive experience marred only slightly by control issues and predictable puzzles.
In Hoa, you play the eponymous faerie whose leaf boat has arrived on an unfamiliar shore. You disembark and wander into the forest where you encounter helpful snails who guide you to the butterfly queen. She, in turn, drops crumbs hinting that the land might not be as unfamiliar to Hoa as it at first seems. You move through five different zones, encountering creatures who have helped Hoa on her journey and one final, much more difficult zone. In the process, Hoa gathers butterflies that these bosses use to teach her new skills or unlock the next path. She also learns more and more about her own story as she encounters each boss.
I realize that description of Hoa’s story is fairly vague. However, I don’t want to get too far into describing the story because part of Hoa’s charm is the mystery of who Hoa is and what happened to her family. Even describing certain stages gives away significant game spoilers, which I’d rather avoid.
Hoa is a 2D platformer, and the platforms range from flowers to bugs to jellyfish. There are lovely bell-flowers that serve as swings and chime charmingly once you hit them. You solve the puzzles using a combination of the abilities you learn from the stage’s boss and clever routing via platforms. Until the final stage, which ramps up the difficulty by a factor of ten, most of the puzzles are fairly straightforward and will be familiar to anyone with any experience whatsoever in the genre. I suspect that the developers deliberately structured the puzzles to be simplistic because that familiarity gives you more time to enjoy the gameplay experience.
The game clearly centers around the idea of experience. Hoa’s visuals are gorgeous. They combine hand-painted backgrounds with animated elements with which you can interact, and given the game’s overall aesthetic and design choices, you really do feel like you’re in a Studio Ghibli world. Even the story themes reflect that inspiration as the game sets up a tension between natural and artificial elements in the world. One of the primary “enemies,” for example, is a spring robot that kicks your character across the screen.
The game’s soundtrack adds to this ambience. Most of the tracks are uplifting pieces that blend into the world around Hoa, featuring motifs appropriate to the type of environment in which Hoa finds herself. Each world has a distinct sound, you’ll hear more or less of that distinctiveness depending on where you are in the world or whether you’re on the right track. The music therefore forms an integral part of the immersive experience.
The game focuses on creating that kind of relaxing experience. Hoa doesn’t have a health bar. There’s no fall damage, and as mentioned previously, the spring robot simply punts you across the screen. There’s no sense of threat; Hoa doesn’t even have any damage-dealing abilities. The game focuses purely on the jumps and platform puzzles; even the spring robot, while “mean,” frequently serves as part of the puzzle solution. While I can certainly understand that not everyone will appreciate that lack of threat, I enjoyed Hoa’s devotion to creating a peaceful, adorable environment very much.
However, Hoa does have its fair share of issues. I played Hoa on the PC, and Hoa is one of the rare examples where the PC version is not superior to the console version. Hoa does not support mouse use at all. You have to use the arrow keys even when selecting options on the menu. During actual gameplay, the keystroke commands are largely familiar, but the key for the smash ability requires the most awkward configuration I’ve experienced in a while. Since Hoa only has four abilities she can use, smash is as important as you would imagine it to be. Hampering players’ ability to trigger that ability represents a pretty serious flaw in gameplay.
The actual puzzles in Hoa don’t detract from the experience precisely because they’re easy. Timing the ladybugs presented the most challenge out of all of the initial five stages. The game does briefly feature a slot machine-style puzzle, but finding the solution poses little difficulty, though shifting to a different kind of puzzle was a nice change. However, the game changes the difficulty by an order of magnitude for the final level. The change makes for a much more interesting stage, but it comes out of nowhere. Nothing in the previous stages really prepares you for it, so transitioning to that stage is pretty jarring. Admittedly, that’s part of the point. That stage occurs at a significant change in the story, but that shift felt out of place considering the previous five stages.
Speaking of story, Hoa offers roughly two to three hours of gameplay (unless you’re me). For such a short game, a lot of the latter storytelling occurs by scripted event. There’s even a fantastic chase sequence during which your only contribution as a player is to hit the run button. The environment around you begins to shift, distort, and flicker, so gamers with sensitivity to those types of visual stimuli should be aware. On the one hand, I appreciated not having to react to those environment changes, but on the other, with such a short game, relying so heavily on scripted events does detract from the gaming experience.
The game closes with a certain amount of ambiguity. Hoa gets some answers but not all. The answers she, and by extension you, get aren’t entirely satisfying. I don’t know if the developers wanted to leave the game open for a sequel, which would be fantastic, or if the game follows in the Journey model of story.
Despite those issues, Hoa constitutes a really solid offering by the Vietnamese Skrollcat Studio. The game is breathtakingly beautiful, and it sucks you in to this fantastical world. Not every story has to be incredibly complex; Hoa reminds us that sometimes, simplicity is best. Hoa thus provides an invaluable opportunity to let the ugliness and stress of our actual lives go for a couple of hours. While the game doesn’t lend itself to multiple playthroughs, the experience will stick with you for quite some time after the credits roll.
Stray Thoughts From Behind the Keyboard:
- When in doubt, find yourself a snail. The snail is the answer.
- Hoa’s character design is what you’d get if Studio Ghibli made Journey. I don’t know if the visual allusion is intentional, but it made for a great nod.
- The game also borrows a bit from Limbo, but I’m not going to say much about that.
- I really do wish the PC version were a better port, and I kinda wonder how it would be to play it on a Switch or Xbox.
- I can’t say this enough. The visuals are stunning. Hoa may be one of the most beautiful video games to come across my screen in a long time.
- When collecting the five butterflies, at certain points, the butterflies will fly you back to a starting point. I have to admit, every time that happened, I was grateful because some of those climbs would have been really annoying to reverse.
- At times, identifying the elements with which you can interact was difficult. Some look like the rest of the background. Others look like you should be able to use them as platforms, but you just sink through them. Fortunately, no puzzle in Hoa left me in a space from which I couldn’t escape.
- The game froze only once, and exiting and restarting the game solved the issue. Hoa is therefore stable on the PC.
- In case this isn’t clear from the review, I loved playing this game.
Developers: Skrollcat Studio
Platforms: GoG, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Steam, Xbox One