One of the most anticipated indies from the 2021 Wholesome Direct stream, Hoa is a pastoral vision of tranquil forest scenery and sweet anthropomorphic animals. Some players might invoke the Studio G-word (hint: it rhymes with “jibbly”) to describe Hoa’s aesthetic, an overused shorthand for a very specific combination of meticulous animation and hand-painted backgrounds. My dearest Christmas wish is for people to move away from this catch-all descriptor because frankly we are calling literally anything and everything Ghibli these days.
That being said, Hoa is absolutely beautiful—it’s clear that Skrollcat Studio poured a lot of time and care into crafting the game’s serene vibe. It’s a fairly easy puzzle-platformer—there are hints of Hollow Knight inspirations here and there, such as the map design, but none of the punishing mechanics. The worst thing that can happen to your character, a tiny fairy, is getting rudely kicked across the screen by a robot NPC. There’s no combat, which is nice for a change, and really lets you indulge in the bucolic forest setting.
But Hoa, with all of its sumptuous visuals, lacks the narrative depth that makes these kinds of intimate worlds so charming. There are several different levels filled with nervous, kind ladybugs, gentle rock creatures, and gruff stag beetles, each with marginally different abilities to help your tiny fairy on their way. The idea is to light up engravings that awaken different “bosses,” all of whom saw you pass through their realms as a baby on the run from evil machines. Each boss alludes to some kind of past conflict where your parents tried to hide you, and you were saved by a mysterious someone. This someone is literally referred to several times in the game as “that guy”, a tonally questionable translation choice that snaps me out of Hoa’s pleasant reverie. The dialogue in each themed area is largely interchangeable—everyone gives you the same canned warning.
At the first prompt of actual violence in the game, there’s a drawn-out cutscene that seems like a wasted opportunity to give players a chance for a challenge. After freeing the robot who saved your life all those years ago, the robot urges you to flee before its evil programming takes over. And so, your tiny fairy form has to speed through a snarl of platforms in a menacing factory, in what looks like a pretty thrilling gauntlet-style platforming sequence—if only it was playable. Even if it clashes with the game’s combat-free vibe, the option would have been a rewarding taste of what makes platformers so exhilarating for certain players.
After your “death,” you enter the reverse-control portion of the game—a starkly beautiful black-and-white realm that is ostensibly a sort of afterlife-limbo, and my own personal hell. It starts off as a fairly straightforward asymmetric split-screen level—obstacles and objects in the top half of the screen are different from the bottom half, and you must call on all the powers you’ve learned to get through them. Then comes a truly demonic section that brings Hoa’s whole concept as a pleasant, “easy” experience into question—an inverse movement section where you must do the same platforming mechanics while the camera tilts at inhumane angles. I’m not sure how 49% of players on Steam seem to have this section done, but I simply cannot get past one very specific part that, for almost an hour, was becoming the bane of my entire existence.
All style, little substance
Hoa is ultimately more about style rather than substance, and while this makes for a lovely visual experience, it’s rather shallow. Unlike its fellow puzzle-platformer brethren, the game doesn’t have much lore or even basic worldbuilding details for an engaging playthrough—there are no items to collect besides glowing butterflies, and nothing in the world that tells a larger story about the plight of your people. Perhaps the biggest blow is that after a certain point, I gave up on learning more about my little fairy and the worlds we moved through. It all falls rather flat, which is a shame given all the gorgeous background painting and adorable character work that went into development.
Perhaps Hoa is meant to be a vehicle for the art, and if so, there should be an option to nerf the reverse-control section so that we can appreciate said art without wanting to claw our eyes out. It’s also pretty funny how often you get Steam achievements—within the first few minutes of starting the game, you get three achievements including one for literally starting the game and another for moving to the next area (Steam achievements, of course, mean nothing). It’s a nice way to pass the time if you want a relatively stress-free platformer that’s easy on the eyes, but even as Hoa demands little from you as a player, it also offers little as an escape.