What we know for sure
Arcen Games, creators of AI Wars and Valley Without Wind 2, are about to release their latest title, Shattered Haven. It's an old school, top down survival horror game that centres on puzzle solving and storyline, very reminiscent of the original JRPGs back when games first started to have serious narratives and story lines.
This game has story in spades. It all takes places roughly nine years after the zombie apocalypse, in a world where the zombies are called 'grey' and they are unaffected by steel but are fatally sensitive to iron and water. This makes most modern tools useless against them, but some simpler items like nails are deadly weapons. For the most part you play as Darrell and Mary, a married couple who, despite the chaos of the world is in, have managed to stay safe and even have a child, Lela. Then one day while out searching for supplies, Darrell comes across a mother and child surrounded by greys. At the end of the battle all the greys lie dead, but so does the mother. Darrell takes the child and carries him back to his house, unaware that this simple act will be that catalyst for the destruction of his relatively peaceful life.
When gameplay kicks in you play as the boy Darrell found out in the wild. Through speaking to Lela and exploring your new surroundings you find his mother has been turning into a grey, but different to any grey that’s been seen before. The boy, overrun by curiosity and a naive desire to save his mother, chases after her as she flees back into the woods, with Lela running after him, leaving the gate open for other greys to charge into Darrell and Mary’s house.
Darrell wakes to this nasty surprise and quickly finds Mary, but no children. This is where the game really kicks in; you have to leave your now overrun sanctuary and go back into the world to find the children. It’s also where the game lost me a little.
Now I love books; I’ve even written a few myself. I also love reading; it’s one of my favourite ways to pass the time. I am however, not a fan of having to read computer games, and Shattered Haven has pages of contexts and dialoguing on almost every new screen. It’s very good, it’s a very well thought out story with some new twists on this very well established genre. I particularly like how they point out how different Lela’s childhood is compared to that of her parents, highlighting that she’s never actually met another child. However, I personally find that stopping the game to read through a few pages of explanation and dialogue takes me out of the whole experiences and the game looses its hold on me. I have the same problem when a game goes from cut scene to cut scene with only a few minutes of actual play in between.
The gameplay is very straight forward; you enter a new main area which leads off to however many puzzle screens you have to solve to get to the next area. Controls are up, down, left, right, E, 1,2,3,4 it’s that simple. The puzzles involve killing all the greys in that area with the resource you’re given. This is where Shattered Haven really shines in my opinion. It’s quite a simple premise ,but they’ve taken it and used it to its full potential. There are puzzles where you can’t see what’s going on and have to navigate a maze of greys that will all attack you if you touch just one, then there are ones that are totally open and clear areas that you have to get through as quickly as possible, and so much more. It really gets the brain working and makes you think, and each puzzle is different and interesting in their own way. Sure, sometimes you want to throw the computer across the room, but if a game can invoke that kind of emotional response in you it’s doing something right.
Sunshine and lollipops it isn’t.
Now I’ve been playing the beta, so there are updates every other day. I can’t be too mean, but there are times when the game simply stops working, and I mean 'can’t pick up the items required to solve the puzzle' broken. Of course, a few hours later there is another update and that’s all fixed, so I can’t really complain. But I still have a problem or two with this game.
As I mentioned before, it’s not in my personal taste to have to read a few pages of text every time I enter a new area to stay on top of the very detailed storyline. Also, I loved the first half an hour of the game; you follow the children, the story is engaging, intriguing and different. Then you reach the point where it swaps over to the adults, and suddenly seems to take a turn. The aim is to find the missing children, but it’s also suddenly more complicated than it needs to be. It’s possible that I’ve just played it strangely, but in my experience, I know which direction the children went and the game has actively restricted me from following them. Darrell sees that his house is overrun and he’ll never return to it because he’s so sad at its destruction, even though walking past it would be the quickest route to finding the kids.
It’s not all bad news
As broken as it can be, and as annoying and not-my-style-of-game as it can be, Shattered Haven does get it right a lot more of the time than it gets it wrong. The way they’ve taken the seemingly simple gameplay and puzzle dynamic and stretched it to its absolute limit is amazing. I really had to wrack my brain trying to not just solve the puzzles, but solve them well, trying to find the most efficient way to get to the next level. Also at the end of every new area you get a little graphic novel style cut scene voiced by a man named Prince, who is apparently a friend of the game's musical composer Pablo Vega, who is absolutely fantastic. He voices the intro and, in just a few minutes of dialogue, completely wraps the premise of the story around you. I wish he'd voiced the whole game. The richness of his voice makes this game for me. Eventually what kept me playing was the hope that at the end of an area I’d reach another cut scene, he’s that good.
It’s a tough one. If you’re into retro top down games you will absolutely love Shattered Haven. If you, like me, feel that having to stop playing to read for fifteen minutes takes you out of the gaming experience, you will struggle with this game. I can tell you that the gameplay is worth slogging through the boring bits and that the cut scenes in my opinion are really worth it. But all in all, although I struggled with this game because of personal taste, it's actually very, very good. However you will find stages that make you want to punch walls and throw things and other stages that you can solve perfectly without a worry. In short, this has become a game that I love to hate. It infuriates me but at the same time once I start playing, hours disappear.