REVIEW: ‘Haven’ Shows Love’s Labors Lost in Space (XSX)

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Haven

Haven is a narrative-focused adventure game published and developed by The Game Bakers. Yu and Kay are two young people deeply in love and only want to be allowed to experience that love for themselves. But when the world they grew up in tries to force the two apart, they have no choice but to take the ultimate leap of faith: setting off to the stars in the hopes of finding someplace they can simply be together.

Romance in video games is traditionally a thing that many developers struggle with. There are a lot of reasons for this. Part of this is that it is used as a quest line reward. Fetch enough items for someone and they’ll eventually say I love you and you get to watch a brief and usually awkward sex scene. The entire process of falling in love seems tacked on like a poorly executed subplot. The other problem that games usually have is the pace at which the characters fall in love. Over the course of a single adventure, often lasting no more than a couple of days in-game time, two people find a way to become hopelessly in love, ready to spend the rest of their lives together. Were it so easy…

Haven maneuvers around both of these pitfalls with ease. It keeps the love story from feeling tacked on in the simplest way possible. It makes the love story the be all end all of the game. Every decision, level up, and cut scene revolves around the love of Yu and Kay, and what they are willing to do to keep it.

The game avoids the second problem by introducing the player to the two protagonists long after they became smitten with each other. No heavily abridged courting process, or awkward love meters to fill. They just love each other. And that comes through in perhaps the most natural way I’ve ever seen portrayed in a video game. But, I might be getting a bit ahead of myself here. Let’s talk about all the things Haven does right in its exploration of love and relationships, as well as where it stumbles.

As the game opens, Yu and Kay have been on the planet Source for several days already. They have escaped the restrictive confines of the world they lived in. A world where the government dictates everything in the name of order. Even who people marry. When the duo ventures out from their home/spaceship a sudden seismic event soon separates them from their home. They have no option but to explore the surrounding areas to see if they can find another way back. What neither realizes is that they will soon discover a much greater adventure ahead of them.

These early hours of Haven’s story highlight an area that many gamers might find a touch frustrating. That is a distinct lack of clarity in where you are going and what exactly you need to do. If you are a fan of always knowing exactly where you are headed, this could be a problem. While I found it mildly annoying at times, the relaxed tone of much of the game, coupled with its low difficulty made the occasional lack of clarity easy to bear. As my occasional wandering sneer ended in deaths and reloading from past saves, forcing me to redo what I already did.

Haven’s setting of the planet Source is one of the many unique aspects of the game. Much of the planet is made up of larger islands that are basically suspended in mid-air. Thanks to their trusty anti-gravity boots, the protagonists can navigate the smaller crevasses with ease, while bigger expanses require they utilize naturally occurring energy bridges called flow bridges to cross the larger expanses. In this way, Haven breaks up its world into bite-sized, easily explorable chunks. And you will be required to explore a lot of it as you search for a plethora of items and locales across the roughly 15-hour playtime. Though the most frequent thing you’ll find yourself searching for is a substance called rust.

Not to be confused with the sort of rust that we know, this rust is a mysterious substance that earns its nickname from Yu and Kay due to the deep red color it exhibits. Rust pollutes the land and drives the local wild life that becomes covered with it into a hyper-aggressive state. Forming one of the primary dangers encountered throughout the game. When the duo flies over rust with their gravity boots the energy emitted from them cleanse the ground beneath them, reclaiming the planet from the rust. Specially designated spots of rust, when cleansed reward the player with one of several kinds of the substance, which are used in numerous ways. Everything from healing balms to repairing your starship ends up requiring the stuff. Needless to say, you spend a lot of time gathering rust. And it can become a tedious process.

This tedium isn’t helped any by the less than intuitive map design. With areas being represented by diamond shapes, little clear direction is given about each space. As you explore information about the area is filled in, though not always clearly. While I eventually got the hang of navigating the world, it did take a little getting used to.

Breaking up the monotony of rust gathering is Haven’s unique combat system. Allowing the player to control both Yu and Kay simultaneously, the coordination of attacks, blocks and heals is of critical importance in combat. Both characters have the same four combat options available to them, with one’s mapped to the d-pad, while the other’s is on the face buttons. Coordinating in combat is tricky, but fun. And since The Game Bakers focus here was clearly the characters and story, they’ve opted to keep the challenge to a minimum. Only a couple of battles really tested me throughout my entire playthrough. And most fights can be avoided if you wish. Though, there are benefits to throwing down with the baddies.

Haven

As the player guides Yu and Kay through their journey, the bonds the two shares are repeatedly tested by the many obstacles the game places before them. As these obstacles are overcome, the characters’ bond strengthens and they level up. This provides both stat boosts for the duo, as well as richly crafted vignettes that deliver some of the most realistic exchanges I’ve ever seen in gaming.

Every level gained, every oddball item found in an abandoned ruin, or new meal the couple enjoys unlocks a new interaction for them. And the writing throughout these moments is nearly flawless. Everything from playful ribbing, teasing innuendo, to the occasional outright fight is handled with a grounded skill rarely seen in the medium. Despite the fact that they are living on a shattered planet and flying around on hover boots, Yu and Kay are two of the most realistically delivered characters it has been my pleasure to guide through a game. The only place where the interactions between the characters stumble a bit is in the presentation of choices to the player.

Often times during the many dialogue moments throughout Haven the player will be presented with two possible responses to choose from. Sometimes, these responses have clear differences in their tone and intent. Fairly often though, they feel like they are simply two different ways of saying the same thing. While I appreciate having as much control crafting characters as I can, if the choice isn’t really going to have a variance on the outcome, it feels a bit empty to present it as such at all.

While the Xbox Series X has garnered great praise for it’s shortening of load times, I find myself surprisingly happy that it doesn’t manage to completely circumvent them here. While load screens are short, generally only a few seconds, each one shares an image of Yu and Kay in their daily life. And there are a lot of different images to see. While I saw plenty of repeats through my playthrough, these images add so much to the feelings the game focuses on that I never grew tired of seeing them.

While the characters Haven creates are deep and nuanced, the visual presentation takes a simpler, but equally effective approach. Bright colors and striking vistas dominate the screen as the player travels through the world of Source. And not to be outdone by their surroundings, Yu and Kay themselves are equally memorable. Great care clearly went into their design. With each having little touches to their outfits and appearances that make them stand out.

When all is said and done, what sells Haven is its characters. If a deep rich character-driven narrative that centers around two exceptionally realized characters is something you believe is worth a few gameplay hiccups to experience then this game is worth every second of your time. It’s characters deliver in every way I could ask for. Crafting a tale that was the most emotionally impactful gaming experience I’ve had since I played Sea of Solitude last year. And to put a little perspective here, that was my game of the year last year. And while its gameplay shortcomings keep it from quite reaching that level of gaming perfection, its story is as close to perfect as I could ask for.

Haven is available now on PC, Xbox Series X|S and One and PlayStation 5, with Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 versions are coming soon.

Haven
  • 8.5/10
    Rating - 8.5/10
8.5/10

TL;DR

When all is said and done, what sells Haven is its characters. If a deep rich character-driven narrative that centers around two exceptionally realized characters is something you believe is worth a few gameplay hiccups to experience then this game is worth every second of your time. It’s characters deliver in every way I could ask for. Crafting a tale that was the most emotionally impactful gaming experience I’ve had since I played Sea of Solitude last year. And to put a little perspective here, that was my game of the year last year. And while its gameplay shortcomings keep it from quite reaching that level of gaming perfection, its story is as close to perfect as I could ask for.