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.)
Death Tales Is a Lively Fantasy
The alluring fantasy motif of Death Tales piqued my interest in this adventure game that previously had flown under my radar. Stylish settings, compelling character design and an overall beautiful aesthetic suggest a unique adventure in a strange but fascinating land. And while the beguiling presentation did contribute to an enjoyable experience in total, did other aspects of the game likewise rise to the occasion?
Arcade Distillery does craft an impressive fantasy world with copious use of expressive lines, colorful palettes and fanciful characters animated in a style that at times reminds me of marionettes. The score includes vintage fantasy themes whether music in the early Soulless Realm levels that’s reminiscent of Tim Burton films or compositions in Forest Night Time locations that suggest a more dramatic adventure.
The game’s levels also include the city of Vesilia, Mountains and variations on a theme. In this way, while the variety of locale is not extensive, changes related to the time of day or local conditions help vary the setting, including deep, vibrant earth tones during the day and shades of blue, purple, etc. at night, as well as backdrops of swaying trees, leaves, embers and more.
The characters that inhabit this world likewise match the exaggerated storybook style and eye-catching color, whether the playable Reaper, sidekick Spaura (the Reaper’s Soul Bearer), the Grim Reaper, Death, Soulless Queen or others. Some resemble variations on birds, a dead deer, people, even frogs, but almost always with a creative flair – including the unique 2D animation – that separates them from ordinary creatures.
All this helps establish the distinctive fantasy that is supported by little details like a grinning moon or sun that resemble the Cheshire Cat, trees (I think) that look like creatures or people, roots that conjure snakes, and structures that resemble birds. It’s an inspired setting for any game, and the premise of a Reaper traveling the world to gather souls for Death should make good use of such a fantasy setting.
The story, however, doesn’t do it any favors. It can be a little hard to follow, partly because it scrolls at the bottom of the screen and partly due to a plot and wording that sometimes confuses. More clarity or text requiring a button press to proceed would have helped. That said, the story follows a Reaper who refuses to take a soul, setting in motion events that reveal a schism among the powers that be and imbalance in the world.
For what it’s worth, the story has little practical impact on playing the main character of the Reaper. Regardless of the situation that the Reaper and Spaura find themselves in, the central task at hand is always the defeat of foes and the collection of their souls. Whether gathering them for the Grim Reaper and, ultimately, Death or helping displaced souls, the core action is still the same. Even side quests have the same impact.
Speaking of side quests, as well as the characters that issue them, there are far fewer than I’d presumed given the marketing I’d seen. Aside from the main characters and a couple others at the beginning, there aren’t that many to be found and neither is there much in the way of quests. And to the extent there are any, they aren’t very consequential and don’t vary from the task of collecting souls.
A video for the PC version in fact seemed to show many more character models than appear in the Switch version I played. I likewise expected more player volition given a choice presented to the player early on. But I can’t tell that the choice had any more impact than either rewarding the player or not. Also, I don’t recall another choice in the game. All in all, these early inclusions are exceptions rather than the rule.
Thank goodness, then, that the central task of wandering the land and collecting souls proves entertaining in its design and execution. Players on the Switch can jump (B), attack (Y), dash (A), cast spells (left and right shoulders), aim spells (right stick up) and use special moves: heavy combo (Y,Y, hold Y; or heavy attack of Y 5 times), launch attack (hold Y), windmill attack (left stick up + Y) and ground slam (B + left stick down + Y).
Controls are intuitive and responsive, providing fluid movements and constant action. Enemies can be kept reeling with repeat attacks and multiple foes can be hit at the same time, even launching adversaries together into the air with successive uppercuts. Players can dash to avoid hits or to strike quickly, including from the air, as is the case jumping, too, which also enables the ground slam move.
The basic move set works well enough against various foes that include witches, other conjurers and various robot types using melee or ranged attacks. But the environment, foes or sheer numbers might require the use of other offensive options. And while players shouldn’t expect the standard arsenal of different combos or chained attacks, they’ll have a variety of spells and weapon variations to access during their journey.
These additional items can be collected from chests, chosen at level completion, or purchased from the vendor Fiona in Vesilia with essence the player receives (along with spirit and life) upon defeating enemies. Among other things, they might enable players to spawn bullets, rockets or flame; summon meteors, stampeding unicorns(!) or a conjurer; or perform an extra action like a hit at the end of a dash.
Besides sickles or blades, Fiona also sells armor and hoods, which all have either offensive or defensive capabilities. Similarly, spell-cast training can be purchased from Inan, a protector of the forests in Inan’s Cove. These all provide players with more options. And while players can select bounties from Vesilia’s Lead Reaper for eliminating enemies or bosses, their main benefit is rewarding players with essence to buy more items.
What to do with all these items? The good news is that Arcade Distillery allows for five Gear Sets accessible from the Equip screen in the Menu (plus key). Each set allows a choice of Weapon (sickle/blade), Hood and Armor, as well as two spells (mapped to the left/right shoulders). Players can switch between sets on the fly, but also can alter each set anytime choosing among all weapons, hoods, etc. that have been collected.
Part of the fun is experimenting with each loadout and figuring out which you like best including for a specific situation. For more demanding platforming sections, I chose a set with armor that uses wings to slow descent and a hood that enables higher jumps. For combat I generally preferred armor that boosts protection and life, hoods that spawned meteors or rockets, and sickles/blades that offered health or bullets.
The plethora of options in this regard contributed to a degree of RPG inventory swapping. But they also have a visible and practical impact on gameplay. The action can grow chaotic when grinning meteors rain down, unicorns or conjurers leave a rainbow in their wake, rockets hit their targets, flames erupt, and enemies attack or explode in a shower of red (life), blue (spirit) and yellow (essence) orbs.
The FX are a sight to behold when in pitched combat. And it helps that there is little to no noticeable slowdown when the action becomes frenetic. However, it’s also a distraction when the screen fills with activity. The problem is that the small player-controlled Reaper can disappear among foes and particle FX, in particular because he turns red when hit, the same as hit enemies. At that point, button mashing is the best option.
The screen won’t always be filled with action, though, as some areas aren’t packed with foes and spell use depends on whether or not they have a cool down period and how much spirit fills the respective gauge needed to cast spells. Defeating foes can replenish spirit, and collecting spirit shards can extend the gauge, in the same way that collecting pieces of a torn heart card can gain one life heart.
Platforming sections, too, can help break up the action, albeit not as much as you’d think. Gaps in terrain, varying elevations, moving platforms and various obstacles that fall, swing or rise task players with familiar challenges. But these can be complicated by attacking foes. Spell casting can help clear a path in lieu of ranged attacks, but they can sap the spirit meter needed to pull them off.
In these ways resource management becomes more important, as players need to determine which Gear Set is appropriate for any given scenario, whether to select items with more offensive or defensive capabilities, and which spells might be best depending on their strength and cool down period. Now, this isn’t the most challenging journey, but planning in advance for certain foes or terrain can help player progression.
I should mention that I’m not very good when it comes to side-scrolling games. But I did manage to get to the final boss. If I’d played local co-op, where a second player controls Spaura, I might have beaten it by now. The point being, that others by comparison might find the game easy. For me, the challenge was tuned just right. I died sometimes platforming and other times fighting, but never felt cheated or frustrated.
To the extent there were disappointments, they were the aforementioned omissions, where better exposition would have helped the story, more gameplay variety or quests would have broadened the appeal, and player volition would have deepened immersion. It also doesn’t help that there was spell-cast training for spells I never saw (i.e., Heal Totem, Ice Block, Bomb Totem) that might have helped, at least against the final boss.
Still my overall impression of Death Tales was a positive one where I was often entertained by the inspired, almost fairy tale like quality of the eye-popping presentation and beautiful fantasy score, and happily engaged by the over-the-top combat involving an arsenal of rockets, meteors and stampeding unicorns in the service of a sickle-swinging soul reaper. With its current $9.99 price of admission, the game is worth a visit.
(This post is based on a review key for the Nintendo Switch version of Death Tales, which released December 3, 2020, and is also available on PlayStation 4 and PC.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
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