Hoa is an unprecedented artistic accomplishment. Many games cite Studio Ghibli as an artistic influence these days (and then there are games where Ghibli gets directly involved), but none of them have ever brought the Ghibli style to life in a video game as masterfully as this has. As a sidescrolling platformer with hand-drawn visuals, Hoa genuinely feels like a serene journey through the nature scenery in a Studio Ghibli film, with a spectacular soundtrack to match. Vietnamese indie developer Skrollcat has accomplished something incredible here, even if the actual platforming is simplistic and short-lived.
Honestly, beyond the aesthetics, there isn’t actually much to review about Hoa. The game only lasts about two-and-a-half hours, with seemingly no extra secrets to uncover once the credits roll, and to discuss the brief story at all would basically spoil it. But in a nutshell, Hoa washes up in a land unfamiliar to her and goes on an adventure to learn about what happened to her and her family.
The game has no fail state and you can’t die; the worst that can happen is that a small enemy robot can smack you aside, albeit somewhat gently. In fact, most of the NPCs in the game are specifically there to help you with platforming, like beetles and ladybugs whose backs you can jump off of. It creates a beautiful feeling of community within nature and is yet another way the game radiates warmth.
Hoa is broken up into a handful of different areas, and the game immediately provides you with a rudimentary map as you arrive in each one. It shows you where someone important is you should wake up, and it denotes where five butterflies are. Collecting the five butterflies and taking them to the area’s important person will typically grant you a new ability, including a double jump, pushing strength, a rapid drop that can be used to bounce high off certain surfaces, and limited flight.
While exploration isn’t completely linear, areas are self-contained enough that you will basically never be left wondering where to go next. No area of the game outstays its welcome either, and the different types of platforming challenges and light puzzles are nicely paced. The various areas play out across approximately four different types of environment, each one immaculately rendered and accompanied by a beautiful classical score (recorded live, apparently).
Hoa is simply breathtaking. In the first 10 minutes of playing the game, I lost track of how many times I said, “Oh my God!” I would continue to casually utter it with awe for the rest of the playthrough.
However, the platforming itself in Hoa is pretty uninspired. There are few, if any attempts at innovation. It’s just a lot of basic running, jumping, and swinging, albeit assisted by the aforementioned helpful beetles and ladybugs, etc. Only the final area of the game attempts to do anything new and different, and it serves as a nice capstone that puts together everything you’ve learned on your adventure.
On one hand, you could say that the simplistic platforming of Hoa makes it especially well suited for young children, and that is true — except that the controls are problematic too. They are a bit unresponsive, and jumping activates on an odd delay. Even though I mostly got used to them eventually, the controls still make the game more difficult than it otherwise should be. As a result, young kids might need mom or dad’s help to get past certain sections.
One more oddity about Hoa is that, near the end of the game, there is an epic chase sequence with lots of narrow escapes and exciting jumps. The part that makes it odd is that you just watch this entire, long scene play out in a scripted fashion instead of actually participating in it. Surely this decision was made to preserve the game as a peaceful, stress-free experience, but it still feels like a missed opportunity to liven up the basic gameplay.
Hoa is so mesmerizing that it’s hard not to love
Hoa is one of the most beautiful video games ever made. Not since Cuphead has there been a game with such an instantly enrapturing style, and the fact that it came from an unproven indie studio is extraordinary. The visuals and audio are so preposterously strong that I stayed completely engaged for its short runtime in spite of the simple gameplay and flawed controls.
That being said, the game’s strengths and weaknesses do pose a clear dichotomy in review: If you love a beautiful piece of art, play Hoa. But if you demand innovative game mechanics and tight controls… well, maybe play Hoa anyway once it goes on sale — it’s that pretty.
A Nintendo Switch review code for Hoa was provided by the publisher.