Haven Review — Love Gone Bland
The endearing love story and vibrant art style of Haven can't save it from being a derivative and forgettable RPG adventure.
A strong story and characters can often enhance an overall video game experience. Even if the gameplay might not be stellar or memorable, occasionally the narrative aspects can make up for those particular shortcomings. That’s more or less how I felt during my time playing The Game Baker’s romance RPG Haven. The characters are brimming with personality and chemistry, and the central love story kept me interested in the two leads’ ongoing adventures. Still, even at its best, those standout aspects can’t make up for a dull and derivative gameplay loop, uninteresting combat, and a bland pseudo-open world.
In Haven, you take control of both Yu and Kay, a pair of star-crossed lovers who flee the pre-deterministic confines of their homeworld to find themselves taking solace on a mysterious planet with more danger and history than initially meets the eye. They slowly uncover some of this new planet’s secrets throughout their journey and how it links to their own while exploring the surroundings and trying to reassemble their ship.
Ultimately, the relationship and romance between the two leads are the narrative’s cruces, and the plot would not be nearly as compelling without their dialogue and banter. They feel genuinely in love with each other, from their heart to heart talks while cooking together, to their playful pillow talk, to even their bickering disagreements while traversing the open world. They both come across as fully realized characters on their own and then a truly endearing couple together. They’re a testament to the writing and voice acting, making them easily the strongest component of the game.
Something that will be immediately striking as soon as you begin the game is its art style. The opening cinematic is a beautifully animated watercolor sequence with similar vibes to Gris‘ own style. The in-game art style has more of a cell-shaded look and is equally striking with its vibrant colors and almost comic book style aesthetic. On more than one occasion, I took a moment to appreciate the many vistas and beautiful terrain. You could easily take a screenshot of just about any frame of the game and come out with a very picturesque moment that could serve as a wallpaper for your PC or even as something that could be seen framed on your walls.
As much as Haven excels in its characters and art, it in equal measure manages to falter in its gameplay and overall design choices. You’ll spend a lot of time traversing the world as Yu and Kay glide hand in hand towards their destinations, leaving a blue stream of energy behind them. As pretty as it all looks, you’ll quickly realize that there isn’t enough variety to make most of the areas you’ll be exploring all that interesting.
The various sections that the map is split into all have very similar color palettes. It makes them difficult to even differentiate from one another, making back-tracking feel much more tedious and monotonous than it needs to be. You’ll see many of the same enemy types surrounded by the same red corruption on the ground in areas that all look roughly the same. I kept waiting and hoping for some different scenery or different biome on this alien world. Unfortunately, any variety in the environments comes much too late and does far too little to leave any real impact.
In between gliding across the map in ways that feel reminiscent of something like Journey, you’ll gain a few abilities that will allow for different ways of traversal and progression. They aren’t anything that hasn’t been seen before, such as boots that allow you to glide higher to reach new areas and a mapping system that is a bit odd in its design. Even with these added abilities, you’re still doing the same things you were doing before, and they don’t add enough to the already unremarkable gameplay loop. These very light Metroidvania elements ultimately do very little to pad the runtime or create variety and sadly just feel like chores between bigger narrative beats.
Throughout their adventure, Yu and Kay will come across several creatures in this mysterious world. The usually docile and peaceful wildlife become aggressive and attack on sight when infected by the strange red corruption covering much of the planet. Unfortunately, the turn-based combat doesn’t offer much depth or variety to ever become all that compelling and just really devolves into using one or two attacks that the enemy happens to be vulnerable to and then cleansing them of that corruption. It never becomes all that different from the first few encounters, so you pretty much see most of what the game has to offer fairly early on.
Haven is ultimately a lot of style over substance. It takes many different pieces from different places, which is commendable, but it doesn’t necessarily do any of them particularly well. The interplay between the two leads kept me going for the long haul, but everything surrounding them never reached the same heights as the strong characterizations and heartfelt narrative beats. If the same time and care that went into the beautiful visual style and the genuinely endearing romance was put into the repetitive gameplay loop, then Haven could have been something extraordinary. Instead, it’s less of a haven and more of a disappointing jaunt through monotony.