Hoa, a hand-drawn puzzle-platformer from Scrollkat Studio, has some of the prettiest hand-drawn animation I’ve seen in gaming. While the visuals and soundtrack are compelling, Hoa’s gameplay and narrative are light on substance. If you’re the type who can enjoy relaxing for a few hours as you’re transported to a beautiful world, Hoa might be for you. If you want challenging puzzles and sharp platforming, give it a pass.
On starting up, Hoa seamlessly transitions from showing a tiny fairy on a leaf float gently across calm water as the opening credits roll into the start of the game, handing you the controls as the fairy leisurely alights to the lush meadow of the tutorial area. Flowers spring into bloom under an azure sky while sweeping piano salutes the beauty of the moment, casting a spell that never lets up. You soon reach a verdant forest, and Hoa takes you through several other biomes over the course of your journey. Each is wonderfully expressive, lovingly detailed, and bursting with life. Every bit of flora and fauna has an endearing charm. Strange and wondrous creatures behold you curiously with their many eyes while dew-glazed plants glisten in the soft light filtering through the canopy.
Hoa’s hand-drawn art is stunning, and I’d say its biggest appeal. Hoa has been compared to the work of Studio Ghibli, and I can see why. The quality is outstanding, and Hoa shares the vision of pristine nature as something good, noble, and beautiful beyond compare with Miyazaki as expressed in Ghibli films like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke. The way Hoa’s score ebbs and swells as you explore different regions of the landscape is also similar. It’s an intoxicating combination, especially when you need an escape from monotonous aspects of our industrialized world.
Easy Does It
Hoa’s gameplay is simple and relaxed. It eases you into the action with basic running and jumping, aided by friendly snails and grubs who provide hints and serve as mobile platforms to allow you to reach higher ground.
As Hoa progresses, you gain new abilities like a double jump and the strength to push blocks. The game incorporates these into a gradual increase in complexity, but Hoa is laid back and forgiving throughout. Puzzles are hardly brain teasers, there are no fail states, and environments often provide more platforms than are strictly needed. If you miss a jump, you lose little progress and can always try again. If you can’t reach somewhere after experimenting for a few minutes, you probably need to take a different path for the moment.
The simplicity often works in Hoa’s favor. The controls are a bit stiff, and Hoa lacks the joy of movement found in great platformers, but since you don’t need to think much about what you’re doing, Hoa’s limitations never become frustrating. Instead, they free you to go at your own pace and drink in the richly detailed environments. This does make for an unusual connection between the gameplay and the aesthetics and story. The tasks Hoa asks you to do are rarely engaging on their own. Rather, they draw your attention to particular details, like an intricate spiderweb that plays as a maze, and serve as interactive pacing. Nowhere is this philosophy more apparent than the climax, where Hoa creates urgency by taking the reins and having you watch rather than play. It’s an admission that the design simply isn’t suited for a dynamic gameplay-driven experience.
Some players may find Hoa unengaging. Those who want meaty gameplay will have nothing to sink their teeth into. Hoa is best suited to players who want to immerse themselves in the aural and visual beauty of Hoa’s world and narrative. The appeal of Hoa as a game is the player’s ability to control the pacing and forge a connection with the world and characters through kinetic action. While Hoa is not a walking simulator, it shares parts of its design philosophy with that genre. And to the right audience, it can be effective.
A Fairy’s Fable
My biggest disappointment with Hoa lay in its storytelling. Viewed in retrospective, Hoa has an exciting climax and a moving, thoughtful resolution. The story is straightforward but potentially powerful. The problem is that none of this is apparent until the end, and so you play most of Hoa with no narrative direction. NPCs imply your tiny fairy has an important purpose, but not one the game is willing to share with you yet. Similarly, the environmental storytelling is effective at evoking the mood of each biome, from the playful joy of the forest to the vast inscrutability of the ocean, but lacks the interconnectedness needed to create a sense of progression. There’s no motivation to anything you’re doing, other than to reach the reward of the next gorgeous visual set piece.
Your fairy is a silent protagonist, but Hoa’s other denizens are eager to chat. I enjoyed speaking with the various forest creatures who were excited to tell me how much fun they were having living in this idyllic forest. It added to Hoa’s playful and peaceful mood. Other NPCs offer expository dialogue, which as mentioned, is too vague to get you invested. There’s also either some odd use of English vernacular or simply a bad translation. Even in short snippets, characters frequently used weird phrases I have a hard time imagining an English speaker ever saying.
I played Hoa on the Nintendo Switch, and I experienced occasional slowdowns in screens that had a lot of visual effects. It’s not a huge issue and doesn’t hamper gameplay, but the stuttering does briefly disrupt the enthralling spell cast by Hoa’s visual splendor. Hoa is available in physical and digital editions on Switch, PS4, and PS5 as well as digitally on PC. I haven’t played the other versions, but I’ve often found that multiplatform games perform worse on the Switch because of its hardware limitations. You might get better performance if you play Hoa on a different platform.
It took me just under 3 hours to play Hoa at a leisurely pace, so it’s not a long game. While it’s helpfully divided into chapters so you can pick up where you left off or replay your favorite scenes, you could also complete Hoa in one sitting as the game equivalent of a long movie. That’s how I played Hoa, and I thought it made for a nice evening. The length felt about right to me.
Hoa may not offer much gameplay or narrative, but for those willing to savor the relaxed experience, Hoa’s beautiful art and sweeping music can whisk you away for a short, lovely jaunt through a magical world.
HOA IS RECOMMENDED
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A veteran of Oregon Trail and Battletoads, Wes has been playing and talking about games for as long as he can remember. He’s down to try almost anything, and he especially enjoys games with gripping narrative experiences.