‘Hoa’ is a wellspring of playful tranquility
Hoa in Vietnamese means flower, one of humanity’s most enduring symbols of growth, hope, and peace. Skrollcat Studio’s video game of the same name embodies those idioms and more by rooting a bucolic, humble, and uniquely Vietnamese fable into a short and sweet indie classic.
Hoa is a hand-painted puzzle platformer that has you play a tiny, bouncing fairy traversing a lush natural landscape. As most platformers entail, your persistent march to the right has you leaping through gargantuan treetops and swimming in dark undersea depths. Along the way, you’ll encounter helpful insects and sea critters that will unlock movement abilities within you and gradually unravel the story of what happened to this world years ago.
Vietnam-based Skrollcat Studio and Kyx Studio were in extensive partnership during the development of Hoa. What started as a part-time project in a Singapore university blossomed into a fully fledged indie effort that attracted the attention of publisher, PM Studio. Despite its short length, Hoa is very lovingly crafted. You can finish the entire game in between two to four hours which makes it ideal for children, casual gamers, and anyone looking to romp around a gorgeous short story for an afternoon, which is what I did.
Your spritely avatar arrives on the shore of a once familiar place where you reconnect with guardians that have slept for a long period of time. While you start off with just a basic jump, you will soon be able to tether it with other momentum changing techniques, including a double jump and a glide. Your character’s movement feels appropriately floaty and is simple enough for any person to get the hang of after just a few minutes.
Once you start the game, you’ll be instantly warmed by an art style and sound that is highly reminiscent of Studio Ghibli movies. It’s not at all an insult to say that Hoa wears its tonal influence on its sleeve, and offers its own delicate embellishments of shimmering bluebell ropes, goofy and grand beetle friends, and subterranean networks of bioluminescence. Hoa’s use of scale always feels organic and connected. It accurately captures the explorative essence of childhood complete with your character’s endless amount of energy.
Johanes Johansson’s score incorporates a harmonious orchestra of strings. The music is led by a piano that resembles Joe Hisashi a little too well on more than one musical phrase, but provides a great grounding energy throughout your environmentally diverse adventure. There’s nothing to get stressed out about listening to this soothing score. My favorite track has to be the cheerful flute melody of “Bouncy Larvas” that opens the world wonderfully.
Hoa borrows clever puzzle and stage design elements from indie titans such as Limbo, VVVVVV, and Braid. Stages start pretty lateral then get more vertical as you grow your skillset. The gameplay never gets too mechanically dense, but sometimes this simplicity does turn into tedium, particularly in a monotonous water level that bogs down an already slow game. The ending of the game does pick up all these elements in a slightly challenging final act. Fans of the Flash game Shift will feel right at home. Hoa ultimately feels like what the ill-conceived Hey! Pikmin attempted to accomplish with its micro puzzle platforming.
As you approach the game’s climax, the conflict in the world’s past reveals itself. A rapidly industrializing world had ravaged your people, your friends, and your home. Your journey was a pilgrimage to discover the truth. While the narrative takeaway isn’t new, Hoa does a great job of pacing the story alongside your character’s noticeable growth. Being immersed in the world is as much exposition as the game needs to tell you that life exists past trauma and tragedy.
I have become an increasingly bigger fan of “bite-sized games that tell a small story with lots of soul.” Hoa fits that description to a T. It’s just a cozy, thoughtful game that wants to make you happy. I can easily see Hoa brightening up even the most cynical gamer’s afternoon. More than that, Hoa is an exciting preview of what we might be seeing on the horizon of Asian-developed games hitting the indie mainstream.
This version of Hoa was reviewed on Steam.