A Haven From the Familiar
Haven just might be the game we need now. Normally, a narrative that focuses in large measure on the mundane, on the daily interactions of a couple – cooking, eating, working, showering – would not be the kind of story that grabs my attention or even passes as entertainment for me. But these are not normal times, and the thoughtful depiction of young romance is so deftly handled that players just might fall in love with the characters.
Admittedly these are bold claims when I’m four hours into the game, but so far I’m thoroughly entertained by the depiction of this relationship by The Game Bakers. Of course, it helps that there is engaging exploration and combat plus a beautiful score and scenery. But front and center are strong central characters Yu and Kay and their bond, cemented by top flight dialog and voice acting that lend authenticity and compassion to their portrayal.
The dialog is casual and realistic, and the voice actors are emotive and charismatic. The combination early is by turns playful and romantic and suggests strong chemistry between the characters. The character models and animations provide the perfect accompaniment and reinforce their relationship. A nice touch is that the characters not only animate in the foreground dialog screen but in the background, too, including lip sync, gestures and posture.
It might seem a stretch to some, but I’m reminded of Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us, Trip and Monkey in Enslaved, and Nate and Elena in Uncharted. With the exception of the latter they aren’t romances, but they are all carefully crafted relationships that demonstrate in ways both subtle and explicit the dynamic nature of a strong personal bond that ebbs and flows with the passage of time. And that humanity is very much welcome these days.
So is the change of pace. Haven actually warns players that it’s not a challenging game (difficulties are Default and Reduced). This is no Souls-style beatdown, no epic action RPG like many of late. Those have their place, but have spawned more than their fair share of imitators. There is room – if not a real need – for a more intimate and romantic story that takes its time to unfold and reveal small details. Here, the exploration, activities and combat serve the story.
We meet Yu and Kay after they’ve become stranded on one of many islets above a planet called Source. Their predicament means they not only have to repair their spacecraft, but they have to fend for themselves in an alien and sometimes hostile environment. This adds stress to their relationship but also opportunities for kindness and support. They express real affection as they tease, flirt and care for one another, while they also complain, disagree or bicker.
Players participate by choosing dialog options that can help dictate the tone and tenor of a conversation. These don’t occur all the time but can help build confidence or improve the bond between Yu and Kay. The same is true of actions undertaken together such as combat, cooking, chatting or even celebrating. It’s never made explicit from what I recall, but I think Yu and Kay can level up as a result, i.e. increase max health or learn grabs and backflips.
In this way, everything that happens has the potential to grow Yu and Kay independently and as a couple. Again, this reinforces that they are the focal point of Haven and its gameplay, and extends even to animations such as sometimes holding hands when gliding or kissing when standing. Activities such as cooking, synthesizing, repairing, gliding, foraging and combat are all undertaken together and during which they’ll talk, high five, embrace, etc.
Players can swap between Yu and Kay by pressing down on the direction keypad. Basic controls on Xbox One include A as the action button (in response to prompts like Cook, Eat, Repair), right trigger to glide, left stick to walk, hold down left stick for U-turn while gliding, and hold left trigger to drift while gliding. They are fairly intuitive and responsive, though gliding/drifting can feel a little loose/floaty at times, but can be managed with practice.
Actions like cooking/synthesizing and combat are more involved. The former involves direction key and/or button presses to add or combine ingredients obtained from outside. In combat, Kay’s moves are mapped to the direction keypad and are mirrored by Yu’s moves assigned to face buttons, i.e. their commands are a reflection of each other: Impact (left direction key or B), Blast (right or X), Shield (down or A), and Pacify (up or Y, after weakened) for Kay and Yu, respectively.
Combat moves require holding down the respective key(s) while the action charges, then releasing to implement, and they can be performed separately or together. When synchronized, players can perform Duo Impact/Duo Blast attacks if their timing matches an on-screen prompt. I’m not sure if characters can die, but they can get hurt (depicted by hunching over and grabbing an arm, or by their health meter in the Status menu). Using a med pack in the Nest or a camp will heal both.
Fighting has a turn-based feel even though it happens in real time. Opponents line up against each other and enemies strike with a regular rhythm, even if they don’t wait to be attacked. So players can be hit when charging an attack, sometimes losing a charge. Enemies include insect and animal variations ranging from small to hulking and weak to strong, though I haven’t noticed much diversity in their attacks. Still, combat is well implemented even if so far simple, and adds welcome gameplay variety.
Whether characters are injured in combat, are hungry or are tired, I haven’t seen any consequence to delaying treatment, meals or rest. That’s a good thing as it turns out, as I haven’t seen options to apply field dressings for wounds, eat raw appledews or rattlepeppers, or rest while on the go outside of the Nest or a camp. Having to return to the Nest or camp to heal, eat or sleep can annoy, though perhaps less so than listening to the complaints of the afflicted parties.
Thankfully, the islets I’ve encountered are not huge and Yu and Kay can get around quickly with the glide mechanic. Plus, they don’t appear hindered in the exercise of it when they’re hurt, hungry or tired. That’s helpful when gliding plays such an important role in foraging for meal or synthesizer ingredients. And it also means that the joyous mechanic of gliding around these unexplored islets can be pursued without interference outside the occasional battle.
The controls to glide are fairly simple as indicated earlier. Using hover boots, Yu and Kay zip quickly along the ground and can perform U-turns or drift, helpful skills when needing to gather flow by gliding along flow threads. Flow is necessary to fuel their craft’s damaged engine, eliminate a pervasive rust that covers vegetation and makes creatures behave aggressively, and gather rust as a resource for molding items in the Nest’s synthesizer.
The setup four hours in appears to suggest gliding as a kind of platforming mechanic, where Yu and Kay can use aerial flow threads to essentially fly so long as they stay the course. Aside from the sometimes loose/floaty feel, gliding high or low is exhilarating and practical, allowing for traversing large areas in a short amount of time. It also is a sublime way to experience the game’s beautiful design and electronic score.
As players explore the islets above Source and the characters of Yu and Kay, they learn not only about the planet, its resources and its place in the universe, but also about the backstories of Yu and Kay, their relationship and their motivation. Early on, players realize (minor spoiler alert) that Yu and Kay took steps to avoid being followed, are apprehensive about returning to the Apiary, and want more time away. Details emerge that add context and mystery to the goings-on.
I enjoy how the game is a slow build. Nothing feels forced, but it isn’t boring either. Everything from dialog to exposition to exploration and gameplay evolution, at least so far, happens in an organic way. To borrow from the game’s lexicon, it flows. Largely intuitive UI helps, including menus for Stuff (Special items), Inventory (Backpack, Resources, Gear), Dialog log and Status (Impact, Duo Impact, Blast, Duo Blast, Max Health, Flow burst, Gliding, Jumps). Though I’m still getting my bearings with the distinctive map.
Haven has staked out a welcome niche from the very beginning. It starts with the dazzling whirlwind of a colorful title cinematic that follows Yu and Kay as they fly, embrace and kiss to a catchy dance beat. This homage to young love is a theme that plays out as players progress, and only deepens as more is discovered about them and their world. It’s a promising start, and an entertaining one at that. One that I looking forward to completing, and hope many other titles emulate.
(This post is based on a review key for the Xbox One version of Haven, which released December 3, 2020, and is also available on Xbox Series X and S, PlayStation 4 and 5, Nintendo Switch and PC.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
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