Shattered Haven is an environmental puzzle game by Arcen games, the developers behind AI War and A Valley without Wind 1/2. As one of the few surivors of a zombie apocalypse, you struggle for your own life and those of your family while exploring the infested overworld and dozens of puzzle maps beyond it.
So... an environmental puzzle game?
Exactly! I had no clue either until I first launched the game. To a certain degree, Shattered Haven is an top-down adventure game, putting you in the role of Darrell Williams, one of the few survivors of the Zombie apocalypse who lives on a farm with his wife Mary and daughter Lela. One day he stumbles upon a young boy, Pierce, whos mother did not survive an attack by the Grays (=zombies), and decides to adopt him.
The still-image cutscenes look nice and do a good job at telling the story
Throughout the tutorial, you take control over Pierce exploring the surroundings. Soon a stranger shows up, calling for help at the outer gate of the farm, and opening it up unleashes the Gray horde into the compound, forcing Lela and Pierce to run away. While roaming mysterious burning forests heading east, you learn that Grays have a weakness to iron, so laying out traps of iron tacks which you find spread across the area is your best chance to survive. This, and running away, that is. Any tool or weapon in the game that is not iron, even pistols, are not deadly and will, best case, stun your enemies. Soon Lela and Pierce encounter a mysterious giant squid that seems to protect them? But does it really? And why?
Shattered Haven is not a pretty game
That's where the game swicthes over to Darrell and Mary fleeing from the horde of Grays that roams their farm and trying to pursue the kids. They soon encounter a strange Shadow Man that spawns portals across the map. That's where the puzzling comes into play: The overworld is split into diferent sections which each contain a certain amount of challenge maps accessible by said portals. Completing all puzzles of a section unlocks the next.
Each of the puzzle maps is self-contained, meaning it has its own inventory and gives you only those tools that you need to solve it, e.g. iron tacks, bear traps, shovels, axes or spears and pistols. That's where the "environmental" aspect comes into play, because you start each map with empty pockets while the tools are spread across the map. Finding the first and right tool quickly is essential, as right when you do your first step the Zombie horde will too and it's hard to dodge them for too long. Typically, the goal of each puzzle map is to kill all Grays and escape, while bonus goals like taking no harm or using only certain tools give you extra cash that you can spend in the overworld for much needed health crystals.
An exemplary puzzle could play like this: You run towards the first iron tacks, kill a Gray, run to the axe, chop a tree to access an otherwise blocked area, find a bear trap, trap 2 zombies that run after you through a maze, run into a house, find a spear, kill another zombie, exit the house through the backdoor, take a boat across the river, find 2 more tacks, kill the 2 left zombies.
Some of the puzzles are mazes, while others have you run for your life as the floor collapses, and again others leave you enough time to plan your moves ahead. Most of the time though, you'll be in a hurry fleeing zombies, and the game loves putting obstacles like trees in your way, so you'll desperatley run into dead ends without weapons. Finishing a puzzle map on first try happens rarely, and I often found myself trying the harder ones 10 times or more over.
One of the greater puzzle maps features a maze covered with pits and some grays trapped inbetween those gaps. Once you find a shovel, you can fill the gaps with sand and build your own path through the maze towards weapons and enemies. Taking them out one by one while having to take care of spaces to draw back, as some of the enemies take several "shots", is thrilling and fun.
This maze of gaps and plains was really enjoyable as the player can find his own pace and order of solving it
Unfortunately, for every well-designed challenge, there are two that are either boring, too repetitive or have you pull your own hair because of the difficulty. A negative example, and thankfully optional, is a dark maze that has you switch ledges and ignite torches, unlocking path after path further through the maze. Oddly, the map features secret passages that are invisible at first, so you have to literally run against the walls to find a secret passage. If you fail to ignite all torches, you can't finsih the maze, so the designers put up some signs like "don't give up, it's doable" or "maybe you overlooked a torch, look again in the left corner". Even this hint did not let me find the missing torch, so I gave up frustrated after 45 minutes. Why put up a silly sign? If you fail to design a level in a fashion that leads players to the solution step by step, why not re-design it. Having players hunt for pixels in a dark maze is a bad design choice from the very start imho, which is now proven again. Thanks Arcen!
This dark maze lets you search pixel torches and levers one by one until you can finally exit. Really?
That's a good example of the design flaws the game has. Interactive objects can't be distinguished from non-interactive ones, so it's trial and error for every door, table, crate (that oddly never seem to open) and so on. Even enemies: Some like the frozen zombies just stand around, so until you touch them and die you never know. Thus, its easy to overlook things on the map. The fact that items in your inventory have no description, even if you click them, does not help either. Sure, you could browse through the ingame encyclopedia until you spot them, but why?
Speaking of poor design choices: you can't save your game whenever you want either. So if you're stuck in a maze (like me) for 40 minutes, you can't just try finishing it the next day but instead have to re-start the level from scratch. Same goes for the overworld: If you die, you re-spawn from the last (portal) entry.
Shattered Haven is not a pretty game. It features retro-style top-down pixel graphics, though not as pixely as your typical 8 bit game. Instead, the game runs at a fixed resolution of 1024x768 (I believe), leaving you with big black borders around the actual map if you run it with a bigger resolution. The world is detailed, featuring objects like chairs and tables and TVs etc. but somehow lacks charm like other pixel games like Anodyne. The characters are too small and hard to spot on the map; in fact so hard that your first death on each puzzle map is virtually always caused by you not knowing your exact position and thus running into the next zombie.
The cutscenes, consisting of hand-drawn artsy still images, are great though, transporting a discomforting atmosphere of doomedness that the actual game world's design fails to visualize.
A highlight of the game is the soundtrack by Pablo Vega. Each area has its own track, sometimes melancholic orchestral, sometimes driving, sometimes discomforting. The narrator (Darrell) speaking throughout the cutscenes is a bit over the top but a nice addition to the stroytelling.
Overall, Shattered Haven is a unique attempt of combining a thrilling adventure story with puzzle game mechanics. While it has its shiny moments, certain design choices keep it from being as much fun as it could have been. One major issue is the pace of the stroy, as it doesn't proceed until you finish all the puzzles in a certain section, which can be draining and, at times, frustrating. The other is the game's lack to communicate: Putting up signs is not a good way to give hints, as the game world should convey these by its own means and stepping towards an interactible object should pop up some sort of textual information on how i can interact.
I would recommend this game to players who like this type of puzzle games and are not easily driven away by repetition or some almost-too-hard puzzles and below-average graphics. Anyone expecting a well-told, thrilling retro-style adventure game with fluent progression: This is not for you!
I'd give it a 6/10 + 1 bonus if you like this type of game.
Thanks to Arcen Games for the review copy!