As part of Xbox Summer Game Fest - a playable demo of Haven - published and developed by The Game Bakers was played and reviewed on Xbox One. This demo was approximately 25 min in length and is still in beta. The following review does not reflect the full game - which comes out later this year.
Straight from the get-go, Haven presents its self as something completely unique. Its intro movie sets the tone for what will be a romance filled adventure that looks just as good as it feels. The watercolor animations are choreographed brilliantly to an upbeat score that really makes an impression. I found myself wondering why I had been so taken back by this kind of intro - when was the last time I saw something this unique before even starting the game? Perhaps never. After the music fades and you're wondering what will be next; you are pleasantly surprised by a game engine driven title scene featuring both characters laying peacefully in some grass. If it wasn't evident before, you now realize that you're in for something special.
The games first actual scene is rather low-key for an RPG. Yu is conducting some maintenance while Kay cooks a dinner aboard a ship, later identified as "The Nest". The couple chats about dinner while the conversation plays out on screen much in the style of the Fire Emblem series. The player can also make some dialogue choices to direct the conversation. It becomes clear from this conversation that Yu and Kays relationship is far from perfect. Their dynamic is one of Yu being quite bossy, demanding, and always hungry - while Kay tends to be passive, accommodating and scientific. This dynamic is entertaining surely, but more importantly - it humanizes them. Their imperfections make them relatable and therefore they are easy to care about, even from the beginning. I did find some of the romantic dialogue a bit cringey, but it didn't ruin the experience at all. Shortly after some clever banter and kitchen smooches, we're alerted to a power failure which will require a trip outside to forage for raw material, and here we get our first taste of the game world.
Stepping out of the Nest and into a world of floating islands and shimmering skies is pretty captivating. The grass blades dance back and fourth in the wind and bow around your legs as you move through them. A short tutorial shows you the ropes of gliding, walking and swapping between Yu and Kay - as well as a few gliding maneuvers for making sharp turns. You set out to collect "Flow Threads" which are used to power your ship, by essentially chasing and gliding through them. Gliding is quite satisfying, and drifting in particular adds a sense of finesse to the movement that I really enjoyed. Somewhat like a perfect drift in Mario Kart, it was incredible fun just moving about the landscape and perfecting my turns around the floating "islet". While exploring, you also come across some shiny plants harboring "Appledew" which can be picked and used in cooking. Earlier in the kitchen - Yu announced that she was sick of Appledew, complaining that she's eaten it 3 days in a row, and somehow I was compelled to search for an alternative.. I searched the furthest reaches of my islet and was pleasantly surprised to learn that upon gliding in one direction for a while, Yu and Kay actually join hands and fly side by side. Although it's very subtle, I think it's a fantastic little addition and definitely put a smile on my face.
Shortly after collecting sufficient Flow Threads and some questionable berries, we return to The Nest hand in hand to cook dinner and recharge. At this point I wonder if Haven's gameplay loop will consist of exploring during the day, returning to camp and chatting and cooking together, then returning to exploration the next day. Not unlike the camping experience in Final Fantasy 15 - where the gang would get together for games, laughs and a good meal each night - I really hope Haven offers a similar experience beyond this demo.
The after dinner conversation reveals more of the plot; through a tense argument, we learn that Yu and Kay have fled something called the "Apiary." It becomes apparent that The Nest is not parked on this floating island for fun. Much to the contrary, Yu and Kay are actually runaways and are preparing for the worst case scenario which would be to be discovered by the Apiary (and presumably be returned home or punished in some way). The way this was revealed indirectly through heated argument was quite refreshing. Games too often spoon-feed their plots in the form of a title screen prologue, narrated monologue, in-game book (think Skyrim lore books) or even worse - through a guided tutorial. Stories should be told in creative ways in order to captivate an audience and Haven really capitalizes on that sentiment.
Sitting in silence after an argument - Check out that side-eye...
The next day begins with a comical (and very relatable) argument between Yu and Kay but before long you are off once again to forage food and collect a few extra Flow Threads for The Nest. This time, soon after venturing out there is a massive seismic disturbance that separates you completely from The Nest. In order to make your way back, you'll activate "Flow Bridges" which are effectively your level portals, getting you to and from areas of the game. After traversing through your first, you'll encounter some critters... They are peaceful surprisingly, and can be pet or hugged by hitting A. After some more exploring - a toxic sludge is discovered which almost exactly like in Pokemon: Gale of Darkness, is polluting the minds of some surrounding critters - turning them aggressive. I then learned upon being attacked, that there is an entire combat system in Haven! I fancied Haven to be all about exploration and narrative so this came as quite a surprise. Overworld interaction with an enemy triggers a combat sequence (also much like Pokemon) and a real time strategy battle takes place. You have 4 moves to choose from, which are charged up by holding a direction on your joystick and unleashed on your enemies:
The great thing about this combat system which really sets it apart from other similar ones is that you simultaneously control both characters. One with each joystick. You can shield with one, attack with the other, or any other combination of tactics. You can also create joint attacks by executing the same move with both characters. This really kept me on my toes and it challenged me in a way I hadn't really experienced before. Somehow, despite the inherent complexity of this, it was still quite intuitive. I only completed a few battles in this demo (one of which was a boss fight) but I really think it has something totally unique. If Haven offers a decent progression system and keeps combat fresh by intermittently introducing new weapons, moves, mechanics etc it could really be a huge hit.
I was rather taken back when the demo ended abruptly, as demos tend to... But in this case I felt that I was really just warming up to a new experience that I wasn't yet ready to let go of! I enjoyed every minute of learning about these characters through the lens of their up-and-down relationship. I enjoyed sleuthing details of their past through minor clues in dialogue and in subtle designs of their home, The Nest. I thoroughly enjoyed the score of this game, it kept the atmosphere upbeat and alive, like there was never a dull moment. The visuals were stunning, and the game world was pulsing with vibrant color. The effortlessness of it all is sort of hard to describe but really needs to be experienced. I definitely have not played anything like Haven before and I'm very hopeful that the full game will eventually fill this void I've been left with (even after 2 playthroughs). There's something special here, and I encourage everyone who is curious at this point to check it out and enjoy the ride.
Haven is coming sometime in 2020, although an official release date has not been set.
Game on, folks.
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