A love story for the space ages
It’s very rare that a romance in games is done well. There are plenty of titles that feature optional relationships, meet cutes and have you following two characters that are literally designed to fall in love with each other. One of the downsides to this approach is that you as a player are responsible for making the romance work. Whether it’s through picking a specific set of dialogue options or presenting NPC’s with gifts, the player is the one who initiates the romantic interactions. Haven skips the gift giving, the stalking with messages and the making of romantic choices. In Haven, the relationship is not a feature, it’s the heart of the experience. The protagonists Yu and Kay are compassionate, funny, witty, resourceful and also really really horny for each other. It’s the perfect motivation you need to explore a gorgeous deserted planet and find a way to restore your spaceship to create a perfect little Haven. It’s a shame however, that while all these elements are present here, the Switch version is not the ideal way to experience this tale.
Haven starts in what is called ‘media res’, meaning that from the get go you don’t fully know who these two characters are, how they met, why they are on this weird planet, or what their goals are. You play as Yu and Kay, two lovers who have fled their civilization called The Apiary because of their disagreement with the Matchmaker that pairs up couples. It’s made clear through context clues that Yu had a wealthy upbringing, while Kay worked in some capacity for Yu’s mother. While they weren’t expecting to get away from the Apiary, they’ve managed to find the coordinates to a deserted planet called Source. Here it’s up to them to live out their lives, find food and reflect on what they’ve done. At least, that is until their ship, the Nest, gets demolished by an earthquake and they set out to explore the Islets of Source in order to salvage materials to repair the Nest. I really liked how Haven doesn’t tell you the complete backstory on both Yu and Kay. It’s storytelling is executed in a near perfect way, using mostly contextual clues and throwaway lines to hint at what has happened because the characters are fully aware what took place. There is no title crawl explaining the history of the Apiary or a montage where the two of them meet. You get to meet these characters while they’re already clearly committed to each other and follow their relationship along the way.
Simply put, this relationship puts many others I’ve seen in games, or other media for that matter, to shame. The writing is absolutely fantastic. Kay is a biologist and researcher, while Yu has had quite some experience working as a technician. This dynamic plays great off each other. They’re both charming but also witty and comedic in their dialogues. The voice cast sells their relationship incredibly well, with great performances from both leads. Players have the option to guide their conversations in several ways by selecting dialogue options. Some of these can make the characters feel more confident, which helps increase their bond. You might feel that without the meet cute (a term describing how two characters meet and fall in love in films or series), it’s hard to see what makes these two click. Thankfully there is still a lot of flirting going on between the two of them. Yu and Kay are also unashamed of their horniness for each other and I love it. They will definitely take moments out of their day to make love and it increases their relationship and with it, the accompanying stats. Seriously, if Yu and Kay are damaged and you leave them idle for a bit, they will kiss and regain some health. The relationship is the core that ties everything together at all times from both a narrative and gameplay viewpoint.
The way I’ve described this game so far makes it sound like it’s a visual novel but thankfully the heart of the actual moment to moment gameplay is solid as well. Yu and Kay can glide along the planet's surface using an energy source called flow. By following along flow threads you can collect more energy but also clear up patches of rust that have stained all of the Islets on Source. This gliding almost feels like skating, where you make rapid dashes to quickly move over the different Islets. You can drift to keep your momentum but also unlock new abilities later on that can ward off enemies or be used in combat. The game uses a gorgeous cell-shaded style that, when combined with the unique design of the Islets and Source itself, feels inviting and mysterious at the same time. The Nest embraces the idea of feeling like a cozy and safe home for the protagonists. You can explore The Nest at any time and interact with the different gizmos, tools and resources available. Everything oozes style and personality, similarly to the main characters.
The main goal of exploring Source is to find resources for consumption, fruits and vegetables or exploring the ruins of a previous civilization that inhabited the planet. Along the way you encounter creatures that are covered in Rust, which triggers combat sequences. These differ quite a bit from the normal exploration. You can give Yu and Kay directions to either defend, use a ranged attack, a melee attack or to pacify the creatures. By pacifying all the enemies you complete the combat encounter and gain more bond between the two characters, essentially allowing them to level up. Attacks are selected by holding and releasing the corresponding face buttons or using the joysticks. There are also duo attacks, which are far more powerful but require a charge from both characters. The downside I found with combat is that the game automatically decides which of the enemies it targets with an attack. It’s hard to understand the combat at first, especially when certain attack types do little to no damage to certain enemies without a clear indication why. Thankfully this is improved later on by crafting tonics that increase the output of damage and also allow you to heal. Combat can escalate quite quickly and while I wouldn’t really call the game hard, I did frequently go out of my way to find a camp to safely heal up. Items can only be consumed at The Nest or at a camp, so keeping track of these locations is essential. This might sound like a drag, but honestly, it was just another reason to have more dialogue options with Yu and Kay.
And it’s this relationship that kept me so invested into Haven. The combat could get a little bit frustrating and the exploration does feel repetitive sometimes, but thanks to these characters everything clicks into place. That being said, I unfortunately have to note that the Switch version does have trouble keeping the game up and running. While I can live with an occasional frame rate dip, I’ve had the game crash on me several times during play, both in combat sequences, but also while exploring or during dialogue segments. Audio and visual glitches are also quite common, sometimes just muting all sound effects or music entirely. While I was hopeful when a patch released during the review period that was supposed to fix these things, unfortunately both the crashes and glitches never went away. Thankfully, every time you travel to another Islet the game does an auto save, so I never lost more than about 5 minutes of progress. That being said, this means that there are a lot of loading screens. Traveling from one location to another is always accompanied by a loading screen. Now I didn’t mind these too much, since the loading screen has these great illustrations of Yu and Kay during their relationship, but the screens are incredibly frequent. It’s clear that the Switch version needs some more work and that makes it hard for me to recommend this particular version at this time. The fact a patch was released during the review period however, makes me hopeful that The Game Bakers will be able to fix a lot of the pressing issues over time. But right now I think that you may want to wait a bit longer before playing Haven on Switch.
I stuck with Haven, throughout the crashes, the glitches and the slightly repetitive exploration, because I really fell in love with these characters. I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed being in their presence. Hearing them talk about their feelings for each other, their choices, their background and their doubt about fleeing the Apiary just made me connect with them. It feels good to see a relationship that comes across as more mature and developed in a video game. Something that isn’t there to satisfy people that ship in-game characters or gives them additional stats, but two characters that live together and struggle together. They each have a complete personality and to see that flourish, to see them flourish together, is something I have rarely if ever experienced in a game. Haven is not perfect, certainly not on Switch, but I would follow these characters to the edge of space and beyond.