Although it’s not about the pandemic (and it’s been in development for much longer than we’ve all been trapped inside), Haven is a game that came at exactly the right time, because its message is all about two lovers, alone together for the foreseeable future. Having escaped the Aviary – a futuristic colony in which the “u” in utopia has fallen off to reveal that it was a dystopia all along – Yu and Kay live alone together on Source, an archipelago of space-islands connected by magical electricity bridges.
That magical electricity is called Flow, and it dominates the game as both a source of energy and a method of movement. Yu and Kay can fly, as long as they have enough Flow in their batteries, and they can follow long, winding Flow Threads to reach new areas and collect more Flow. Most of the space-islands they travel to are corrupted by the mysterious pink goo that they call “Rust”, and in Super Mario Sunshine-style, they can clean it up by flying over it (again, as long as they have Flow in their batteries), collecting Rust as they go for crafting purposes.
Yu and Kay’s new nomadic life means that they have to fend for themselves out on Source. Foraging for recipe ingredients, healing items, and bits to fix up their spaceship/home are the main goals of the game, as well as fighting off the Rust-infected animals that dwell on each island. The combat is designed a little bit like a rhythm game, with “Impact” as a melee attack, “Blast” as a ranged attack, “Shield” to protect both characters from attacks, and “Pacify” to rid the creatures of Rust once you’ve knocked them out.
Combat is all about timing your attacks, shields, and attempts to pacify the creatures, which feels like a fun puzzle at first. As the game goes on, it gets harder and harder to have a good time in these battles, as the enemies get stronger, and only take damage from certain attacks, or at certain times. They also resurrect if you don’t pacify them fast enough, turning some tricky fights into more of a frustrating race against time. It often feels like the enemies have a little too much advantage over Yu and Kay. Combat-as-two-person-rhythm is an innovative and often rewarding experiment that ties in nicely with the narrative, but it perhaps needed a little more polish to really work.
However, the combat takes a back seat to the real main character of Haven: the relationship between Yu and Kay. What begins as a slightly grating portrayal of a normal couple in abnormal circumstances soon turns into something truly special, as the two of them banter and share inside jokes one moment, and discuss their worries in bed the next. The dialogue is naturalistic and tender, and the occasional moments where the two of them flirt are the best in the game. It’s rare to see a relationship in a game where the two characters are still depicted as sexually attracted to one another, and even rarer to see it pulled off without being cringeworthy or overly explicit.
At the beginning of Haven, we found ourselves rolling our eyes at the way Yu and Kay spoke to one another, but after getting to know them a little better – and the writing settling into a better place – their bond is much more interesting (and palatable), although the replacement of swear words with the all-purpose “bloot” is still something we can’t quite get on board with. Performing various deeds, like battles, or finding stuff in the wild, will increase their, er, DNA meter – it’s never really given a name – and filling it all the way will unlock a scene where they get drunk together, and more of the story is revealed. It’s an unusual way of making narrative progress, but it works.
What doesn’t always work is Haven’s tendency to value style over substance. A lot of the in-game systems and interfaces are hard to read, or non-existent for the player – like the Flow battery, the level of which is portrayed by a blobby petri dish-looking thing in the top left-hand corner of the screen. Likewise, in battle, there is no HP bar, and healing is an unnecessarily complex system that involves slow, resource-expensive, one-at-a-time crafting of healing items which can only be used in certain circumstances. Many of the enemies can only be damaged by one type of attack, and it’s up to you to remember which one, because the game won’t help you.
The navigation system veers between fluid freedom and clunky stop-start flying, with the Flow Threads being used as both power source and method of travel. There are moments where it’s incredibly fun to zip around planets, leaving a wake of Rust-free ground behind you. There are also moments where the camera flies around the pair at weird angles, making it hard to navigate in tight spaces. The map, which is a simplified overlay on top of the screen, relies heavily on knowing where you’ve been and where you need to go next, and much like the other interfaces, it’s style over substance.
Haven also has a problem with crashing. Every now and again, the game will abruptly quit out to the home screen for no discernable reason, losing some of your progress. The autosave is robust, so you’ll often just have to watch a cutscene and re-fight an enemy or two, but no amount of backtracking is fun. We had seven crashes in our time with the game, and it’s impossible to predict what causes them.
However, the co-op is something special. Tying in nicely with the story that’s all about two people co-operating to make a new life together, the co-op can often feel like you’re simultaneously working with and against your second player. Timing is important in both the combat and the crafting, and all the dialogue choices that you get have to be unanimously voted on. It’s a bit meta, but it adds a lot of depth to the game, and we’d even go so far as to say it’s the best way to play. But, of course, this is a pandemic, and most people won’t have that option – which makes it a little bit of a negative. But it’s not really anyone’s fault, it’s just a shame.
All in all, Haven is a beautiful, stylish game that suffers a little too much from its lofty aesthetic ambitions. Some might find the sparsity of things to do, interact with, or find a little boring, but Haven is more interested in the moments of quiet that come with love. It’s not perfect, but neither is a good relationship. What matters is whether you can overlook its flaws to appreciate its strengths.
Haven is a beautiful game about a relationship that is best in its quiet moments. The conversations and tenderness between Yu and Kay, its two leads, are the lifeblood of the game, and everything else is secondary. Its interesting combat system would benefit from a bit more signposting, and the flying traversal is a fun sci-fi addition to the game that works more often than it doesn’t. Still, it’s a wonderful experience, especially in co-op, but perhaps one to get on sale.