Developer: Arcen Games
I've said it before and I'll say it again: established genres mean nothing to Arcen Games. From the sublime fusion of 4X and RTS mechanics in AI War to A Valley Without Wind's compelling mix of exploration, strategy and platforming, the innovative indie outfit always attempts to create something new and exciting rather than falling back on staid convention.
For their next trick: a score attack environmental retro-styled action survival puzzler with an intimate family storyline set during a zombie apocalypse. Ta-da!
Shattered Haven certainly has all the right pieces to create another cult classic, and though they sometimes don't fit together as elegantly as they should, this recklessly avant-garde experiment is much more than just another zombie game.
The opening tutorial section sets the tone nicely. Having managed to build a happy home nine years since the world was wracked by the nightmarish Grays, an infestation that twists humans and animals into disgusting mindless forms while the Earth itself rots into festering pits, the wholesome Williams family are rocked by the arrival of a mysterious boy who's been separated from his parents. After their daughter goes missing due to what can only be described as a squid-related mishap, Darrell and Mary have to set out into the world to keep their family together. Despite some mediocre voice acting and instances of clumsily-constructed dialogue, the branching storyline proves to be immensely compelling, not least because it draws upon powerful themes of separation, loss and isolation.
However, this is merely the premise for a selection of self-contained puzzles and bonus levels held together by a basic overworld structure. Controlling Darrell (and Mary, should you decide to use the local multiplayer functionality) from a distant overhead perspective, you'll descend into a smorgasbord of over 100 labyrinthine challenge rooms, most of which requires you to defeat a certain number of Grays before finding an exit. Grays are vulnerable to iron and water, while capable of quickly killing an unprepared player, ensuring that you'll need to make the most of the tools available in each area to manipulate the scenery and arena to your advantage.
With offensive weaponry and usable inventory space at a premium, and money for upgrades constantly tight, to fail to plan is to die in shameful ignominy. Which, as it turns out, is actually okay since this is a puzzle game rather than a true survival horror experience. The pleasing variety of environmental hazards and opportunities means that each area needs to be approached in different ways, and there's certainly a wealth of content to sink your teeth into.
An eyecatching retro aesthetic holds everything together, overshadowing the simple level geometry and evoking a genuinely creepy atmosphere with effective lighting, liberal use of menacing shadow and a chilling soundtrack.
If you're looking for a trite analogy, it's a little like a gritty 16-bit fusion of classic Zelda games with underrated Xbox puzzler Grabbed By The Ghoulies. Except nothing like that, because as we've already covered, Arcen don't play by anyone else's rules.
Though enjoyable in the main, especially as a little and often distraction, this fusion of puzzles and atmospheric almost-horror never quite gels. The fact that you're constantly being driven by points rather than survival means that it's difficult to fully immerse yourself in the experience, while the distant perspective, overtly utilitarian 'gamey' overworld structure and tiny character sprites distance you from the story and makes the cast difficult to relate to. You're constantly aware that you're playing a puzzle game, despite the effective lighting and soundtrack, to the extent where you can swallow a poison pill to reset your progress at any time. Maintaining tension is tricky when you've got a reset button built into the GUI. And when you're worrying about score rather than the Williams' plight, you know that priorities have gone slightly awry.
This would be palatable if the puzzles always held up, but unfortunately Shattered Haven's challenge curve is utterly bonkers. Indeed, 'curve' is a bit of a misnomer. Difficulty schizophrenically ricochets between genuinely challenging and hilariously easy, not just because of several unintuitive level design choices, but because any number of puzzles literally tell you how to complete them with a fourth-wall breaking signpost. There's a disappointing sleepwalk and obnoxiously obtuse brick wall for every satisfying solution, stopping Shattered Haven from becoming that sought-after middle ground for puzzle fans and horror aficionados alike.
As always, you can count on Arcen to comprehensively update Shattered Haven in line with player feedback over the coming months, and the supplied level editor means that the community can pump out a host of after-market content or address some of the more egregious existing levels. There's still plenty to recommend if you're looking for something different yet comfortably familiar, but I can't help but feel that this resembles a concept piece for something much, much greater. Whether Arcen will refine their concept or embark on yet another brave experiment remains to be seen.
- Effective environmental puzzling
- Plenty of levels, upgrades and surprisingly compelling storyline
- Can be genuinely creepy, masterful soundtrack
- Erratic challenge curve with some stupidly easy and obnoxiously obtuse solutions
- Businesslike utilitarian structure makes the story, world and horror difficult to invest in
- Frequently fails to sustain tension and atmosphere
The Short Version: Shattered Haven is a refreshingly unique take on puzzles and zombie-themed survival horror, but never quite manages to make the most of either side of its split personality. An acquired taste, then, but one that rewards logical thinking and patience with a bevy of content.