Five design mistakes in Hoa, and why you should play it anyway.

Hoa captures what I would call the “Ghibli Aesthetic.” It’s for this reason – much as I still look upon Ni No Kuni with temptation and wish I had 40 hours to spare – that I was drawn to it, wanting to give the game a try since I first set eyes upon the teaser. Indeed the developers cite Ghibli as a major source of inspiration, and the film’s influences are abundantly clear in their work.

If you’re unfamiliar with Studio Ghibli, you should push aside your rock and watch some of their films. The whimsical storytelling, backed by a distinct mix of stylized characters, lush, painted environments and a usually impeccable musical score makes every film an audio visual feast. Hoa captures this aesthetic perfectly, telling the story of Hoa, a tiny fairy returning to her homeland and unraveling the tale behind her tumultuous departure.

Hoa is the first game by fledgling Vietnamese studios Skrollcat and their partners, Kyx. It’s a relaxing, puzzle platformer that melds cel-shaded 3D characters with hand-painted environments and more traditionally animated 2D characters. Hoa explores many of the well-trodden paths in the platforming space but brings some interesting ideas of its own into the mix. Some of these I will touch upon only lightly, since they constitute a major spoiler towards the end of the game.

Since I don’t think I can tell you anything new by writing a review of Hoa – prescient as my writings are since they were kind enough to supply me a pre-release copy – I will do something else.

At the risk of appearing hash in my judgement of Hoa I’m going to recount what Skrollcat and Kyx get wrong, and right. I hope these observations prove insightful, and that you decide to give the game a try for yourself.

These first five points cover the things that I found most jarring. You are invited, if not encouraged, to respectfully disagree:

1. Sound. But no “Sound design.”

One of Hoa’s cited strengths is its musical score. They’re not blowing smoke. Hoa’s music captures the Ghibli feel audibly with the same fidelity that their artwork captures its visuals. The problem isn’t with the music itself, but rather its overuse.

Before elaborating, it’s worth noting that continuously looping background music isn’t bad per se, but Hoa’s music is not designed to be used in this way. In games where it’s pulled off properly the music is generally farly tonally flat. Looping background songs don’t build to crescendo in a way that signposts where the loop begins or ends. You might consider them videogame elevator music. Listen to the Sonic The Hedgehog “Green Hill Zone” theme for example – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-i8HYi1QH0 – and you’ll notice a fade-out at the end. This is because, for all intents and purposes, this song never begins or ends and isn’t structured like a typical piece of music. However good Hoa’s soundtrack might be, these are all strong, standalone songs that don’t fit as repeating background music. The emotional story that they tell and the images they conjure do not gel with the events in the level.

Let’s take the first few levels by way of example. The song that plays over these is approximately 4 minutes long, and I’d guess I spent about an hour in these levels. A bit of back-of-the-napkin maths suggests I listened to that song fifteen times, end-to-end with barely a break. I haven’t listened to a song that many times in a day since Lil’ Nas X dropped Montero. The song, quite simply, overstays its welcome and Hoa’s sound designers have underestimated the value of silence. I can’t tell you exactly what their motivations were, but I suspect they were keen to showcase their musical score and didn’t notice the musical attrition that it might incur upon the player. As a … “musician” … I admit I may be atypically sensitive to this issue.

The “Rock Tribe” level has a shorter song and although I love it, it feels conceptually detached from the dark, enclosed and sometimes unsettling nature of the level itself. It feels more like an outro theme. As I write this my daughter exclaimed “OMG it sounds like old Minecraft music, you know the really old music.” And, you know what, she’s right. I loved that music too, but it didn’t fit tonally with Minecraft. It *couldn’t* fit tonally with Minecraft. Minecraft’s melancholy tracks were as detached from the world as Hoa’s music, but they were flat and unchallenging enough that they didn’t feel jarring. Just like Minecraft’s C418- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qq-RGFyaq0U, Hoa’s music is something I’d listen to on its own merits, away from the game.

That brings us to the concept of musical tone, and the use of music to enforce the mood, feel or gist of a particular scene or event. Skrollcat clearly understand this concept, because their call for musicians specifically requests *two* pieces of music that are tonally polar opposites- “Peaceful, relaxing, meditative” and “Tensed, dramatic.”

These are just two extremes of the musical spectrum, however, and Hoa lacks music to fill out the emotional middle-ground. At the risk of spoiling some minor things I’ll give a few examples;

  1. When you’re dancing up ladybirds, the music should be happy and energetic – in Studio Ghibli terms this might well be “Merry Go Round Of Life” from “Howl’s Moving Castle” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMGetv40FkI) or “Mehve” from “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_EpZsUGYn9M&t=1093s) which is underpinned by a strong, pulsing beat that could well inform the timing of platform swaps.
  2. When you witness a charging bug, it should be dramatic – Aminata Design’s “Samorost 3” goes all out with “Rolling An Explosive Clod.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXZWja94414)
  3. When entering the shady inside of a tree, the tone should shift from whimsical to melancholy – “Being Enclosed Softly” from “Kiki’s Delivery Service” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_eW784KWfeU or – bear with me – the absurd “The Lum’s Dream” from “Rayman Origins” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpqF_n2fEpw

In these scenes- for example inside a tree- Hoa’s soundscape changes to reflect the change of scenery, but it’s difficult to glean this underneath the ever-present music. The music never changes, though, and there are some missed opportunities where the appearance of threat in the visual design – particularly a dark corner of the Rock Tribe level – could have been underpinned by ominous music to give the player the sense they were at risk without ever breaking Hoa’s lenient, relaxed gameplay.

At other times the music just needs to stop and let you get absorbed in the lush and beautiful world that Skrollcat have crafted – to be fair there are some places where this *does* happen, but they are infrequent. As great as the soundtrack is, there’s value to be placed in silence, leaving the player to the chirps of birds, rustle of leaves and their own thoughts. Though muting the music will quickly reveal that some elements of the visual design are not well represented in the sound design- in early levels this might be dragonflies, buzzing in the foreground but totally absent from the soundscape.

2. Taking away the player’s autonomy

There are very mild and very egregious examples of this in Hoa. Let’s explain what I mean first. When you’re playing a game, controller in hand, you normally expect to be able to do *something*. This is especially true of modern games where cutscenes have become part and parcel of the environment and you’re free to move around and explore as a conversation occurs. In the incredible Rayman Legends and Rayman Origins games (with which Hoa has a few similarities) even the loading screens silhouette the player character and allow them to run, jump and shadow box to their hearts content to while away the loading times.

Hoa’s taking of player agency has more emotional repercussions than pausing for a cut scene, however. Let’s set aside … The Chase Scene … for a minute, since it’s the elephant in the room and look toward the end of this scene where the player – or Hoa, rather – makes a choice, reflected by a movement that’s handled automatically on the player’s behalf. This choice is important since it’s the point at which Hoa expresses forgiveness, but by robbing the player of the opportunity to walk forwards of their own volition an important emotional connection between player and Hoa is severed. I might be over-analyzing this, but to have agency taken away at this pivotal moment felt somehow more on the nose after the preceding sequence.

Many other areas of Hoa include little cut-scenes and actions where the player movement will abruptly be stopped while some scene plays out. This could be anything from a pivotal moment or action, to a character delivering a line of dialogue. While I can appreciate why this happens, most of these could still allow freedom of movement with some clever design and avoid breaking the suspense-of-disbelief that you- the player- *are* the titular Hoa rather than some third party onlooker. Many of the dialogue deliveries are also given abruptly, with no player interaction.

The elephant in the room, The Chase Scene, is decidedly more on the nose and less forgivable than these little instances however. Towards the end of Hoa (you’re going to play it) you will enter a sequence, a chase, things get dramatic, your blood will start pumping, and you think “Now, this is the time to put all the skills I’ve learned to the test under pressure.” Except. It’s not. Hoa very jarringly switches from ingame footage to cinematic cut-scene, video artefacts et al, and forces the player to sit back and watch through what- for all appearances- looks like Let’s Play footage of the game. I asked Skrollcat why they chose this approach and their answer was all too familiar- game design is *hard*:

We did try to make the chase scene playable. However, we wanted a perfect cinematic experience for this sequence which required perfect timing and positioning, and player’s control made it unpredictable. In the end, we couldn’t find a way to mix the 2 within the budget and time constraint, so we picked the cinematic experience.

– Son Tung, Skrollcat

This sequence *looks* like a finished gameplay element and Skrollcat clearly had prototypes they played through, but a lack of time, budget and the right stroke of inspiration kept the “feel” they wanted to capture just out of their gasp. This is a painful reality of creative design, and is often exacerbated by the artistic demon of perfection- nobody will ever see the perfect representation of the image, sound, feeling or sequence you’re trying to capture that exists only in your head, or the heads of your team. Sometimes good enough is good enough and the phrase “perfect is the enemy of done”, while oft overused when it comes to creative endeavours, has some merit here. I feel this sequence would be much better left playable, even with compromise, than as a cut scene.

During The Chase Scene, Hoa drops down from platform to platform very clearly indicating how failure could be forgiven and keep the pace going. An infinite, repeating abyss of platforms could have caught Her at every mistake, every fall, and the continuous, regular beat of pummelling explosions – which reinforce Skrollcat’s words about timing and positioning – could have maintained forward momentum. By all appearances both of these things happen, but the player is robbed of their control and forced to watch the sequence play out.

Perhaps the best example of a sequence that demands impeccable timing and positioning from the player is the Castle Rock “Black Betty” level from Rayman Legends – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUfKCBlEG4c. However this level achieves the timing and positioning required to pull off the sequence by continually challenging the player to try, try again. Since Hoa doesn’t have “failure” in the way that Rayman does, I can immediately see the difficulty that Skrollcat encountered.

3. Single-use level architecture

Whew. That was a whopper. Let’s explore something a little simpler. We’re all familiar with the concept of replayability. Games are often designed such that collectable items and secrets are difficult to obtain or reach until the controls are mastered, this encourages subsequent playthroughs to achieve the f abled “100%.” Hoa doesn’t do this. Hoa isn’t trying to be anything more than a whimsical, relaxing, straight-forward platformer and it’s respectful of your time. But its environments are captivating, so I wanted to give it more and get something in return. After completing the game the title screen gives an enticing “Continue” option, but this starts a second playthrough right from brass tacks and none of the levels – neither the tutorial levels up-front, or those further in the game- have any more secrets to yield. I appreciate that I’m asking a lot of a first game from a new studio but I think there’s something *in* replayability as both a mechanic and a way to keep a game at the forefront of player’s minds. A second, third or fourth playthrough can help a player build a connection to a game and, in turn, inspire them to return to it, and to evangelize it.

Even reaching far back to Sonic The Hedgehog we see replayability implemented as collectable rings, score, time limit, bonus stages, Chaos Emeralds. The game entices you to challenge yourself and, as such, it has stood the test of time.

Hoa has a few areas you can reach with a little determination, or sometimes just little nooks and crannies you can jump up into. These are mostly conspicuously empty.

At the end of each level, where you obtain a new ability, the only place to actually *use* this new-found skill is at the exit to the level. Your new ability is put to the test in the next level and there’s no opportunity to go back over the level you’ve just played and use it to explore further, reveal secrets, pick up achievements and stretch out gameplay.

4. The story and the game *feel* separate

Hoa likes to tell you things fairly bluntly and directly. As such the story is given in snippets of text and unfolds as you progress through the game. Towards the end of the game a cinematic, recounting the same story, plays to reinforce what you may – or may not – have read before.

The cinematic feels strangely jarring, and although I feel it’s supposed to serve as an epiphany of sorts it didn’t quite land as one. Both movies and games use flashbacks – short snippets of visual exposition – as a way to weave story details into the main plot thread or mechanic. The 2004 TV series “Lost” is a very strong example of this, with flashbacks being a cornerstone of its storytelling.

In addition to plot thread not being woven into Hoa, there’s very little visual foreshadowing giving concrete, visible and tangible evidence of the events – as told in the story – ever actually occurring. There should be ruins, scars upon the landscape, *something* that might catch Hoa’s eye and trigger a flashback. These kinds of visual elements create intrigue and wonder, inspiring the player to try and feel out story details in their imagination. A keen example of these are the Titans from Heart Machine’s “Hyper Light Drifter”. Gargantuan, enigmatic figures towering over clouds and adding a touch of mystery that’s just out of grasp.

The story of Hoa doesn’t feel very connected to the world that it was supposed to have taken place in, and this makes it feel somewhat secondary to the gameplay rather than an intimate part of the game. Harking back to my words about suspension of disbelief when talking of player agency, the same applies here. It’s difficult to feel emotionally connected to a story that you don’t experience first-hand.

To Hoa’s credit there are antagonists from the story still present in the world, but their introduction is rather abrupt and they exist – more or less – as just machinery in the puzzle-platforming mechanics.

5. Over-explaining things

Last but not least, Hoa’s characters have a habit of giving overly direct instructions and story snippets. Perhaps Hoa’s designers aren’t confident in the player’s ability and willingness to feel out the levels and puzzles for themselves – this is understandable, balance is difficult and Hoa is a game that’s very, very forgiving. The Samorost series is on the opposite end of the spectrum and will leave the player to fiddle and fidget themselves to frustration without yielding a single hint. Hoa gives rather blunt written and visual directions about how to proceed and there were very few parts of the game where I was more than momentarily disoriented, even before I was handed the answer. In one of the early areas you meet an upside-down caterpillar that tells you “being upside down lets you see things differently.” Skrollcat should have left the text there, since the next two sentences explicitly tell you how to solve the next puzzle. This is unfortunate since this is a great little puzzle and presents all the elements the player needs to solve it on their own.

Towards the end of every level you unlock a new ability and, rather than rely on you having spotted some unreachable exit and having an “aha” moment, the game says “Hey! Go here, use your new ability to proceed” and pans the camera across to show you exactly where to go. This kind of direction may be important as an accessibility aid with a toggle in the game menu, but for many gamers it comes across as jarring and patronising when so many adventure/puzzle games rely on that little spark of “Oh, I noticed a place I might be able to use this” for players to make the connection between ability and route. Indeed the Zelda franchise is utterly renowned for this.

Perhaps these design choices are indicative of Hoa’s dedication to being unchallenging, exploratory and forgiving but I think they run the risk of alienating players who- through years of platform gaming- will have developed certain expectations.

So what did Hoa get right?

So that wraps up the five topics I wanted to present here. I also think Hoa has some issues with art cohesion toward the middle/end of the game, and definitely put its best foot forward but I suspect a lot of what I read as flawed is simply just weak in context of Hoa’s excellent, richly detailed and visually harmonious first levels.

1. Put your best foot forward

Hoa ticked one of the more controversial boxes of game design theory- putting the good stuff up front. It’s extremely common for designers to “save the best for last” but this ignores the sad reality that not everyone plays games to completion. This is less of an issue for something with a ~4 hour playtime such as Hoa but whether by accident or design they put their best foot forward. The most richly detailed, Studio-Ghibli-esque, visually enticing levels will be the first you’ll encounter. While things don’t quite measure up in the later levels, the art is still above and beyond for the output of a small studio on a first game with such a demanding artform.

As I sit replaying Hoa’s first few levels and refining this article, I’m still taken aback by just how rich, vibrant and detailed they are. Five or six layers of parallax present a beautifully deep environment and the subtle ways in which the environment reacts to your presence really places you in the world Skrollcat have lovingly crafted.

2. Forgive the player

Hoa is a very, very forgiving game. There’s no fall damage, nowhere to fall to your death, no way for enemies to damage Hoa and – though I was hesitant at first to jump into the water – no way to drown. Falling only costs you time, and the environments are enticing enough that it’s time you’ll want to spend. This gives you ample time to amble through Hoa’s environments and appreciate the scenery. Hoa’s gameplay draws parallels to the oft-maligned and scornfully-named “Walking Simulator”, and if you haven’t experienced games like Samorost, Flower or Journey then these might be your only frame of reference for what to expect out of this game. Hoa is peaceful, relaxed, explorative and just so darn beautiful. Having the time to stop and smell the proverbial roses is important.

Despite being short, Hoa doesn’t attempt to waste your time or draw things out to run up the clock. Backtracking is minimal, and most collectables will lead you around a loop that sees you dropped – sometimes literally – back to a level hub or area start so you can proceed to the next stop.

3. Give just enough information to navigate, but don’t spoil things

Hoa’s level map stands in contrast to the game’s eagerness to explain puzzles and direction. It’s a spartan cluster of connected rectangles that indicate the general size, shape, location and connectivity of level areas without giving away their content. The approximate position of collectables is indicated, and it’s easy to use this information to inform the route you choose when negotiating the platforming. Hoa doesn’t always railroad you into a single route, or force you to do things in a particular order, so the map is necessary to pick your destination and guide you in the right direction. It works well.

4. Some pleasant surprises and an interesting twist

Despite putting their best foot forward, Skrollcat kept an ace up their sleeve to close out Hoa with some satisfying gameplay twists. The interplay between light and shadow woven through the preceding gameplay perhaps foreshadows this. Hoa has a strong relationship with light and dark, from the god-rays peeking through the leaves as you climb to the higher parts of the tree canopy, to the water level where you’re often plunged into total darkness to the “Rock Tribe” level where you’re negotiating dark caverns, to the way things light up and respond to Hoa’s presence. The concluding levels call back to this in a visually striking way and suggest that Skrollcat knew the story they wanted to tell and the feelings they wanted to invoke from the get-go, even if they didn’t quite always capture them.

The final levels were planned from the very beginning to represent the spirit realm. Things change dramatically, switching from one strong artistic presentation to another and it really works. While the core puzzle platforming conceit remains, Skrollcat pull off some things I haven’t seen before and that I genuinely enjoyed toying with. They also pulled off some things I’d perhaps not want to see again, albeit I relished the challenge. It was around 1:30 AM by the time I hit these stages and my brain wasn’t quite up to the task.

5. Incredible visual design and excellent music

Let’s not mince words, Hoa’s creators have raised much fanfare about the audio/visual strengths of their game. Hoa looks and sounds glorious. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say you should buy the OST. I found myself digging through the game source files for the music tracks so I could step away and appreciate them upon their own merits (I can’t access the OST, nor purchase it yet). Alas I could not locate them! I might have said there’s little to no replay value, but I found myself on a second run of Hoa just to hear the music again.

Hoa sometimes pulls back the camera to encapsulate as much as the environment as possible, framing Hoa as the delicate, diminutive fairy that she is against the backdrop of the titanic characters Skrollcat have brought to life. They play fast and loose with camera distance to keep their delightfully handcrafted scenes on screen, but also pull the camera in closer to emphasize the constrained feel of tunnels and tree trunks. Hoa is usually in the center of the screen- mirroring her central role to the plot- and since there is no threat, or enemies to speak of, the camera never needs to compromise between incoming harm and framing the player. While there are a few places where some direction could have brought the camera in closer, or shared focus between Hoa and a pivotal element of the environment, these missed opportunities are not conspicuous.

Hoa will also no-doubt be an absolutely cracking showcase of the OLED Nintendo Switch’s ultra-high-contrast-ratio screen. I played on an OLED laptop and it really popped. There’s a somewhat heavy use of bloom in some areas that doesn’t quite work on the strong light/dark contrast of an OLED – I don’t know if it will be possible to correct for this on the OLED Switch specifically, or even necessary on a smaller screen.

In Summary

For all the problems I touched upon above, Hoa is not creatively bankrupt. It is only through the strengths of Skrollcat’s game that these weaknesses are made visible. It’s clear that the developers poured care and attention into every detail, and perhaps its own lofty ambitions and impeccable presentation have betrayed flaws that would otherwise go unnoticed. I was keen to play Hoa to completion, see where it took me next and that journey took me through to roughly 2AM. They must have done something right.

I’m convinced there’s a slightly better version of the game a few gentle touches away; stripping back some of the music and dialog where it overstays it’s welcome. There’s also an even better version with some tweaked artwork and a few additional – short – musical interludes to punctuate both the dramatic and melancholy scenes and introduce more tonal variation.

As it stands, however, Hoa is a stellar first effort and deserving of the adoration that’s been lavished upon its artwork. Behind the pretty face is a competent puzzle platformer that invoked in me everything from the 1990s film Ferngully to Sonic The Hedgehog, to Samorost and, of course, the Rayman games. The game reminds me – also – of Tanglewood a 2018 (yes, you read that correctly) Megadrive puzzle platformer. Hoa, in many ways, is stripped back to the simple, robust basics of classic platform games save for the removal of death. In a world that’s inundated with games full of dizzying complexity it’s a breath of fresh air to play something that’s not afraid to be straight-forward and simple.

The music is truly magical. As I tweak this article, I have the Hoa title screen over my left shoulder, playing the intro soundtrack and theme from the first level. I’d love Skrollcat to add sheet music and MIDI (for Synthesia) into their OST – https://store.steampowered.com/app/1707860/Hoa_Soundtrack/

Puzzles shift between simple environmental traversal, to moving blocks, to solving slot machines, navigating mazes and traversing blind tunnels before stepping up a notch toward the end of the game. There’s nothing especially challenging – in fact Hoa is largely explicitly *not* challenging – but they keep the pace of the game varied and interesting throughout.

While there’s never any actual threat in the game, Hoa loves to toy with the concept. Some areas of the world are unsettling and you might be left wondering what horrors you could encounter were this a more traditional platformer.

The characters – big and small – capture the Ghibli feel just as competently as the environment. The core gameplay loop is frustration free yet familiar platforming and the game doesn’t drag on, giving you enough of a taste of Skrollcat’s skills to await with anticipation their next title.

Hoa is absolutely worth a look, and you can grab it from Steam – https://store.steampowered.com/app/1484900/