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Hohokum Review: Rhythm without reason

12 August 2014

I didn’t have very much “fun” with Hohokum, but my time with it was at least mildly enjoyable. That’s entirely thanks to stellar art and sound. The former’s vibrancy comes through in bright colors, playful animations, and a surprising amount of detail packed into worlds that look and feel simplistic at first encounter. And I can’t say enough about the soundtrack, which relaxed and spoke to the surrealist in me with subtle, airy, trance-inducing tunes.

The graphics and audio beget an ambiguity that defines Honeyslug’s experience, but ambiguity is only “fun” when it sets the stage for, and ultimately yields, some kind of resolution or satisfaction. I found neither in Hohokum. From the get-go, I was given absolutely zero direction and left to figure out how to “advance” the game on my own. I speak not of the plot, setting, nor other such grand ideas. Hohokum is content to let you steer the snake-like player character in colorful oblivion, with nary a word, image, or context clue to explain why charming things sometimes happen when you fly into people, their stuff, or a variety of environmental objects.

That’s Hohokum in an elevator pitch: you fly a snake through colorful 2D worlds and interact (fly into) things until other things happen. I didn’t often apply logic to my advancement, so I hesitate to point to Hohokum’s levels as “puzzles.” Much of my exploration was predicated on simply flying into people and objects that seemed like they could be related. It’s trial and error, not tricks, that obstruct your snake from freeing other snakes in these levels. This emerges as Hohokum’s “objective” before long. But even the comic book-style animations that depict the freeing of a fellow snake don’t always connect with what you actually did to bring about that result.

To say more of the Hohokum experience risks spoiling early discoveries--some of the game’s only fun moments--but it’s enough to say these discoveries don’t amount to much more than bestowing a vague sense of how one might “complete” Hohokum. I enjoyed lingering in individual levels, taking in the diversity of art, sound, and the distinct character they collectively build. But once I reasoned how I might be able to advance the game and draw some kind of meaning or purpose from it all, I grew disheartened when the relentless ambiguity refused to give way. With every snake saved and every area thoroughly explored, there was Hohokum, seeming to shrug at my accomplishment, smile, and say, ‘So what?’

Even after having found a host of secrets and plumbed the depths of over a dozen distinct areas, I know there’s more to see in Hohokum--I just don’t feel inspired to find it. The visuals and soundtrack can only entertain and occupy my attention for so long. Steering the snake and zipping through levels might be tight and polished, but trying to derive any more from the experience than merely lingering in its spaces reveals one-note gameplay. With very little direction or reward, anyone hoping to revel in the thrill of discovery will have to be satisfied with the quirky reactions and bizarre qualities of Hohokum’s worlds and their inhabitants.

That’s where Hohokum deviates from the class of recent independent games that thrive in their own mystery. Within Flower’s endless fields and foliage is a message about conservation, the beauty of nature, and the inevitable demise of urban, artificial constructs. Journey is about moving forward to reach a mountain, but in that push forward, we feel emotional highs and lows that mirror life itself. Fez, among the most vague games in recent memory, weaves the multiplicity of perspective and the possibility of infinite worlds into secret languages and other abstruse gameplay concepts. By contrast, Hohokum’s mystery didn’t leave me with thought-provoking ideas about the world or resolve into a takeaway message. As I played, I started to develop a keener eye for fine detail in its beautifully drawn environments. But even appreciation for the finer things failed to yield a reward with any lasting impact.

Still, Hohokum is hiding discoveries that are worthwhile in their own right, though short-lived micro-discoveries they may be. On a couple occasions, I chuckled aloud at the absurdity of, say, serving wedding guests with wine from a red sea below or seeing a potter sigh dejectedly at the breaking of his crafted goods. Whether Hohokum is worth your time depends almost entirely on two things: how much you enjoy little touches like these, and for how long you can simply be in a place, enjoying its aesthetic qualities, without any better reason for doing so. With Cross-Buy support across PS4, PS3, and PS Vita, you’ll have every chance to explore Hohokum on the screen of your choice. But be warned: beyond the initial delights of discovering its levels, there’s little “fun” to be had in doing so.

-The Final Word-

Hohokum’s worth greatly depends on one’s ability to revel in simple, charming discoveries. There’s no lasting impact, meaningful message, or even resolution to its shallow core mechanics, but a playful aesthetic and relaxing music make being in its spaces enjoyable for a time.
  • Detailed worlds with surprises and secrets
  • Enchanting music
  • Technically polished
  • Objectives without purpose
  • Absent context and narrative
  • Trial-and-error exploration
6.5
Platforms reviewed : PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4
See PSU's reviews scores on Metacritic and Gamerankings

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