Back in July, when the demos festival was taking place on Xbox, I had a few highlighted games I was on the lookout for and Haven was one of them. Focusing on a couple of young runaways taking refuge in an alien planet, the game had clear inspirations from a wide array of points like anime and romance stories; farming and survival sims; resource management and base building; a mixture of turn-based and real-time combat RPGs. Having spent over a dozen hours with it, what struck me as odd was that if I had to summarize it in one sentence it would be “anime relationship simulator with mini-games galore”, but if I had to pick a game that closely resembles it, my mind jumps to Brothers: A tale of two sons. I love Haven, not only because it is a fantastic experience in its simplicity and depth in all areas, but also because it is another game from this year that I feel tries to elevate the medium to explore and provide different experiences; namely, despite its fantastical world and whimsy humor in places, this is a game that takes a relationship in its entirety (meaning sex, being young, good and bad moments, etc.) seriously.
You’d be forgiven to highly doubt that last sentence, if you only heard the set up for the game; after all, it can’t get more cliched if it tried. You follow the story of Yu and Kay, a young, runaway couple who land on Source, an alien planet away from their home (The Apiary) and ExaNova, the company that is intrinsically linked with their lives. Yu is an upper-class girl who loves fixing ships and Kay is a poor, orphan saved from a troubled life by the company who gave him a researcher role and allowed him to meet the love of his life, Yu. Unfortunately, The Matchmaker (an all-powerful AI that matches the residents of The Apiary with a mate) disagrees and matched the two with different mates, so the rebellious couple run away, to create a new life for themselves in Source, where they find things are not as abandoned or uninhabitable as they were described in the long-lost documentations they found. I’m not going to say anything more on the story, because it ends up being cliched and uninteresting on its own, but it works as a framework for the game to build the actually interesting concepts it has for other areas, in particular its characters.
Yu and Kay are one of the most well-realized couples in games, I have ever experienced. A lot of it has to do with the game as a whole (more on that later), but a big part of it is about the writing; they are both individuals who have their own ideas, tastes, quirks, and flaws. They have great chemistry together, even if they don’t always see eye to eye on things. They are written and performed in an organic and believable way; they tease each other; they psyche each other up, when they feel down; they play each other’s favorite game. They are young, so half of the time is spent talking about or having sex (just to clarify, this isn’t a “horny” game, all of it is in dialogue or suggested). This is also, as it becomes clear, a “spur of the moment” decision and they slowly start to learn more about each other in a natural way, while also coming to terms with the fact that they didn’t know each other too well before making this life-changing decision. Its all written exceptionally with moments of genuine comedy and romance, drama and action, with the flair of an anime show; they adapt one of the “animals” as their pet, they eat flamboyant food and flow around the planet holding hands and forming a band. It is all immediately likeable and engaging, and it only gets better as it tackles more themes and ideas.
However, talking about that without talking about the game as a whole is a losing battle, so let’s explore the mechanics and loop of the game before I go on. One of the things Haven nails is how simple it is to pick up and play, regardless of your experience with video games; you hold the right trigger to float, the left trigger to drift, and you use the left stick to guide the characters around. This is a bit unusual at first – and at times throughout the game, you will find yourself wrestling with the controls – however, once you get used to it, it feels great to control and is fun enough to make 12+ hours of exploring engaging. One of the game’s core mechanics is flow; a blue substance that powers your boots for flying around and is needed to interact with some objects around the world, as well as clearing out “rust” which is needed to make the area clear and provide you with important resources. The way you refill flow is through guiding the characters on flow trails, placed around each level, until its end, sometimes elevating the characters and allowing access to otherwise inaccessible spots; this is mostly optional as the resources gained are pretty easy to acquire if you run out of them and the game doesn’t really force you to clear out levels, but it is so much fun to traverse the environment, I did it anyway.
While traversing these levels, Yu and Kay will come up against hostile, native creatures, affected by the rust, and that is where combat comes in. Each character is controlled by their equivalent side of the controller (Kay on the left and Yu on the right) and they have the same 4 movies; shield is defense, impact and blast are melee and ranged damage types, and pacify is what needs to be used after you depleted an enemy’s life bar to remove them from battle. All of these need to be filled to become active and it is as simple as it sounds, but through smart enemy design and great visual feedback, the developers add a lot of depth and satisfaction to these encounters; for example, one type of enemy may need to be shielded against first before being able to do any damage to it, which requires one character to shield and one character to have the appropriate attack ready, or some enemies can only be damaged by a max power attack, which happens when both characters charge the same attack and time their attacks correctly. As enemies get more diverse and start appearing alongside other enemies with different strategies required, the game slowly ramps up the challenge and the rewards from it; its not difficult at all, I did not die in my playthrough, however some may find the little ramp up towards the end to be a bit much (in that case there is an even lower difficulty option)
That is about 80% of the game: A heavy focus on the narrative, alongside exploration and traversal gameplay, and a fuse of real time and turn based combat. However, the other 20% is important as well; during exploration, you will pick up various resources to cook food and create medicine with; there’s a hunger meter which nudges you towards heading back to the Nest (your ship) regularly and taking some time to think about what to bring with you; there’s also a basic level up system that when it feels you get a nice cutscene and some meaningful upgrades to health and combat capabilities; lastly, the world has slight metroidvania inspirations, where some parts of the map require specific abilities or objects to access.
All of these systems come together to create a sum greater than its parts. As you begin to get hooked in its loop of exploring, clearing levels, combat with hostile creatures, finding secrets, resources, and new objects to take back to base and advance the relationship and the story, you stop being a fly in the wall (as the game frames you) and you start becoming one with the characters, the world, and their happiness and concerns start to become yours as well; you begin with finding these horny runaways kind of corny to finding them cute, to scoffing at their dumb jokes to giggling along. It sucks you in its Shakespearean, sci-fi atmosphere and doesn’t release you until it is done. It is a smart game as well, not in a “high-brow” artsy way, but in using the interactivity of the medium, its core loop and systems, and the writing to execute a core vision; my favorite example of this is, when exploring and picking resources one of the random responses of one of the characters actually foreshadows an important event later on. Its moments like these, alongside the goofy and melodramatic ones that make Haven so intoxicating and pleasing to think about.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to criticize; namely, the presentation left a lot to be desired. It has two wonderful and stylish opening and ending cutscenes, and (once again in 2020) a fantastic soundtrack, but the actual in-game world – while pretty – is not varied or awe-inspiring enough to leave me satisfied. Moreover, the story in the latter half takes a disappointing turn and introduces a villain that is only seen once, which felt abrupt and completely anti-climactic. However, neither are significant enough to make me any less passionate about the game.
Which brings me to the comparison I made with Brothers: A tale of two sons; maybe the reason for the game coming to mind at first was the fact that both games ask you to control two characters, by splitting the controller in two, but I’m not referring to mechanical similarities. Both Haven and Brothers may seem like another indie game, but what set Brothers apart (at the time) was not its good puzzle-platforming ideas or its cliched story that was told well; it was that the actual vision behind it and every decision that was made to develop the game was about experiencing the relationship between its two characters. Likewise, Haven is a great exploration game, a good combat RPG, a great visual novel, and a mediocre collection of casual mechanics and mini-games, but it adds up to a brilliant game, because everything comes together to immerse you in that world, with the focus being on those characters. This is what I meant when I said it takes the relationship seriously; it is not a joke or something that is left on the side; it’s not dramatic just for the sake of it; it’s not pessimistic or dark just so it can be taken seriously by others. It is a feel-good, corny, sincere, and riveting experience that hooks its claws in you and you stop observing a relationship in a sci-fi world, but start experiencing it as well; their happiness is yours; their sadness is yours; their anxieties and questioning are yours.
I absolutely adored Haven and I wish the developers, The Game Bakers, to find success in it and keep trying to deliver these awesome experiences, like they did previously with Furi and now with Haven.