Shattered Haven is a well-meaning game with crippling communication issues. At times, it underestimates you, offering blatant written solutions to its environmental puzzles. These moments leave your brain tightly wound and ready to solve problems if only it were given the chance. Other times, this top-down adventure expects you to perform specific actions while giving no direct indication that such actions are even possible. Yet there are times when the hints, level design, enemy placement, and provided equipment all work in conjunction to deliver a challenging and rewarding experience. These welcome scenarios reveal the kind of experience that Shattered Haven could have offered throughout.
The game's story does not stretch the limits of imagination, though Arcen Games deserves credit for engineering its own unique twists on popular zombie lore. The undead--called "grays" in this world--have roamed the planet for nine long years, forcing the battered pockets of humanity into seclusion. One couple, Darrell and Mary Williams, was fortunate enough to fortify a farm and have a daughter amid the chaos. Years pass, and Darrell encounters a young boy whose mother was killed by grays. He takes in the newcomer, even though their water reserves are dwindling. Later, you have the option to select from branching story paths, which influences the game's characters and outcome. The story is told primarily through dialogue boxes, but you're occasionally presented with illustrated, voice-acted panels. The acting is flat and unconvincing, though it would admittedly be difficult to make lines like "They're like miniature adults instead of truly being children" sound authentic in this context.
The tutorial puts you in control of the kids, who are beckoned to the farm's gate when a survivor begs for sanctuary. You're taught to fight back against encroaching grays, not with headshots, but with iron (which is poisonous to zombies), water, and fire. The game is played from an overhead perspective, and you navigate its maps in real time. Items like iron spikes, lanterns, hammers, and bear traps can be picked up and thrown, dropped, or swung using hotkeys. Most levels include shrubbery, some of which can be chopped down using the appropriate items, and water, which is navigable with a raft or a canoe, for example. Offensive items are usually limited, so proper deployment is crucial.
Not long into the tutorial, the game introduces you to a giant squid. This creature exemplifies Shattered Haven's biggest problem. You're just getting a handle on the mechanics when the squid shamelessly bumps you out from under the limelight. It kills every gray in sight and continues to kill any incoming enemies for quite some time. As a new player, you need this time to familiarize yourself with the game's systems, but Shattered Haven doesn't have the restraint to let that understanding arise naturally.
The game eventually opens into an overworld containing several standard challenge maps and the trickier bonus levels. Once you've completed every standard map in the overworld, the story progresses and you move on to another overworld. Each map has a series of objectives to complete, most of which are optional. Typically, the goal is to kill the grays and escape, though you often earn more cash for not taking damage, for killing enemies in a certain order, or for not using certain equipment. Because money is a precious commodity--used to purchase health upgrades, weapons, and more--there's a strong incentive to replay the more fun levels with an altered style of play.
Shattered Haven's visuals are charmingly simplistic, looking like something out of RPG Maker. However, the character sprites are too small, and you often struggle to find yourself on the screen. Because the action--and the danger--begins once you take your first step, it's frustrating to lose valuable time or health just because you were hunting for your character.
Though not all levels are fun, the sheer variety they exhibit is impressive to behold. One excellent map is covered in gaping pits that can be filled only once you obtain a shovel on the opposite side. After acquiring the tool, you're free to make your own path toward other weapons and enemies. Some stronger enemies require a few attacks to kill instead of one, so ensuring you have room to maneuver and backpedal becomes a crucial matter of preparation. In times like these, Shattered Haven forces you to consider your plan of attack or face dire consequences.
Another wonderful level drops you deep into a fog-covered swamp. The goal is to kill just one gray and then escape. You take one quick step before dozens of hidden zombies maul you. On the next attempt, you move more slowly, navigating your way through a crowd of still but hypersensitive undead. On the other side of the swamp you find a grenade, which, unlike a melee weapon, is sure to attract every enemy in the vicinity. What are you going to do? The game uses your failure to teach you a lesson, which you overcome, and just when you expect mercy in the form of a quick, quiet weapon, you're confronted with an explosive new predicament.
Unfortunately, for every well-designed challenge, there are two that are too difficult, too simple, or just plain uninteresting. The most egregious offender, which showcases nearly all of Shattered Haven's problems, is a darkened maze where you must flip switches and light torches. These actions bring about changes elsewhere in the level, allowing forward progress. On its own, fumbling through a dark labyrinth and hunting for pixels is boring, but in one corner of the map, there's a sign with the following inscribed on it: "If you can't find your way through, then you've missed lighting a torch, or you've missed flipping a switch. Look carefully in the upper left, a lot of people miss that torch." The sign speaks to Shattered Haven's messaging failures. Instead of routing you toward the torch with clever level design, or pointing you in its direction with stronger visual cues, the game solves the conundrum for you.
That same level includes a similar sign near the beginning urging you to not give up, though the task may seem impossible. As it turns out, one stone column in a row of nearly identical stone columns is not solid, yet the single column that is visually different from the others isn't even the traversable one. In this case, you're expected to bang your head against a wall until it eventually floats right through. Yet elsewhere, a sign informs you of a particular enemy's strengths. That Shattered Haven can't let its design do the talking is baffling.
Many other levels are simply procedural. You see devices strewn about, you retrieve them however you can, you kill the required number of grays, and then you escape. Some areas have special death traps, including abyss-like pits that you can open and close. Others require you to immobilize enemies in bear traps or stun them with handgun rounds. These tasks introduce some much-needed variety during the game's more stagnant areas.
Shattered Haven does have a few promising additional features. Local co-op is available for the standard story mode--yes, two players can share a keyboard. The necessary control keys are split up on opposite sides of the device to keep your hands from bumping into your friend's. The game features controller support, so you can use separate hardware if you wish. There's also a full-featured level editor that lets you create a scenario from scratch or edit existing maps. This game is capable of providing tense, brain-racking environmental puzzles, so it could be neat to see what the community creates in the months ahead.
Shattered Haven is a game brimming with promise that ended up buried under its own insecurities. You'll forget many of its too-similar puzzles, and the joy of completing some of the better ones are dampened by the game's insistence on thinking for you. In the end, what you want most is for Shattered Haven to strengthen its nonverbal communication skills, put a firm hand on your shoulder, and say, "Go. You can do this."