You should feel its welcoming energy right from the start. Little Hoa – a diminutive creature shrouded in what looks like a wizard’s hat, their face poking through a hole in the side – awakens on a leaf, drifting across a lake, then beaches at the edge of a fluorescent meadow. As you take control and begin to dash and skip, you’re instantly surrounded by bright blue and green. You can almost feel the brush of the grass and the warmth of the sun, and the whole ecosystem acknowledges your arrival. Daisies spread their petals, ivy leaves sprout as you approach, presenting themselves as platforms. Bees and dragonflies flit with intrigue, rotating to track your movements with childlike curiosity. Bulbous stag-beetles scurry in your wake on tiny legs, ready to lend their carapaces as stepladders to higher ground. Everyone’s just so nice.
There’s little peril to contend with here, and certainly no death. The worst you’ll receive is a swift boot across the screen from one of a smattering of rusty robots that stalk the tree branches. Hoa’s manageable for anyone with basic platforming skills – the last thing it wants is to risk a rise in your blood pressure.
You don’t have to worry about getting lost, either. Levels are open but compact and self-contained. Each centres on a slumbering woodland elder – a butterfly, a great beetle – that you have to rouse by seeking out engravings in the vicinity. At that point they tell you how pleased they are to see you, of course, before instructing you to collect little golden butterflies (marked on the map to ensure you can’t miss them) so they can grant you a new skill that opens up the next area. The first of these is a double jump, naturally, then the ability to push blocks, briefly hover, and so on. It’s not exactly a Metroidvania – you see all there is to see in a single sweep – but it ensures some light evolution, a different technique for the game to exploit each time you move forward.
If that sounds limited, or unambitious, well, it kind of is. There’s little here that a seasoned 2D platform gamer won’t have jumped over and through a hundred times before. Yet rarely has it been framed to feel so soothing, and adorable. Instead of grabbing a rope to swing between tree branches, you dangle from a string of tinkling bluebells. Instead of springy blocks or platforms, plump green larvae invite you to bounce off their backs like trampolines. This personality and ambience, inspired by glorious painted landscapes and lighting, drives Hoa forward, until it’s hard to resent merely competent level design. There’s a friendly familiarity in the Ghibli-ness of its lines, shading, and colours. Or, in old money, it captures the grinning wonder of playing Disney Mega Drive games starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. And astride its visual richness perches another star performer – the undulating score, conveying more pathos than any character or colour, led by a rolling piano and backed by purposeful violins. Powerful instruments indeed.
Perhaps the real surprise in all this is that Hoa doesn’t quite sustain its gentle weave to the end. There’s a sinister story running beneath the greenery, after all. The game takes a dark turn that’s hinted at throughout, and adds a little more punch and impetus to your quest, but nevertheless lands out of tune with much of what’s gone before. It also leads to a final stage that’s more surreal and experimental, playing with your perception and control in a way that previously felt beyond its capabilities. A sprinkling of such alternative thinking throughout could have elevated the whole. Or it might have muddied the comforting simplicity. Either way, introducing it late on asks more questions than it answers.
Despite these late shifts, Hoa could still be the perfect gateway game to prepare younger kids for more daring platform challenges. Like running and jumping with the stabilisers on. But equally, it’s a thoroughly pleasant experience for veterans seeking some self-care between more hard-boiled endeavours. Hoa won’t change the world, but for a handful of hours, it makes it feel like a nicer place.
There are some great little scenes of insect life for you to stumble into and lightly interfere with, like a stag beetle colosseum, where two males are wedged in a head-butting stalemate. Hop on one of their backs and your chosen champ surges towards victory, allowing you to reach a higher platform across the screen.
A simple platform experience with plenty of winning charm.
Genre: 2D Platformer| Format: Switch (tested) / PC / PS5 / XB S/X / PS4 / XBO | Developer: Skrollcat Studio | Publisher: PM Studios | Price: £11.99 | Release: Out now | Social: @hoathegame