Review: Haven

3 Dec 2020

When a game you create suddenly strikes it big and gains a sizeable following, what do you do next? Do you continue to produce content for it? Do you create a direct sequel, or another game in the same style? Or do you go in a completely different direction and make something else entirely?

Such is the decision The Game Bakers had to make. After a few years of crafting mobile games, they suddenly found themselves in the spotlight with one of their first console releases: Furi. A fast-paced action game built around boss fights, Furi gained a dedicated following and was relatively warmly received by the press.

For their next game, though, the French studio decided to throw everyone for a loop and do something completely different. A methodically-paced RPG focused on exploration, wrapped in romantic elements. A bold decision, but did it pay off?

Developed and published by The Game Bakers, Haven was released on December 3rd, 2020, for PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, and Xbox One. The PC version was played for this review.

Far From Home

Haven follows the characters of Yu and Kay, two people living out their life on an alien world known as Source. After an earthquake damages the spaceship they’ve been calling home, they set out to explore the world and find a way to fix the damage, discovering more about Source and how it may link to their pasts.

The game’s story is entirely dialogue-driven; there’s no exposition of note to help define the world. It begins in medias res – the relationship between Yu and Kay is already established, as is their current life on this strange world. Everything else has to be gleaned from the conversations between the two central characters, and somehow has to be done while hopefully keeping the dialogue sounding natural.

It’s a subtle form of worldbuilding, and one that can easily go wrong, but the writers for Haven knock it out of the park. The interactions between the central characters are natural and endearing, while simultaneously offering up bits and pieces of their pasts and the world at large. The writing leaves the player to put the pieces together themself, yet gives just enough information that it doesn’t feel like one has to theorize about story beats or themes.

The world of Haven plays second fiddle to the relationship between Yu and Kay, though. This game features something we don’t normally get to see in games with romantic themes: two characters already in a relationship, and the various ups and downs they experience.

Between gameplay bits, we’re treated to numerous vignettes of Yu and Kay just…living their lives together. From playing games to discussing their situation, reveling in nostalgia to getting drunk on homemade booze, the relationship between the two feels surprisingly real…to the point that they’re almost a sickeningly cute couple sometimes.

Together Forever With You

From the outset, a notice upon starting a new game mentions that Haven is not meant to be challenging. While it doesn’t go as far as “zero challenge” like a walking sim or something of that ilk, it’s true that the gameplay on offer here isn’t the deepest or most involved. Not that that’s a bad thing.

Much of the game is focused on exploration, guiding Yu and Kay across the interconnected floating islands that make up the world of Source. Actually doing so is powered by a surprisingly fun gliding mechanic – both characters are wearing jet boots that let them glide and drift around the world. Controlling this is intuitive, almost like a racing game, although the “sudden 180” maneuver mapped to pressing down on the analog stick is a bit too sensitive, occasionally causing me to flip around when I was trying to make a sharp turn.

From an overhead view, Haven feels like a survival game lite. The gameplay loop is mostly trekking out to collect items and materials, then returning to your home base on occasion and using said materials to craft new items that let you explore further on your next excursion. Occasionally there’s a wall that blocks progress, forcing you in other directions to find the items that will let you remove the blockade to continue.

Unfortunately, the exploration loop becomes repetitive over the long haul. There really aren’t that many resources to collect, and Haven eventually becomes a game of how much “Rust” – a strange material covering many of the various islets that you are tasked with cleaning up – you can gather up each time you leave your home base.

Breaking up the adventuring is some RPG-style battles against the various creatures wandering the world. Battles aren’t quite turn-based – commands can be input for Yu and Kay almost constantly, so long as they’ve finished the animation for their last command. Enemy attacks can also happen at any time, although they’re typically telegraphed in some way.

Both characters are controlled at once, each assigned to one side of your controller – either the D-pad or the face buttons. Both have the same options: a melee attack, a ranged attack, a shield, and “Pacify,” with some extra options opening up as the game progresses. Befitting the nature of this game, Yu and Kay don’t kill any creatures. Instead, after they beat the hell out of them ’til their HP hits zero, and then Pacify them to remove them from battle…although if it isn’t used fast enough, the enemy can regain HP and resume its attacks.

True to the themes of Haven, battles are all about successful coordination between Yu and Kay. Knowing when to have one put up a shield, or when you have the time to charge a dual attack with both of them, is key to completing battles without taking too much damage. While the battle system really isn’t all that complex, pulling off perfectly coordinated tactics with the two characters feels satisfying.

An issue I had with the game at large is how slowly it drip-feeds its various mechanics to the player. Hell, I didn’t get access to items in battle until nearly three hours into the game, which made the early game a bit of a struggle. Until these were unlocked, I kept having to return to the home base whenever I took too much battle damage in order to heal up, which became tedious very quickly.

Dangerous Style

Initially, Haven is a rather attractive game. The environments are simultaneously weirdly familiar yet strangely alien, character models are attractive (if not incredibly detailed), and the designs of Yu and Kay are distinct. After some time with the game, though, some cracks begin to show.

Much like the adventuring gameplay, the environments too begin to get repetitive quickly. The first few blue-tinted worlds with various rocky outcroppings look great at first, but then I slowly came to realize that the majority of the islets all have this same aesthetic. Luckily a map unlocks relatively early in the game, but before it did I was often getting lost trying to make my way around areas that looked indistinguishable from one another.

The walking animations for Yu and Kay are also somewhat weird. Kay especially – when he walks he looks like he’s swinging his hips so hard his model breaks a bit. However, since navigation is done via gliding 99% of the time, the walk cycles are easy to overlook.

I also had some weird issues with graphical stutter, no matter the settings I used with the game. It was registering a solid framerate when monitored, but in action, minor stutters happened quite often during exploration. I came to ignore them after my first few sessions with the game, but it was an annoyance nonetheless.

The soundtrack, though, is something I had no issues with. Composed by French electronic musician Danger, the poppy synthwave style on display here is catchy as all hell. Truly, it was the music here that helped keep my attention when the repetition set in and my focus started to waver.

The vocal performances for Yu and Kay are both notable as well. According to the developers, the performers behind Yu and Kay recorded their lines together in studio to better get an authentic performance, and the technique worked wonders in the final product. It’s the actors that really sell the feeling of a natural relationship between the two characters, going a long way toward making them feel real.

A Sip from the Source

Overall, Haven is a wonderfully told story with a charming cast and some interesting gameplay concepts that get bogged down by a bit too much repetition. In some aspects, it shows that simple can be better – I truly enjoyed the stripped-down battle system and its focus on character coordination. In other ways it can be a bit too simple, such as the overreliance on gathering Rust for nearly everything.

It was a startlingly bold move for The Game Bakers to take such a sharp turn from the title that brought them into the general gaming consciousness, and I applaud them greatly for that. Haven shows that they’re not a one-note studio, that they have some serious storytelling chops and are unafraid to experiment a bit.

It just doesn’t seem they put as much love and detail into the gameplay as they did the character writing and world building. In the end, while not a must play, Haven is still worth a glance if you’re looking for a feel-good experience.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by The Game Bakers for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.