As it is with some of the best games, Haven is a challenge to describe. Its structure is most similar to a survival game: you start each day on an alien world called the Source; on a spaceship called the Nest that’s closer to derelict than new. From this base, you step out onto a series of floating islands and pocket as many raw materials as you can, like mushrooms, seeds and fruit. These materials are taken back to the spaceship for cooking or crafting, keeping you alive or giving you a boost. Then it’s down to bed and a rest, before exploring another undiscovered nook of the world. It’s a Subnautica-like skeleton, and everything else hangs off it.
Rather than trudge about the world on foot, though, you glide along on anti-grav boots, somewhere between Tony Hawk and Jet Set Radio. These boots propel you at a fair old pelt, so there’s steering to be done as you travel about. You’ll occasionally trigger ‘Flow’, which acts like magical grind-rails. Keep to the general driving-line of these grind-rails, which isn’t always easy, and they’ll take you to new areas, points of interest, or just refill your Flow meter.
You’ll need a tank of Flow at all times, as the world is covered in a gunge called Rust, and the Flow acts as a counter-agent to it. Simply zoom over the Rust with enough Flow and it’ll decontaminate it immediately. You’ll get access to what’s underneath, like Flow, resources, paths to new parts of the world and more. Think Drake Hollow or Super Mario Sunshine, but with the water pissing out of your boots and not from a backpack. Clear enough of the island and it’ll be permanently Rustless, allowing you to fast-travel to it in latter parts of the game.
Monsters get covered in Rust too, and it has a habit of antagonising them. They’ll chase and then attack you, which triggers a JRPG-style battle, but in real-time. Rather than pick options from a menu, you’re jamming your analogue sticks into the cardinal directions and holding them there until the effect triggers. The battles are based on timing and choosing the right attack for the given moment in the battle, so there’s a rhythm that comes with these sections.
We’re not done with the exposition, I’m afraid: Haven is a hell of a chimeric beast. The world that you’re exploring is an archipelago of floating islands in the sky, and the world-map reminds of a 2D Zelda game. Each island is a square on a tiled map, and you’re moving from one to the other, removing the fog of war and encountering sections you can’t reach yet. You’ll come back to them as you gain new abilities or discover more Flow bridges, like a lightweight version of Zelda’s bombs and feather. Your ultimate aim, as you navigate this map, is to find salvage, which can then be used to outfit your spaceship (confusingly, not because you want to escape, but because you might want to in the future). These spaceship parts will be tucked away in the far corners of the map, and they’ll motivate you to keep exploring.
As a personal aside, one of my all-time greats is Toejam and Earl, and the finding of spaceship parts mixed with the labyrinth of floating islands is a clear riffing off the Sega classic. There’s even a moment where you tumble into a hidden sauna, just like Toejam’s iconic ‘Level 0’. I did a wee jig: thanks, The Game Bakers, you had at least one Toejam and Earl fan glowing with the references.
We’ve neglected to mention the beating heart of Haven, and you get the sense that it’s the reason for the game’s being, and a real passion of the developers. All of the game actions are completed as two characters, controlled as if they were one. This doesn’t mean you get to control them independently like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, or that the game is focused on cooperative play (although you can, to a limited extent, hop into another player’s game and contribute to combat and clearing up Rust). Instead, Haven is built from the ground up to be solo. The reason why you’re controlling two people is that Haven aims to deliver an authentic and endearing romantic relationship within a video game.
We’re not exactly blessed with successful romantic relationships in gaming (blame Leisure Suit Larry). Trying to achieve it is a big swing for the fences by The Game Bakers, as it permeates every single action in the game. When you’re fighting, you’re simultaneously picking options for both characters. When you’re resting, you’re often doing so because one character is more hurt than the other. Most importantly, when you’re spending downtime with each other, you are exploring the relationship. This is gamified in a bar that fills up as you cook, talk and make meaningful actions together, but it’s also there in the natural conversations as you make dialogue choices, get ready for bed, shower, talk over events and argue over what your next move might be.
The relationship between Yu and Kay is one of the biggest successes of Haven. It’s not perfect, by any means: call us old or repressed, but the couple are thirsty to say the least, looking to swing a leg over at the drop of the pants. Too many conversations swing back to the love they feel for each other, which can force a couple of fingers down the throat. In general, though, it’s just incredibly believable: these are two young idealists who have followed their hearts to an alien world and are now way over their heads. The plot gives them a hard time of it, and they brush each other off and optimistically look to the next challenge. Or they don’t, and they emerge scarred together, but better for the experience. And we’re sure most couples would revert to bonking if they were given free reign of a giant alien planet.
The writing’s strong, and you’ll want to spend time with Yu and Kay. There are a few dialogue loop repetitions (cooking in particular could have benefited from a bigger library of responses), and it borrows the Firefly joke of swapping out cusswords for gibberish, which gets blooting old, blooting quick. But, generally, authentic relationships in games can be counted on a single hand, so The Game Bakers should be proud of the likable one they’ve formed here.
That authenticity stretches to the world, which is completely absorbing and will likely go down as one of the great alien worlds in gaming. The couple-on-the-run-from-an-authoritarian-regime is a tried and tested formula (the set-up reminds of Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga comic book series), and you feel a sense of impending doom as the couple’s paradise always feels like it’s on a time limit. The mystery of the planet, and the traces of civilisation that you stumble on, is another good hook, and makes the finding of landmarks that little bit more intriguing. It may not go to particularly unexpected places, but the story is engaging throughout.
Then there’s the soundtrack and visuals, which are absolutely as good as you’d expect from the developers of Furi. The Game Bakers have charged Danger, one of the composers from Furi, with creating an atmosphere of chilled exploration, and they’ve returned with a dreamy, synthy, ‘80s-tinged set that does exactly that. It’ll get you creating a ‘chilled game soundtracks’ playlist, if you didn’t have one already. If there’s a criticism, by the twelfth hour of play you’ll be wishing there was a touch more variation.
The visuals don’t quite reach the same heights, but they’re still blooting brilliant. Haven is simply cel-shaded, but it’s effective, and the pastel worlds allow the red Rust to jab out like a spiky thumb. Skimming across the world in your anti-grav boots becomes zen-like, and you’ll find yourself travelling about for the sake of it, rather than with any real purpose. The creatures, too, are a fantastic bunch. They’re (mostly) fauna that are getting on with their own business, and they are uncanny versions of ostriches, cows, manta rays and more.
You get the sense that The Game Bakers are trying to achieve a confluence of beautiful visuals, intuitive controls and chilled soundtrack to create an effect that’s similar to Journey. The PlayStation classic is clearly an aspiration, as Haven ditches most of the things that make gaming pressuring and difficult, like time limits, intense combat and complexity, in favour of creating an ‘experience’. Sure, Haven feels slightly too procedurally generated and repetitious to nail the landing, but it often gets within a few fingertips of Journey, and that’s to be commended.
In the attempt to chase after Journey’s elegance, though, a fair amount is lost. Haven presents a lot of new game systems as you progress, allowing you to fiddle about with cooking, boost-making, medicine, farming, day/night cycles and more. These are staggered over the course of the game to reduce the complexity, but they needn’t have bothered – they are all incredibly shallow.
Cooking, for example, allows you to make use of the fruit that you’ve gained to make meals. You’ll need to eat, as a hunger bar creeps down the longer you’re away from the base. But there are only three ingredients to find in the game, creating six different meals, and they all do the same thing: refill your hunger to various degrees. There’s no side-benefits, no progression track for cooking, no unique meals to make, and no variability in the quality of what you produce.
Clearly, the simplicity is an effort to make the game accessible, but Haven is not particularly short – it’s 10-12 hours, and more if you’re a completionist – so you’ll be interacting with these recipes regularly. You’ll have learned everything there is to know about each of them within the first few hours, and it becomes a chore after that.
If the systems were skippable and inessential, it would be fine, but they’re not. They’re also slow, both in terms of loading speeds and in the simple three-second action of confirming, which gets tiresome. Some of the systems even rob you of the opportunity to do the simplest of strategies: you’ll gain the ability to farm produce, for example, but collecting seeds in the wilderness will automatically teleport them back to your farmstead rather than let you plant them yourself. The complete lack of interaction made me forget I even had my own plants.
There’s noble reasoning behind it, no doubt. We were never confused by these systems, and casual players who are allergic to crafting systems may be given a tidy little gateway. But, for our tastes, The Game Bakers have made the systems too safe, and robbed it of so much choice and interest. Even a touch of variability, getting random drops from the things you do, would have made it more enjoyable.
It’s particularly fatal for combat. There are effectively three options in these JRPG-lite sections: to defend, purify (effectively a knock-out blow to an enemy) and attack. These attacks can be Impact or Blast, and you’ll need to figure out which is the most damaging to any given enemy, mostly through trial and error. The enemies also rotate through attacks that make them vulnerable at certain points. In theory, the timing of attacks to an enemy’s window of weakness is good, but it’s robbed of any kind of dynamism because it takes a good three seconds to confirm an attack. You’ll need to anticipate these windows, which just isn’t as fun.
There’s no loot, weapons or armour, no variability in the battles and what they drop, and there are no stats on you or the enemies. These are incredibly repetitive affairs. You can understand why it was done this way – again, to make the game accessible – but we reached a point where every encounter came with a sigh, and we knew that five minutes of our lives were about to evaporate away. We began to wonder why there was combat at all. Journey didn’t need it, after all.
Ultimately, these systems are – at worst – makework, but most of the time they’re harmless. They feel like chores, and they may be clear missed opportunities, but the payoff for completing them is waiting outside of the airlock and into the world. Yu and Kay will shoot the breeze as you skid about like Tony Hawk, unlocking new parts of the world. You may well forget the shallowness of the game beneath it all.
Losing yourself in Haven on the Xbox is a sedate joy. You can wile away hours, clearing Rust from the world and pocketing alien produce. Then it’s back to the Nest for a night’s kip and one of the more endearing romantic relationships in video games. But as you skim across the surface of the Source, you’ll be left wishing that Haven could have trusted you a little more, and let you dive deeper into its shallow systems. It may not quite reach the heights of its inspirations, then, but Haven is an alien holiday that might just blow your troubles away.