For some reason, videogames have rarely been particularly good at depicting meaningful relationships. Besides a handful of notable exceptions (Florence and The Last of Us’ DLC come to mind), depictions of romance are usually relegated to player wish fulfilment. The most egregious example of this lies in the BioWare system; if you talk to your favourite character enough times they’ll like you, and if they like you enough, you can shag.
Which is why Haven is a welcome reprieve. Kay and Yu, the dual protagonists you’ll glide through a fragmentary universe, have a relationship that feels believable. It isn’t a side story either; Haven has the confidence to place its characters and their connection at the forefront of everything from its mechanics to its presentation, and it’s all the better for it.
Kay and Yu interact in short vignettes which usually occur following menial tasks; eating, sleeping, cooking, exploring. There are allusions to the gentle irritations of closeness – when you’ve first moved in with someone, and they’re the only person around, the general malaise of existence surfacing in bickering or catty remarks. There are shouting wars that build into raging nonsense, where all the pains and insecurities each of them are feeling get funnelled into insults neither of them really mean. The finest moments in the game are its quietest – a secret beach with a banana tree where the two sunbathe, or sitting in the cockpit of the ship and gazing at the constellations.
So strong are Haven’s character-driven moments that they even manage to make a guitar-round-a-campfire scene genuinely touching rather than eye-rollingly mawkish. Kay and Yu are a joy to watch interact from beginning to end and are a testament to the importance of character writing in any narrative medium.
Flying the nest
The story that surrounds Kay and Yu isn’t quite as memorable; they’re on the run from a controlling society in a place known as The Aviary, crash landing their spaceship on a seemingly deserted archipelago of planets interlinked by flow bridges. They’re now trying to repair their spaceship whilst considering the consequences of their actions alongside the possibility of their future together.
It isn’t anything particularly new, but Haven rightfully banks on its characters over their circumstances. Starting the game at the point after they’ve chosen to run away, in the aftermath of a likely dramatic escape, also helps the game feel far more contemplative than it might in other circumstances. You’re following two people who’ve literally gone to the ends of their respective Earth for one another, and who now have to ponder what that truly means. Like that final, lingering shot in The Graduate if you stretched it out to a full game length, rather than preceding it with 90 minutes of weird abuse.
The setting does have some interesting allusions to Game Bakers’ previous boss-rush gem, Furi, which can help elevate it if you’ve played through that before their latest release. Haven also takes from Furi in terms of aesthetics; its colour palette, full of luminous blues, deep purples and piercing oranges, oozes style even when your surroundings begin to look a little too familiar.
This is best expressed in Haven’s opening cinematic which you’ll never want to skip. It’s like a barrage of paintballs, watercolour and planetary shards launched directly into your eyeballs. Danger’s soundtrack, both here and throughout the game, is nothing short of exceptional, with banger after banger adding to the meditative feel of zipping across space.
Lovers in a dangerous spacetime
This floating across planets makes up the majority of Haven’s playtime, interspersed by cooking, cutscenes and altercations with local wildlife. Manoeuvrability is smooth, particularly when launching yourself from a great height, forcing an elegant backflip as the ground races towards you. Haven’s combat system attempts something different too, in that you control Kay and Yu simultaneously, with two core attacks, a shield and a capture move to balance in real-time. At its best, it can be a juggling act, with delicate timing and calculated planning to keep both protected whilst punishing stunned enemies.
The game’s combat never really kicks into gear though, even with the addition of some powered-up moves later on. Some of the game’s systems could also do with streamlining; the ability to cook multiple meals at once instead of individually, or being able to warp back to your ship at any point rather than needing to find the right cosmic flora first, would’ve really helped lessen the fatigue of playing after a while. When you’re being made to travel through increasingly samey islands, even if their similarities are narratively justified, these little annoyances can make each trip out of The Nest feel a little monotonous. This is doubly true in the rare instances of back-tracking and on occasions where soundbites or scenes are repeated.
But even when the game starts to feel a bit formulaic, I wanted to continue purely to learn more about Kay and Yu. Each interaction is both written and performed expertly, and the game has been designed with these moments in mind. In a similarly intelligent design decision, your exploration is rarely for exploration’s sake, with Game Bakers rewarding inquisitive players with new Nest items, conversations and even entire secret areas to relax in. Haven can also be played co-operatively, which I didn’t get a chance to try, though it appears to be a unique mode to try with a partner.
Haven is a game about taking time out – it’s about staring into the endless mesh of rust and stars and considering where you are, who you’re with and where the both of you want to be. Some of the mechanics are a little rough around the edges, and the overall experience doesn’t quite feel perfect. But neither are relationships – Haven explores one that’s really special, and I’m beyond grateful to have spent time with it.
[Reviewed on PC]