Haven is a sci-fi frolic, but the gameplay is a heartbreaker
Inverse Score: 7/10
A wholesome and occasionally naughty adventure, Haven focuses its gaze on two lovers who have fled the confines of their stifling society.
The honeymoon phase is already over for our heroes — Yu and Kay — when we meet them, so we’re along for the ride as they fight, bicker, and make up on a strange new planet called Source. It’s full of floating islands, gravitational anomalies, a magical energy called Flow, and a purple sludge called Rust that pollutes the otherwise beautiful landscape. You control Yu and Kay simultaneously as they fly around in their anti-gravity boots or hang out in their ship called “The Nest.” The setting and story make Haven a heartfelt and intimidate meditation on marriage that’s steeped in wonder at the natural world.
Survival is stressful and exciting when they’re on the run, but Haven isn’t so much a run-and-jump game as it is a romantic visual novel. Some of the more gamified aspects — exploration, resource collection, and combat — are the weakest in Haven because they become repetitive.
At a breezy 15 hours, Haven’s strengths make the faults forgivable, and it’s the ideal game to try for free as part of Xbox Game Pass, or even for $24.99 on PlayStation 5 or Steam.
An unconventional but compelling love story
Yu is a spirited mechanic, and Kay is a dorky but warmhearted biologist; the perfect couple for this kind of adventure story that relies on ingenuity and heart. Haven’s story begins with these two after they’ve already left their homeworld and escaped to Source. We’re thrust right into the middle of their love story, rather than the beginning, yet things never feel disorienting in Haven. We glean details through dialogue: They ran away from arranged marriages so they could be together, and now they’re on the run. It’s that simple.
Haven’s Creative Director Emeric Thoa told Push Square in September 2020 that the game’s initial pitch was “Romeo and Juliet but instead of dying they escaped in space.” That dreamlike premise is exactly what you get. Yu and Kay adore each other, but the stress of being on the run in an alien land weighs on them. The lack of any other human characters also brings the nuances of their relationship into sharp focus.
In one early scene, Kay asks how long Yu thinks their magical little vacation on Source, away from their true home planet, can last before they’re found. Frustrated, Yu dodges the tough conversation. These delicate push-pull moments offer a memorable and realistic way to tell their story.
Yu and Kay also have cute inside jokes and charming banter. Occasionally, when you do a hard pivot to reverse your direction mid-flight, Yu will coyly say, “Did I just feel you pinching my butt in passing?” Amused, Kay will respond: “How could I possibly achieve that?” Their intimacy and comfort with one another is mature, occasionally naughty, but still oh so wholesome.
Much of Yu and Kay’s time together is a struggle to survive, but their advanced technology can make things less dire. When their ship is jostled a bit, they have powerful magnets that can move it to another position, but only if Yu and Kay can generate enough power on the ship. Problems in Haven always have solutions.
A sloppy collision of genres
As a video game experience, Haven suffers due to repetitive exploration and combat. But as a life simulator, it communicates the essential point that all human relationships require work and commitment. That’s enough to keep things interesting even when game systems feel a bit thin.
Yu and Kay share stats for combat and exploration that are upgraded by strengthening their bond or just cooking more. Choosing to scavenge better ingredients to make more interesting recipes makes Yu and Kay happier than always eating the same boring stuff. (Just like real-life relationships.) Choices like this allow you to invest more in the relationship, and that appears most prominently in frequent dialogue options that pop up during conversations. One bold choice might make Yu or Kay more confident, but the other might sour the mood. Navigating the nuances feel dangerous and exciting. (Also just like real-life relationships.)
Pretty much everything you do feels like a chore so that you can experience more of the story. While inside their cozy spaceship, gameplay with Yu and Kay mostly consists of point-and-click narrative interactions like cooking, cleaning, or repairing things. And it’s really enjoyable thanks to the writing and voice acting.
But whenever they step outside to explore Source for resources and food, the flight-based exploration can be a bit of a drag. Manipulating the camera can be clunky and frustrating while you’re zooming around beautiful yet repetitive vistas.
You’ll often have to pass through flow streams to power up, but another chore involves cleansing swaths of Rust by simply gliding over it. The in-game duality about the balance between Flow and Rust would be much more interesting if cleaning all the Rust was more interesting. Instead, it’s simpler and more boring than mowing the lawn.
For its few faults, Haven does impress by focusing every game system focuses on the bond between Yu and Kay, even if some of them fall short. Combat in particular is where the optional co-op really shines. The four D-pad buttons control Kay and the four buttons on the right side of the controller control Yu. They each have long- and short-range attacks, defensive maneuvers, and a way to dispatch enemies that have been knocked out.
You juggle button-press sequences in real-time battles to achieve a kind of harmony. It’s a novel flow-based approach to combat that works rather well, especially in the accessible way it reinforces the game’s core themes.
But like exploration and resource collection, even combat gets dull and repetitive over time when the environments and enemies mostly look the same. Despite all that, Haven feels so much greater than the sum of its parts thanks to its endearing lead characters, captivating sci-fi anime aesthetics, and dreamy chillpop soundtrack.
Even the boring and repetitive work that goes into exploring and surviving feels realistic. Sure, it won’t always be fun. But at least Haven is rewarding.
Isn’t that the very essence of relationships? 7/10.
Haven is available now on Xbox Game Pass or on PS5 and PC via Steam for $24.99.
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