Opening with its red-cloaked heroine calmly floating to shore on a palm leaf canoe and the tinkling of a delicate piano melody, Hoa sustains a chilled-out vibe for almost the entirety of its two-hour duration. This simple puzzle-platformer pairs the stunning, hand-painted looks of a Studio Ghibli film with a modest set of game mechanics to create a gentle journey through nature that never wears out its welcome.
Inspired by Vietnamese mythology, Hoa’s minimalist story revolves around the titular fairy who’s sent away from her tribe as an infant after an unexplained but clearly tragic event. The adventure begins with the pint-sized Hoa’s return to her homeland, where she must use her magical powers to revitalise the terrain and its inhabitants. This nurturing of flora and fauna has satisfyingly practical effects on the gameplay; sunflowers bloom as Hoa moves near to create platforms out of petals, while rhino beetles can be beckoned closer to push heavy obstacles on her behalf.
It’s all very intuitive, to the point that Hoa thankfully has no need for an on-screen interface of any sort to obscure your view of its gorgeous world. Its puzzle design is similarly uncluttered and perhaps even a touch oversimplified, with only a couple of late-game (used loosely in a two-hour game) mechanisms perplexing enough to give me pause. As far as brainteasers go, Hoa lags a long way behind the likes of Limbo and Little Nightmares II, but that at least allowed me to relax and enjoy the serenity that comes from catching rides from flying ladybugs through a forest canopy and exploring inky underwater depths by the glowing light of a school of jellyfish.
While there are enemies of sorts to be found in Hoa, there are no death states or damage to be suffered of any kind. Mechanical spiders can lash out at Hoa, but the worst they can do is knock her back on her heels a few paces. There are also giant creatures to encounter along the way like a moss-covered rock monster and a towering octopus. These may have been threatening bosses in a lot of other games, but here they’re friends rather than foes; the chilled-out chieftains of each habitat that task you with hunting down butterflies in exchange for clearing a path forward.
Screens – Hoa
There is one action-heavy chase sequence late in the adventure, with Hoa dodging fiery blasts and making last-minute leaps along a path of heaving machinery, but it’s a cutscene designed to inject some drama into Hoa’s story rather than a tricky playable platforming section to intentionally induce stress. For the most part Hoa is like a warm bubble bath for your brain, with almost every element of its experience engineered to soothe. Hoa leaves a small shower of glowing pixie dust with each double-jump twirl, for example, while flowery vines softly knock together like wooden wind chimes when she swings on them. Hoa will warm your heart but it won’t make it beat any faster – in fact the only arrhythmic effect its beauty creates is on the occasionally stuttering framerate.
There are some standout moments in Hoa, like stumbling upon a wrestling arena full of rhino beetles or scaling a maze made out of the glistening threads of a spider’s web, but it’s the story’s climax that I found to be the most memorable. It’s here that the colour palette shifts to a stark black and white and you get to play through a series of remixed elements from the previous stages, with interesting wrinkles like mirrored landscapes and rotating environments that make the puzzle-platforming substantially more involved. The sudden surge of inventiveness in this final fifteen minute stretch made me wish that Hoa could have gone on a little longer.
If not longer, then I at least wish there were some secrets to find. Hoa earns a few movement upgrades as you progress, but despite the fact that a hovering ability allows you to reach some previously inaccessible areas off the main path, there’s nothing to find when you get there. Hoa is a mostly linear adventure, which is a shame because it’s environments are so spellbinding that I would have relished some more incentives to explore them.