Arcen Games, the developers who brought us A Valley Without Wind, now brings us a new horror adventure about family and survival. Released in March for the PC and Mac, Shattered Haven promises (and, technically, delivers) hundreds of puzzles to solve, a vast array of environments to explore, and hordes of zombies to annihilate.
Yes, it’s another undead story. There’s even a guy named Darrell, though sadly he’s not played by Norman Reedus. The main characters are Darrell Williams, his wife Mary, their daughter Lela, and Pierce, a young boy the Williamses take in after his mother is attacked and presumed dead. The narrative revolves around the separation of the adults from the children (who disappear off into the woods when Pierce spots his mother and chases after her), and the family’s attempts to stay alive long enough to be reunited again. Playing as characters from both sides, your job is to solve puzzles and kill zombies – referred to in this game as Grays – as they fight for survival.
No, it’s not the most original idea, but the developers deserve some props for trying to deviate even a little from the usual zombie mythos. Grays don’t shamble along in that maddeningly slow zombie walk that makes protagonists who can’t get away look like real idiots – Grays are quicker, not quite as fast (or as scary) as the infected of 28 Days Later, but certainly harder to outrun than some half-decayed corpse crawling along the sidewalk.
In addition, Grays are fatally allergic to iron – apparently just touching it can mean instant death for the weaker ones. (Which raises the question of how they digest the iron in blood – but I digress.) There’s also something weird going on with one big guy and some odd portals, but I can’t say more than that without crossing the spoiler line. The sprites for the Grays are a little creepy – especially when they pop out unexpectedly from a dark, shadowy corner and kill you – but seeing so many so early in the game will desensitize most players fairly quickly, and what little tension is left in the game arises from trying not to die before finishing a puzzle, for fear you’ll have to do it all over again.
But the real problem with Shattered Haven’s story – which is a problem I have with most zombie stories, to be honest – is not the undead/infected population, but a lack of connection with the living characters. With very limited (and somewhat unconvincing) voice acting and sprites so small they are easily lost in the forest of pixels, characterization relies on dialogue – unfortunately, the writing falls a bit flat, and the main characters feel little more alive than the Grays that are hunting them.
There’s also a question of motivation. The main goal of pretty much every puzzle is to kill all the Grays in a given area – but if the family’s main goal is to live and find each other, why in the name of Romero would they waste time trying to hunt down and kill every single Gray in town? If the characters were out for revenge – in the name of some fallen friend or family member, perhaps – it would make sense, but in the Williams’ case, going out of your way (sometimes even traveling to an alternate world) to kill everything just seems like a terrible idea.
Speaking of puzzles – and yes, there are a lot of them – roleplaying fans should know that, despite the fact the game looks like it lumbered straight out of RPG Maker, it really is more of an adventure puzzler. Solving mazes and environmental conundrums is necessary to make progress, as a certain number of them must be completed in order to advance to the next area.
This is where things get interesting, as Shattered Haven’s performance in this regard is wildly uneven, and there’s no telling whether the next puzzle will be too easy, too hard, or just right. At times the game practically throws itself between you and the zombies in a well-meaning attempt at chivalry (or perhaps just a lack of self-confidence), all but giving you the answer to a riddle. In the beginning, a giant red squid shows up out of the blue and, for no apparent reason, kills all the Grays for you. Other times you’ll find yourself doing the same darn level over and over again because you keep getting killed at the last second, thanks to your relatively low damage threshold and the fairly high number of things that can hurt you. Thankfully, there is some clever design work going on, and there are many other puzzles are well-made and challenging – it’s just a shame they aren’t all that way.
But if there’s one thing Shattered Haven delivers consistently, it’s quantity. For every area, there are multiple puzzles (often including bonus levels as well) to solve, and it seems like each puzzle takes place in a whole new environment. The graphics, as previously mentioned, aren’t much to write home about, but the great amount of variety in the setting keeps even aggravating puzzles from being boring and makes you feel just how big the world is – and just how (very) small you are in comparison.
The music helps create a creepy, lonely vibe as well. Pablo Vega’s haunting score gives the game a much-needed injection of goose bumps, as does the gorgeous artwork; I could stare all day at the menu art and the illustrated panels on display during Darrell’s narration.
Shattered Haven is a game with good intentions and an obvious amount of work put into it. It tries hard, but in the end, it’s like bringing a knife to a zombie fight – not extremely effective, and a wee bit messy. Still, it has its moments, and fans of puzzles and the undead may want to give it a good look. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a demo version, but the full game can be purchased via several different methods on the official site.[review pros="Vast amount of puzzles and other content, wide variety in environments, introduces some unique twists to zombie themes, creepy score and beautiful still artwork" cons="Inconsistent difficulty level and puzzle design, sprites too small and are easily lost on-screen, lacking in characterization and original plot " score=65]