Studio Ghibli’s influence on the video game industry is becoming increasingly more palpable. The cute, ethereal worlds, packed with character and signature color palette have seeped into many titles. Dripping with personality, Hoa manages to do something that only a handful of games have been able to accomplish. Perfectly capturing the essence of Hayao Miyazaki, can Skrollcat Studio ensure that the gameplay matches the ambition of the jaw-dropping aesthetics?
Upon floating gently to shore, you begin a beautiful and serene journey of discovery. Each lovingly detailed character welcomes you back to the enchanted forest and gives you a snippet of information that gradually reveals the narrative. Whilst the dialogue is small and rather simple, each creature you meet is brimming with life due to its distinct design. The magnetic visuals are alluring and you will quickly become invested in the universe and its fantastical inhabitants, resulting in a delicious adventure through a magical world.
A Whimsical World
Skrollcat Studio has expertly intertwined the platforming with the environment. Leaves unfurl and flowers blossom, allowing you to delicately traverse areas. Bugs and creatures are also part of the experience, aiding you through the world. You can lure rhino beetles to your desired location, using their shell to reach higher ground, use bouncy caterpillar larvae to soar through the sky and jump on ladybugs before they fly away. The merger of creatures and gameplay is lovely and adds a sense of tactility to the game.
Each environment houses mysterious symbols that will awaken a dormant beast, who lies at the center of the level. You will then be required to search for butterflies and give them to the creature in order to progress. Gathering these will give you a snippet of information regarding Hoa’s journey and grant you a new ability that is the main gameplay mechanic for the next stage. This gradually builds during your adventure culminating in an other-worldly segment that differs from all previous sequences. Some may find this section jarring, however, I personally felt that it was a perfect conclusion that combined the narrative and gameplay.
Perusing through the mythical world is a relaxing affair. Although you can venture in any direction, segmented areas of the level are linear meaning you will never feel lost. Stifling the experience, stutters occur when moving from one area to another. Although this rarely happens in gameplay segments, it’s a frustration that lingers throughout, and ultimately hinders the enjoyment. Minor puzzles are also featured throughout your trek, requiring you to maneuver blocks or perform other simple tasks. Due to this, there is a meandering pace that is present during the entirety of the game. At one point, a chase scene occurs which is usually accompanied by a sense of dread, however, this is completely automated meaning at this point, you can even let go of the controller and still succeed.
Whisper of the Heart
With no health bar, no-fail circumstances and only one enemy type that only knocks you back, Hoa lacks challenge. Skrollcat Studio has purposefully designed the game to be a stress-free experience that will appeal to gamers of all ages and abilities. Whilst the game is endearing and captures a childlike innocence that will resonate with many, seasoned players will cruise through the game within a couple of hours. Although this may disappoint some, the short length suits the relaxing gameplay, creating a memorable journey through a fairy tale world.
The Studio Ghibli influence not only surrounds the aesthetics but is also within the score. Similar to classics such as Spirited Away, Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro, the gentle, piano-based melodies create a sense of splendor and build to create epic moments filled with emotion. Whilst heavily inspired by the Japanese artists, this takes nothing away from the incredible world realized in Hoa. Every area and asset has been thoughtfully crafted to communicate the central theme about the importance and beauty of nature.
A Labor of Love
Hoa is one of the best-looking games I have ever played. Each aspect has been stunningly designed, creating a luscious and captivating world. Areas are varied with new mechanics periodically introduced to ensure the game has a nice sense of progression. Unfortunately, there is a lack of challenge and some performance issues that do hamper the experience. Although Hoa is short, this relaxing, whimsical adventure is a visual landmark that will enamor fans of Studio Ghibli.
*** A PlayStation 5 key provided by the publisher ***
• Amazing Visuals
• Incredible Score
• Nice Pacing
• No Challenge
• Stutters Between Areas
• Too Short