Developer: Skrollcat Studio
I'm excited to bring this review only a little over a week after the game's release to give you all my impressions on this fresh new indie. I'm still in the middle of a move, but I had to pick this game up right away on Switch and it didn't take too long to complete. I first saw Hoa announced during a Wholesome Games showcase and I was immediately drawn to it for its gorgeous, Ghibli-style world. I was looking forward to it for a while, hoping it would be true to how it was shown in the trailer. Hoa is a peaceful platformer about a small fairy on a journey to awaken great forest spirits. Hoa is breathtakingly beautiful, visually and musically, but it gives the minimum in being a fun and entertaining game.
You start Hoa as a little fairy character floating on to shore on a leaf. It's not clear who you are, why you're here, or where you're supposed to go. However, right away you find your way through a sunny, beautiful meadow through simple platforming. You come upon a tree where you can find special engravings to activate, which in turn wakes up a giant butterfly. This butterfly vaguely references knowing you, and how you escaped a previous danger. You catch some small shiny butterflies for them and they unlock your path to the next area, where you will do a similar quest for another large and mystical creature. This pattern repeats, taking you through very different environments from the inside of tree to a underwater. The characters are strange, cute little creatures that remind you how small you are in this world. This is an Vietnamese title and the development and they were successful in adapting this game to many languages, but I wish the writing had been a little better and more polished. Encountering powerful, beautiful creatures loses some of its impact when they talk in ways that don't quite make sense or feel grammatically inconsistent.
Hoa is without a doubt of one the most beautiful and visually impressive games I've ever seen. Yeah, yeah, there's a ton of AAA games out there with graphics that basically look like real life, but this game looks more beautiful than real life. The art inspiration from Ghibli movies is fairly obvious, but Hoa still manages to have unique style at times especially in its watercolor-style cutscenes. Everyone talks a lot about how Ni No Kuni games look like playable Ghibli movies, which sure, they mostly do. However, having played some of the second NNK title, I can say Hoa is more consistent to that aesthetic throughout the whole game and felt a lot more like "playing a Ghibli movie". The soundtrack also beautifully evokes similar feelings as that of Joe Hisaishi's music, without just straight ripping off music from Hayao Miyazaki's movies. It's powerful and orchestral, yet soothing, which works well with the very natural, grandiose environments.
As far as gameplay, Hoa's definitely as simple as can be. You learn skills as you progress, allowing you to jump further distances. Some platforming can take a few tries in that you have to jump on moving ladybugs, but for the most part it's a game that anyone could probably beat. I'm fine with the platforming difficulty, but I think the game could've done more "puzzle" as it calls itself a puzzle-platformer. There's no stakes because you can't get hurt or die, even when being kicked by mean robots. I think that's totally fine -- I'm all in for a platformer with no fighting. However, the other characters present you with the idea that these robots are evil and willing to do harm to you. Yet, they don't at all, so it just feels kind of pointless to name something as a threat or villain when it doesn't do anything at all to you. Near the end, the game's mood takes a turn during a high-action scene, and yet... you don't get to play any of that part. It's literally just a cutscene. This was pretty disappointing as I just had to watch this play out without actually feeling like I'm part of the story. I almost feel like the developers planned to make that part playable but then they changed their minds. Also, a minor bug I ran into is that in one of the areas where you have to jump on ladybugs, there's a big sudden lag for some reason - maybe too many things moving on the screen? It was a little annoying but only for about a minute.
The best way to explain this clip is by quoting this excellent line from a Steam review:
Hoa is "a breath of fresh air" and it's both serene and stunning as an experience. If you're looking specifically for a challenging platformer with an intricate story, this may not be for you. The story becomes clear to you at the end and it's definitely worthwhile, but through the early game you don't understand exactly what's going on. I feel like this game could've been improved in little ways to make it feel more immersive, but overall I'd call it an aesthetic masterpiece of an indie. It's absolutely worth checking out and getting lost in.
Hoa is available on PC, Switch, PS5, and Xbox Series X/S
Played on: Switch
Playtime: 3 hrs