By Blake Chapman Disclaimer: This review is of the Xbox One version of the game and was conducted on an Xbox One X. Telling a good love story has become something of a lost art form. Gone are the days of Jane Austen. Now we find ourselves locked in an era of cheaply produced rom-coms and erotic romance novels written by authors with a 4th-grade reading level. Any legitimate attempt at recapturing that magic is most often met with staunch criticism by an ignorant general audience and is lost to a realm of cultural insignificance even with multiple awards to call its own. No matter the medium of storytelling, it is futile for even the largest of studios to try and reinvent such a wheel, but it is not impossible. The latest project from French indie game studio The Game Bakers, famous for 2016’s action shoot ‘em up Furi, takes on that incredible challenge in a year already rife with emotional distress. Not only does Haven blow all other attempts at depicting a healthy fictional relationship out of the water, but it is one of the most wholesome video games of the year.
A Shakespearean story for a modern mediumHaven begins like any other stereotypical romantic teen space drama. Young couple Yu and Kay escape persecution from their homeworld where citizens are forced into lifelong relationships by an oppressive matchmaker. After crash-landing on the fractured surface of a new planet nicknamed Source, they must repair their demolished ship and investigate a cosmic conspiracy surrounding the previously-attempted colonization of their new home. The easiest comparison to make when describing Haven’s story and characters is “‘Romeo and Juliet’ in space, but instead of committing suicide, they escape.” While almost any piece of modern romance can be linked back in some way to that titular play, The Game Bakers have truly mastered how to retell that narrative without it feeling rehashed or overdone, and the secret lies in the detailed writing of our main characters that remind you of how great it feels to be in love. Yu and Kay’s relationship lands so well because of how authentic it feels and how intimate the player gets with it. This is a story about two adults who have been committed to each other for a while, willing to go to the extreme to protect each other, but not shying away from the everyday whimsical little moments that make true love so sublime. Whether it is Yu searching for her diary, Kay over-explaining some biological discovery, or conversations about the fate of the universe while camping under the stars, their dialogue feels so heartfelt and genuine that you forget that what you are playing is, in many ways, a glorified visual novel with full voice-acting. Even in the heated moments of their arguments, the passion behind their words is palpable. That tension acts as a wonderful counterbalance to the many positive aspects of their relationship. There are some points in that partnership that feel underdeveloped. Not seeing more of their backstory and rather having it explained verbally instead, can be pretty disgruntling. How they managed to get to Source and their people’s culture is little more than hinted at, leaving the otherwise impeccable writing more ambiguous than necessary. However, that ambiguity feels pure in many ways. It reminds the player of curling up next to a significant other while reminiscing and how you felt about each other before it was real. It all leaves a warm feeling at the core of your heart, which is what one would expect from a game the developers describe as, “Exceedingly French...revolving around talking, drinking wine, and kissing.”
Smooth, simple, and rhythmic gameplayOne of the most important development objectives Haven’s development team had while producing the game was to make the experience feel relaxing. Creative director Emeric Thoa said he wanted to be rid of the exhausting economic systems or user interfaces implemented by many other role-playing games and strip Haven down to the base elements causing the game “to feel simple, but in the good way of simple.” Fortunately, Haven delivers on these promises in satisfying yet unique ways. Much like the traversal in Journey, Yu and Kay glide across the surface of Source by collecting energy waves nicknamed “flow” in their anti-gravity boots. Much like skiing, the pair can smoothly drift around corners and flip into neat tricks off high plateaus with few frame dips or jitters. Navigating every mountain top, chasm, and small pond to find all the delightful new fruits to cook with or seeds for your garden is fun and not belaboring. At times you will encounter some pretty powerful enemies, which leads to another interesting mechanic of Haven. The action-oriented turn-based battle system allows players to input attacks as Yu and Kay using separate sides of the controller (if in single-player). At first, it seems a little disorienting but ultimately is an imaginative way to chain attacks together while keeping a fight at a rhythmic pace. Duo attacks are the real caveat. These partnered attacks will equal a boosted bit of damage if combined using both characters, but they lose all satisfaction against larger enemies or multiples of the same one. Time seems to slow to a crawl as Yu and Kay charge up their next move, and their health pools deteriorate before they can even execute it. After a few hours of using them, duo attacks become so benign that it is easier for the player to spam individual moves for each character that offers a greater amount of damage over a shorter period. All that confrontation in the field equals some hefty bonuses once you return home. The RPG elements of Haven, like item curation and upgrades, are once again simple but effective. Vegetation that you discover in the overworld can be synthesized into medicine or cooked in the kitchen at dinner time. Though it is not as big or bombastic as most action-adventure titles, the look on our protagonists’ faces after mixing something new or expanding the elements of the nest makes the sacrifice worth it. Upgrades are also a key element to the experience and are gifted after earning XP and celebrating your successful rust harvesting with a bottle of applebloom liquor. This is a cute way to tie in interesting, sometimes steamy, story moments into stat progression. Still, the player sometimes finds themselves out in the field so long that the game caps the earnable experience. Because it does not stack on top afterward, waiting to glide back home while accumulating more unusable points can get frustrating.
Cool design for a chill gameThe relaxing aesthetics of Haven go beyond the relatively simple mechanics and emotional plot of the title. It is infused into every design aspect of the game itself, from the art style to score. The art design evokes this cozy and welcoming feeling with a color palette of soft oranges and turquoise. While the mashup with techniques exclusive to visual novels like static cutscenes and a ton of readable text was initially jarring, it balanced out the rest of the gameplay in excellent fashion. Also, as with the rest of Haven, it is the little moments that elevate the entire experience. Original artwork featured in loading screens, Yu and Kay holding hands while gliding, or both of them taking a break to hug after you sit down the controller all help exude the personality of these two sweethearts in a nonverbal way. When it comes to the setting, Source is a mixed bag. The nest is homey without treading anywhere near basic, but as for the surface of the planet, there is much to be desired. The wide-open fields with light rails to glide along and plenty of new enemies to encounter around every corner is nice, but after a while, each new island begins to feel empty, especially after clearing all the rust. Each area is so nondescript that revisiting them seems unnecessary besides sprinting through the hills and valleys to get to the next objective. Finally, while the soundtrack can get a little one-note, the devs try to change up the low-fi beats as best they can without distracting from the world’s personality.
Sources: Kotaku, Techraptor Featured Image: Nintendo Soup Images: Steam