Haven is something truly special. Videogames seem to struggle with meaningful depictions of romance anywhere outside of the otome and dating sim niche—and as much as I love otome games, romance is something that should be far more universal, and there’s a lot of untapped potential in approaching romance through different styles of play. So to have a game like Haven that tells a genuinely romantic, heartfelt, beautiful tale through the familiar structure of an RPG is truly welcome.
Yu and Kay are two lovers on the run from a society that would never let them be together. In the Apiary, marriage is determined by a system called the “Matchmaker”—a scientifically-calculated compatibility designed to ensure the most successful and productive unions. Generally speaking, people are happy with it—”it’s not perfect, but it’s better than anything else”—but there are always those who want more, who want love.
Until now, nobody’s been able to escape the Matchmaker, but Yu and Kay found a way. With a rickety old spaceship kept alive by Yu’s engineering expertise, they managed to flee the Apiary and find a new home on an uninhabited planet called Source. Though the threat of being hunted down by the Apiary always sits in the back of their minds, the planet’s abundance of food and “Flow” energy that powers their spaceship-turned-home (“The Nest”), they’ve got what they need to get by for a while, until they can fix up the Nest for another jump to another planet, further away from the reaches of the Apiary and the matchmaker.
It’s a story about the love that Yu and Kay have for one another and the lengths they’ll go to protect it. Romance runs through every facet of Haven, from the way the two lovebirds hold hands as they fly around Source’s grassy fields with their rocket boots, to a battle system that emphasises their partnership and efforts to protect one another, to the multitude of little romantic moments tied to everything from cooking food to crafting.
Most of all, it’s a love that feels genuine and authentic. There are moments of playful teasing, vulnerabilities on display as they talk about their very different pasts, simple little romantic displays and grand gestures, petty squabbles that Yu and Kay manage to work out before they escalate. Though Haven isn’t an explicit game, there’s an ever-present sexual energy between the two—more than the simple, sexy fun of new lovers exploring one another, but the passion of two people who’ve been together forever and still find themselves completely enamoured with one another to the point that almost any activity can turn into sex.
It’s the kind of nuanced, mature, and honest approach to sex and relationships that we don’t see nearly often enough in videogames. In Haven, love and sex aren’t prizes to be won for a game well played, or a means some particular end—they’re just part of the fabric of Yu and Kay’s reality. In the biggest moments and the smallest, it’s a game that’s truly driven by its romance.
It’s not a relationship that’s without challenges, either. Both Yu and Kay have abandoned their entire lives to be together, and the Apiary doesn’t take kindly to deserters. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that their old lives find a way of coming back to haunt them, forcing the two to make the toughest decisions of their lives and testing the strength of their love more than they ever could have imagined. But when you love someone—when you really, truly love someone—that love can carry you through anything.
Much of Haven revolves around the couple exploring Source, a fascinating planet made up of little floating islands connected by bridges made of Flow—the same energy that powers the Nest and the rocket boots that Yu and Kay use to get around. Flow has a way of concentrating into little threads that the couple can ride, almost like grinding rails in some sort of ethereal JetSet Radio. These threads are the main way of getting around and accessing different areas of each map, and they make the simple act of moving about feel exhilarating.
Source is also covered in a strange, alien mineral (“Rust”) that has a way of turning the planet’s otherwise peaceful native wildlife hostile. Encounters with such creatures take a creative riff on the familiar turn-based battle system that emphasises the partnership and collaboration between Yu and Kay. Each character has a melee attack, a range attack, and a shield that they can use independently and, barring the charge time for each action, as freely as the like, but just having each character do their own thing is a good way to get yourself knocked out.
Rather, it’s about figuring out how to coordinate each character’s actions so that they complement one another—like having one defend (and cover the other) while the other charges an attack, timed to hit the foe in the brief moment of vulnerability during its recovery, having the two charge up like attacks in sync so they can pair up for a powerful (but slow) duo attack, or alternating attacks back and forth for a sustained assault, as the case may be. Different situations and different will call for different approaches, and even with just two characters and a relatively limited set of different available actions, Haven finds room for a lot of room for different combat puzzles requiring different strategies to solve.
That same philosophy feeds into much of Haven‘s approach to the RPG genre—instead of some grand, save-the-world adventure, Haven is short, focused, and meaningful. A simple crafting system designed around a few key ingredients that can be combined in different ways establishes Yu and Kay’s newfound connection to source without letting that get lost amid systematic minutiae. A two-person party from start to finish, with both of them sharing one level and experience being tied to moments of bonding rather than just combat victories and quest completion, makes Yu and Jay’s growing relationship the driving force of (mechanical) character development.
Rather than dragging things out to meet some arbitrary notion of how long an RPG “should be”, Haven just takes as long as it needs for the story it wants to tell—around 12 hours, give it take—with systems scoped to match. It is, by design, a chill RPG rather than a deep and complex one, but it’s all the more impactful for its (relative) brevity and proves that short-form RPGs can be just as effective as those huge, sweeping epics.
Haven‘s gorgeous art style ties this all together. Source looks and feels like something out of a dream: bright and vibrant, but with a carefully-chosen colour palette that emphasises blues, reds, and greens. There’s an anime influence in the character designs, but with its own interpretation of that style that creates something wholly unique.
The result is a game that’s utterly beautiful, in both style and theme. With its intimate spin on the RPG formula and tale of two people in love giving up everything to be together, Haven is a work of genuine romance, the likes of which we don’t see nearly enough of in videogames.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.