The Dark Souls of Podcasts
In 2016, I got a review code for the game Furi. As my first ever pre-release review copy, it’s remained a very sentimental game for me. It made me feel, however silly and inconsequential that landmark is to first time reviewers, that I had finally landed The Big Time. It also helped that Furi is a game I really enjoyed. I don’t want to reshare my already documented thoughts on Furi, but it’s really great. Imagine my surprise then, in the year 2020, hearing that The Game Bakers’ followup title Haven was not only out, but that they were more than willing to send me a review code. I truly felt 27 years old again; pre-Donald Trump-era depressed and excited to review another indie game from people who knew how to make games feel really good.
What I got is a game that largely feels good, but it tastes pretty sour.
Haven is a metroidvania-esque open world exploration RPG with high speed rocket boots. You play as a couple, Kay and Yu, as they make a new life stranded on an abandoned planet called Source. Haven’s narrative is told through a familiar visual novel style format, and it’s gameplay is separated into neat little chunks. Much of the visual novel aspects of the game can be experienced in it’s home life simulator, while the more active parts of gameplay are separated into open-world exploration and timing-based RPG combat.
In the visual novel sections of the game, Kay and Yu spend their days in their home, a destroyed spaceship called The Nest, having what feels like an almost endless amount of scenes of them hanging out in different ways. The pair use all the resources they’ve collected out exploring the world to cook and prep a bunch of meals for the future, as well as synthesize important medicine that they need to survive on this planet. The writing in these sections ranges from genuinely cute to “ok this is a little too twee, even for me” to outright cringy. There’s also plenty of scenes that, while never sexually explicit, are definitely sexually charged in a way that most games don’t feel comfortable enough to explore with their characters. If you’re sick of games that have overly dark tones and too many scenes full of worry and anxiety, then a lot of this will be really refreshing. Even though there are extreme stakes to Kay and Yu’s story, the two are more often than not just happy to be around each other and are finding newer, sometimes hornier, but generally more fun ways to spend time together.
One thing I really appreciate about this game’s writing is how deftly it uses callbacks to previous optional scenes that feel very natural. Sometimes it’s a clever line of dialogue that’s referenced, other times it’s an item the couple found in their exploration. One part that was especially touching was an extremely cool culmination of a bunch of different scenes. It started with a scene where the couple was camping out under the night sky, and Yu mentioned that she missed her guitar. She was never good with the guitar and it was a passing offhand comment, considering she only remembered it since it felt like it would really fit the mood camping under the stars. Yu promptly forgot about it, but Kay didn’t, like a partner would do. Later, during an extended sequence where we were alone on a beach islet, just swimming and having fun, Kay got his foot stuck in an extremely large shell. It’s a really long, not very funny scene, but they did decide to keep the shell as a keepsake. Finally, later, Kay gives Yu a present for their anniversary. She unwraps it, and it’s a brand new guitar made from the giant oversized shell. It was an extremely cute and touching moment, and it was brought together through a completely unexpected dynamism between scenes. Moreover, if I missed either of those scenes for whatever reason (the one where you get the shell felt particularly missable), it probably would have never happened. I appreciate any game with the boldness to let you miss an entire subplot and never even notice.
However, this sort of dynamism isn’t present in the majority of the scenes you’ll encounter. Haven is a game completely littered with rough writing and dialogue choices to the point where it felt like the script seriously needed a second pass. This is a critical misstep for any visual novel, but especially a game focused on dialogue between only two characters. Moreover, many of the scenes in this game are meant to be comedic, and the sense of humor in this game is probably the furthest from funny you could get. The biggest offender here is that there’s only one swear in the game, and it’s the kind of sci-fi fake swear that’s really grating to hear every time it happens. Both Kay and Yu use the word, “bloot” (a combination of both “fuck” and “shit” somehow), so often that you would expect it become background noise, but instead it stands out every single time it’s said. It’s especially noticeable in really dramatic scenes where Kay and Yu are trying to express real, genuine feelings, and then “bloot” pops up and it takes you out of the scene entirely. It’s aggravating how often “bloot” is said in this game, in all the different contexts it’s said, and how in a game that is not afraid to show the 3D models of these characters completely naked that they couldn’t just say “fuck” instead. They say “bloot” in places where a swear wouldn’t even be appropriate. This game wants you to constantly be aware of the specter of “bloot” hanging over your head at all times, ready to come at you when you least expect it.
To give more examples of the poor sense of humor in this game’s writing, there’s a recurring bit where Kay finds a couple of dolls from one of his favorite childhood shows called Muffin & Cupcake. There’s one prominent scene where you have to sit through him reenacting an episode with the dolls and it’s utterly intolerable. In two distinct high pitched voices, he explains the plot of the episode laden with baking puns every single chance he can get. It’s so brazenly unfunny that at the end of the sequence, you get a dialogue option from Yu where you can either say that was awful, or ask if you can play. In the context of being stranded on a deserted world and literally going through every option they can to entertain themselves, it makes sense why Kay would do this. It doesn’t make watching this scene any less funny. I hesitate to even bring it up because I fear that, in explaining this sequence, it may accidentally sound funny or appealing to somebody. If that is you, dearest reader, I’m genuinely sorry. After this, Kay will occasionally make references to the sequence like it was hilarious and everyone loved it. The dolls appear on the ship as an item you can interact with for extra pieces of incidental dialogue. I avoided those dolls like the plague.
The main story is largely pretty enjoyable, except for a pretty scattered and unfocused ending sequence. The premise of lovers trapped on a distant world is solid and unraveling the mysteries of a once colonized but then abandoned planet with the looming anxiety that the government will arrive at any second to bring these two young adults back to their dystopia is satisfying. There are pretty meaty twists and turns that kept me going, even while I was suffering through the bits of narrative presented in the homelife simulation section that were extremely grating. Even if I didn’t enjoy the dialogue very much, it did also really make these two characters feel like a real, genuine couple. They’re both twee, but they’re twee together, and their tweeness unfolds very naturally.
Outside of the visual novel sequences, you travel around the planet of Source in open-world exploration. They both have rocket boots, and you’re encouraged to constantly be flying at all times. Both characters can walk, but any time you stop to walk, even for a second, even on accident, Yu will speak up going “AUGH walking is SO BORING why don’t we ride our cool rocket boots more?” Then Kay will pipe up and go “yeah but walking is pretty nice sometimes, if you think about it.” This exchange happens an amount of times that I can only assume is in the double digits on a normal playthrough. To mix it up, sometimes Yu will go “you know what walking is kind of nice sometimes.”
Anyways, I struggle to call what you do in this game platforming. It’s more like a freeform driving game like Forza, except instead of really nice cars, you drive around in an extremely horny young adult couple. The high-speed gliding, especially when you’re flying on flowlines (the ingame tracks you have to follow to charge up your power), is mindlessly fun. It feels less fun when they require you to think about it. You’ll be forced to ride on flowlines high above the ground where you have to drift a ton of times. If you fail, you fall back to the ground and you have to navigate all the way back to the awkwardly placed starting position to try again. The drifting in this doesn’t feel very rewarding to pull off, and it’s not helped by having two separate tutorials dedicated to drifting, and tons of early game incidental dialogue where Yu implores the player to drift more. Any kind of action that requires precision or stopping just a second to get a better view of the map feels janky and breaks the flow of the movement. There are tons of times when you’ll be trying to clear out an area, only to have to stop on a dime to wonder “Why haven’t I picked everything up? Is there something I missed? Where is it? Is it nearby or is it hiding somewhere?”
While exploring the open world, sometimes you’ll run into less than friendly creatures and critters, and you’ll need to do some timing-based RPG combat. While this kind of RPG gameplay is nothing new, Haven’s take on it is pretty refreshing, and is challenging without feeling overly demanding. I’ve avoided bringing it up throughout this review but I think it’s finally time to invoke this game’s obvious comparisons to Brothers: A Tale Of Two Sons, which is an utterly fantastic game I find myself recommending to people constantly. Despite Brothers being excluded from Haven’s inspiration map, there’s plenty of common ground between Haven and Brothers, and it’s most apparent in Haven’s combat, which is pretty ironic considering Brothers has little to no combat to speak of. Both Kay and Yu occupy one half of your controller, and whenever one of them isn’t actively doing something, the other is available for actions. It can be pretty jarring entering combat for the first time since when most games start RPG combat, you expect a menu to pop up to tell you what you can do. Instead, you can act as soon as the transition finishes. Every single move you make has a charge time associated with it, which makes timing them correctly crucial. Each ability also has animations that you need to get into the rhythm of popping off whenever is appropriate. Kay and Yu have completely identical movesets and HP, which is thematically relevant with them being two halves of the same whole relationship and neither outweighs the other. While I personally love RPGs with varied character roles and large casts, having a game with a party of two that play identically works for what this game is trying to achieve.
Kay and Yu both have 4 core moves: Impact, Blast, Pacify and Shield. Impact and Blast are your two primary attack moves, with some enemies being vulnerable to physical attacks while others are weak to energy blasts. Pacify is the move you use when you want to calm a KO’d enemy. What’s interesting about this system is that pacify is a move that requires charging as much as any other move. Since most of the enemies in this game are indigenous wildlife that have gone hog wild on Rust, you aren’t attempting to kill any of them. When you do knock one out, you want to send the critter off on it’s way not just because it’s a nice thing to do, but also so it’s effectively out of the battle. If an enemy is KO’d for too long, they’ll get back up with some health. This results in having to put together the mental math of “should I pacify this enemy while this other one is about to attack” in ways that feel really satisfying to solve.
The final ability is Shield which should be straightforward, but it comes with some added caveats that I really enjoy. You would expect there to be points in this game where both characters need to shield to avoid a large attack. Instead, what happens is that only one character needs to shield while the other acts. This is important because whichever character is shielded will block the next oncoming attack for both characters. I love this. It recontextualizes defending as a selfless act, putting one of your characters in harm’s way in order for the other to act as necessary to continue battling. It keeps battles from becoming conservative defensive messes while you’re trying to plan and figure out how to topple enemies. Even when defending, it always feels like you’re moving forward in combat. Each character’s shield gets weaker on repeat uses, meaning you have to switch out which character is defending each turn to minimize damage taken. This is also great for reinforcing the relationship these two characters have. Kay isn’t a toxic male chivalrous defender because he’s the one defending all the time. Instead they both defend each other because they’re a couple and supporting your partner when they’re vulnerable is what people in healthy relationships do. The way this game uses game mechanics as metaphors for parts of a relationship is what Haven does best.
The pair also have Duo Blast and Duo impact moves which are super charged up versions of Blast and Impact respectively. They require deliberate timing to charge and are really satisfying to pull off at the right time, but I felt like most incidental battles relied on them too much. While later battles reinforce the necessity of not relying on them, a lot of fights get finished just by spamming Duo moves. Other times, you’re just simply waiting until you can pull the right one off at the right time. The battles often felt less like satisfying RPG combat and more like a puzzle that needed to be solved in the right order, which can feel mindless when repeated too much. Also, your characters automatically target the enemy that will be most vulnerable to the move you’re using in order to cut down on any needless confusion. While this system works pretty well, it also compounds the mindless feeling in a lot of stray encounters. At worst, in a handful of later, really difficult battles, I found myself shooting my shots at enemies that were vulnerable a second ago but not anymore, meaning my shot will just whiff completely when it would have been better if the system targeted another enemy with that attack instead. For all the really unique and interesting, and sometimes flat out intimidating enemy combinations that this game throws at you, once you get down what works against what, the battles feel monotonous as the game goes on.
Haven is well paced with little repetition in battles, but when you do run into the same combination of dudes you were banging your head against a wall to solve and then eventually downloaded, rebattling them feels tedious. It’s a good combat system, but it’s weighed down by enemies that are not only not very engaging to fight against once you’ve got them solved, but the visual design of every single enemy is deliberately Brown and Red, which makes every battle feel the same, even if it’s not. The animals in the overworld are all richly colored and nice looking, but when they’re infected by Rust, they all look exactly the same, which instills this “here we go again” feeling when you get into battles, even against enemies you’ve never fought before. I wish there was more visual variation in the enemy designs. Maybe keep the red and brown general motif but allow more colors to seep in on the enemy designs.
I feel like it’s really necessary to bring up the music in this game, considering it’s the follow-up to Furi, a game that is almost overshadowed by its incredible soundtrack. Comparatively, Haven is underwhelming. Sure, it’s not going for the heavy EDM beats that Furi implemented flawlessly into it’s combat, but it is going for a similar 80s synth aesthetic. Instead of a star studded soundtrack, Haven is composed entirely by french electronic artist Danger, who is a fantastic musician in his own right. The use of his music in game, however, feels very bland. When you’re exploring a lot of the same areas trying to clear every single bit of rust, you’ll get hit with the same looping synth beats over and over again to the point where it feels repetitive and like it’s not adding to the experience. Good music will amplify your experience, something that Furi does excellently. Haven’s soundtrack isn’t necessarily bad, but it feels disappointing by comparison. There’s some great standouts. 4:42 Still Free, the song that plays over Haven’s immaculately beautiful intro cinematic is fantastic. The intro is so good, in fact, that it makes the rest of the game feel disappointing by comparison, without even comparing it to Furi.
The standard battle music, a track called 14.52 Ready When You Are!, is so light and comes in so softly that it adds zero tension to battles. That may have been the intention, to make the process of entering combat feel as chill and relaxing as flying around a floating piece of land on a desert planet, but it sort of compounded the tedium of entering battle against enemies that looked the same as the last enemies I encountered. Individually, the tracks in Haven aren’t bad and some are really good, really chill beats to listen and do homework to. They’re just not employed very well in the game itself.
Even if the music doesn’t hit all the time, Haven is still it’s best when you’re flying around through large, weirdly colored spaces while chill lo-fi heavy synth beats play in the background and your deuteragonists are holding hands. It’s banging on all cylinders when you feel Kay and Yu’s relationship deepening simply through playing the game. It evokes a mood that you might find in some high concept anime fanart by people who want to see their ships come to life. As far as I can tell, no other game delivers the kind of technicolor chill vibes that you get from She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and that’s something that I think is definitely an accomplishment. I just wish the story and dialogue at all met the level of quality of the synergy between the themes of this game and it’s mechanics.
This final paragraph spoils the ending for Haven. If you still want to play it, I recommend not reading further!
I harbor a lot of misgivings about the ending of Haven that I’m finding difficult to just let slide from how I feel about the game as a whole. The ending has Kay and Yu cutting off the flowbrige of Source from the other planets in the galaxy, meaning that they will be stranded on it forever. I have no issues with this, it’s an extreme decision made by a couple of brash young adults, but also it makes sense considering the stakes the game is trying to set up. If the Apiary catches them, their life together ends. There’s no way around it. In the process of cutting off the flow bridge, Yu becomes horribly disfigured and has tons of red crystals sticking out of her through the remainder of the game. It seems like Yu is on death’s door, but the two manage to cut off the flowbridge and isolate themselves, and the world of Source, from the rest of the galaxy. Some light credits roll, and then an epilogue sequence starts where Kay and Yu are back at The Nest.
Yu is still covered in bloody wounds and crystals sticking out of her skin, but the two are acting as if nothing happened. Instead of treating her incredibly dire wounds, Yu amplifies Kay’s rocket boots in a way that makes it so flowers can burst out of the ground. It’s an inverted callback to the end of Furi where everything is dying under The Stranger’s feet, where instead new life springs from their love. It would be really sweet but the sequence goes on a little too long and it wears out its welcome quickly. Then, Kay and Yu have dinner, the two go to bed, and then they have a conversation about Yu’s horrible disfigurement. Apparently she’s completely fine and the crystals don’t even hurt anymore and she’s totally normal. I think the point the game is trying to make is that Kay will love Yu no matter how she looks. Conceptually, it should be a sweet moment, but the way it’s portrayed makes it seem like they didn’t even bother trying to treat her, which goes against the survivalist elements of this game. They’re supposed to be stranded on a deserted world and they’re supposed to take care of each other, but they don’t even try to remove some of the crystals, bandage up her wounds, maybe even redo her art a bit so the crystals are still sticking out but they’re not in horrible bleeding fleshwounds.
The non-chalantness of the way this is handled makes me think I missed something and could have completed the game without her getting hurt, but if that is the case, then I feel like it horribly undercuts its own point about how much these two love each other. It’s a strange ending, one that also was so baffling that, much like most of Haven, I didn’t feel like I got much out of it.