HAVEN

DEVELOPER: The Game Bakers
PUBLISHER: The Game Bakers
EXPECT TO PAY: $36 AUD
AVAILABLE VIA: STEAM & GOG

Haven tells the story of Kay and Yu, two young lovers fleeing from an oppressive, dystopian society, which will, if it can get its hands on the couple, tear them apart and put them with their pre-selected ‘mates’, as decreed by ‘The Matchmaker’ (the governmental body/official responsible for all pairings within the Apiary). Needless to say, the love-struck couple want none of this, and, against all odds, flee the Apiary and make their way to a supposedly deserted planet, known as Source. It’s here, hiding away on a strange world, that the game starts.

From the very instant you see Haven’s watercolour-style opening animation, and its semi-manga cell-shaded aesthetic, you know you are in for something different. And different it is. First and foremost, Haven can be played as either a single-player game, or a game for two players (particularly couples - one controlling Kay and the other Yu). Designed primarily for solo-player, great care has been taken to ensure that both modes are fun. For example, in single-player mode the player primarily controls one character (but with the option to swap at will), but is given controls for both during crafting and combat encounters (where cooperation between the characters is key). Co-op mode, however, requires negotiation, cooperation and agreement. For example, crafting – whether it be food, medicine or ‘capsules’ (handy little devices which give a temporary benefit) – require ingredients to be selected by both players, with different combinations of ingredients changing the outcome. Likewise, the combat encounters rely upon players acting in tandem, building their strategies and each complementing the other (for example, by one player deflecting incoming attacks while the other goes on the offensive).

The other major difference with this game is its focus, which is squarely on story and the characters’ relationship. Now, story driven games are something of a double-edged sword, and while a good story can elevate a game to a whole new level of engagement, if done poorly it can also make players feel ‘hemmed in’ and otherwise massively detract from what, without the story attached, would be an otherwise enjoyable game. Happily, Haven nails it. Without spoiling anything, I can say that the story is engaging, coherent and heartwarming, and the voice acting amongst the best I’ve encountered, with the characters’ care and affection for each other evident in their playful, teasing banter. The story also integrates seamlessly with the gameplay, to the point that it feels organic. At no point did it feel that either gameplay or story were making concessions to each other, as is so often the case.

Speaking of gameplay, Haven is on the money here as well. From crafting, to light puzzles, it hits a consistently high level, and manages to never become frustrating or too easy. It also evolves in a very organic feeling manner. Just when the world is getting too big to comfortably remember your way around, it gives you a mini-map. As you start to venture too far from your ship, the ‘Nest’, to be able to return at night, you’ll discover areas where you can camp. At the point where the world is simply too big and traversal may start to feel a chore, a means of rapid transportation becomes available – all seamlessly tied into the game’s world. This approach, this organic revealing of systems and building of complexity holds across the entirety of the game, not just traversal, and can be seen in everything from Kay and Yu’s evolving dialogue, to harvesting plants and dealing with increasingly complex combat scenarios (which act as a form of puzzle in their own right).

It also has, without doubt, one of the most satisfying movement mechanics around: the anti-grav boots. These allow players to rapidly skim several feet above the ground (or water) or ride ‘ariel-flow thread’ (glowing strands of energy that play an important part in the game world) high into the air – itself a fun challenge as failure to closely follow the path of the thread will result in the thread ‘breaking’ and dropping the players back down to the ground. While it might not be the most original mode of transportation, the execution is fantastic, and the feeling of smoothness (regardless of whether using a gamepad or a keyboard) is a delight. A good thing too, as exploring the strange, floating islands that make up the world of Source is one of the main occupations of the game. It’s also strangely calming. Whatever is driving your exploration, whether it’s story, supplies, sheer curiosity or parts to repair your ship (the first time I’ve done this in a game since Commander Keen Episode 1: Marooned on Mars), you’re sure to find it enjoyable.

So just how good is Haven? Well, several hours into the game, I found myself in the unenviable position of having to completely wipe and reinstall my computer (nothing, I hasten to add, to do with Haven – a bad driver update and a failure of Window 10’s recovery feature were responsible). Unfortunately, my saved game had not synced to the cloud, meaning that I had to start the entire thing from the beginning. While I chose the odd bit of different dialogue here and there, I essentially did not do anything too differently as I played my way back through the opening hours. A testament to just how engaging and well done Haven is, is the fact that (and to my surprise) not only did I not find this annoying or tedious as I would with so many other games, but I actually found myself enjoying it.

Before concluding, it’s worth noting the game’s PEGI 18 rating (in Australia, MA15+). A rating which, in this case, says more of the games rating system than the actual content of the game (and I suspect it was the rating agency’s way of saying the game was clearly aimed at an older audience). While more and more games are including ‘mature content’ (to use that old euphemism), Haven is the first game I’ve encountered to deal with the subject in a genuinely mature way. The characters’ relationship is dealt with in a caring, respectful manner, and while they are clearly lovers and occasional reference is made to their, ahem, nocturnal activities, that’s as far as it goes. In cinema terms, the lovers embrace, and the camera fades to black. Nudity also briefly occurs (both at one point in game and in the closing cinematic), however, again this is done more by implication with there being little to see. All in all, one is more likely to be offended by watching the PG rated comedy Are You Being Served? and following that up with a visit to the statue hall of a national art gallery, than one is to be offended by Haven.
While the words ‘calming’ and ‘charm’ are not ones you often find associated with a video game, they well and truly apply in this case. Not only did I find the story and interactions of the two characters endearing, I found my time exploring Source strangely soothing. A definitely enjoyable experience, if you’ve got a touch of the romantic in you, Haven is sure to appeal. ■

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