It just isn’t that much fun to play. That’s the thing I keep coming back to. Hohokum is gorgeous, stuffed with elaborate landscapes and bright construction-paper colors. You play a stringy worm thing, and you glide around several beautiful levels with loose (very loose) instruction. You poke and prod until a tangible direction falls out, the code is broken open, you’re rewarded with a cut-scene or another worm thing, and you move on.
Basically, Hohokum would’ve been a lot more impressive in 2007. You know, around the same time flow and Braid were kicking off the still-churning movement of indie games getting prime downloadable real estate on high-tech, HD consoles. There was a sense of inquisitiveness back then, developers challenging the core concepts of level design, control and core gameplay values. It’s difficult to remember now, but there was a time when asking how “game-y” a game needed to be was a legitimate talking point. In an era where Gone Home and The Walking Dead are taking home some of the biggest awards in the business, those archaic questions feel a lot more like the trend rather than the future.
That’s where Hohokum’s biggest problems lie. It feels like a rough prototype of a genre that’s already been perfected and paved-over by other, more comprehensive experiences. A game like Fez introduced you to its surreal, Technicolor world, and then plunged you into a massive web of cryptology and conspiracy. Journey created one of the deepest character experiences of all time with some well-placed emoting and a strong gust of wind. Hohokum is all tapestry, a skin-deep romp through a bright color palette. You’ll save an erstwhile prince from the depths of a cave, interrupt a beach party, free a monkey from an elephant, but it won’t matter. There’s not a greater purpose here. The developers seem to believe that the very experience of exploring this pretty universe is enough motivation for your investment. It’s simply not there.
Also it should be mentioned that your avatar, the aforementioned little worm thing, isn’t exactly a lot of fun to control. It can change speed at seemingly random intervals, from a tedious crawl to an uncontainable sprint, and that can get really annoying in the rare moments where Hohokum asks you to be precise. It’s a shame, because if this thing moved well, it’d be a lot easier to make an argument for it, but it’s pretty unforgivable that something that relies so much on transportation never feels quite right in your hands.
Look, I’m not trying to be hard on Hohokum. It’s a genuinely charming game that was undoubtedly made with the best of intentions. I’m glad it lives on my PS4, so when people are around I can always fire it up to show people something pretty for a few moments. But does it have anything to say? Is it unique? We could just laud anything with a nice visual style for its efforts and move on, but that’s not enough anymore. You need more than an art style. Hohokum doesn’t realize that. It thinks its preening can cover up any flaws, but we play games for the thrill of interactivity. It doesn’t take long to realize this is empty inside.
Luke Winkie is a writer living in Austin, TX. Follow him on Twitter at @luke_winkie.