I was instantly in love with Haven Park when I saw it – and not just because “cozy camping” might be my favorite aesthetic.
In some ways, it's simple to see why – the colorful characters and world just have an inherent charm.
In other ways, it's tricky to put to words.
I have a hard time pinning down precisely what the game is; it's about you becoming the caretaker of a nature park, but that's more of a plot synopsis than anything. It's not quite a “walking simulator”, and its puzzle elements are fairly light. Your core, over-arching objectives call to mind a park-management simulator or a “builder” game, but that doesn't entirely capture what it's about, either.
The real core of Haven Park is exploration; not just of new areas, but re-exploration of places you already know. To discover a place, then spend the hours making it deeply familiar. Exploring your own abilities and self-confidence as you turn the dark woods into your own backyard.
And who doesn't love a jaunt through the forest out back?
Despite its sizable map, much of the joy of Haven Park is in how it can feel small, almost like a toybox. The viewpoint character, Flint, comes across as a child saddled with the duties of an adult. An adult who deeply cares about him and offers assuring words at every opportunity, to be sure. But it's still clearly more than he's up for.
And it feels like more than you're up for at the beginning, too. Your little notebook isn't much to go by, and the map within is intentionally-vague. All the trees and hills are appealingly simple, but that makes it all the easier to lose your sense of direction, even in the short jaunt to the nearest campsite.
But then you reach that first landmark. You build a little campfire. An adorable little hiker – an earthy-brown bird to Flint's bright yellow – wanders in to ask for directions.
And Flint tells the visitor (and, by extension, the player) a path to get around the park.
And you gain a smidgen of confidence. Yeah, you'll get through this.
Things will be okay in the long run.
That said, Haven Park is consistent from start to finish, both in its comforts and in its shortcomings. You're going to be doing a lot of semi-aimless wandering in the woods. The map isn't going to be nearly as detailed as in big-name, triple-A games. In fact, the game as a whole is almost deliberately simple, for better and for worse.
Sometimes, that means a pleasant round of hide-and-seek with a cartoon fox. Sometimes, it means having to get “close enough” with how you fill a campsite with teepees and hot-dog stands. You may want to keep the sites looking low-key and natural, but it's still a game, and the campers still have a wishlist you need to tick off.
Simplicity is a charming look, to be sure, but sometimes it's not a deliberate choice.
I give a lot of leeway to small teams who punch above their weight, and the solo developer of Haven Park absolutely fits the bill. From how I found it three months ago to watching the developer put out updates week after week, this is the kind of game that's working hard to find catch the wind it deserves.
It's the developer's first time out, just like how it's your first foray into the park, and how it's Flint's first time taking on Spider-Man levels of Great Responsibility. That's a heavy-handed metaphor, sure, but it works.
And just that little bit of out-of-game knowledge goes a long way toward understanding how some elements can be a bit sticky.
None of Haven Park‘s paper cuts stood directly between me and enjoying my time. But these things are ever-present. Little Flint is just a titch clunky at scaling hills for such a light bird. Typos crop up in the dialogue every now and again. There's no way to tell where in the park the last three broken fences are.
A lot of these nitpicks are getting better with time; between my first play session in June and completing the game in August, the script has been ironed over, bugs have been squashed, and everything feels just a bit smoother.
But there's always more work to do, and the spots that need work still stick out.
By the time I reached the last area, I was still really jonesing for a fast-travel option.
Are You Enjoying Your Stay?
Still, you can sit there and pick apart the hard details of a game from dawn until dusk, list out a bunch of categories and assign numbers to them all. But at the end of the day, arguably the most important thing is what it feels like to actually playing it. And for me, that feeling is a deep, comforting sense of calm.
Haven Park is a game without a fail state. You can build your tents in the all wrong places, tear them down, and then limp in shame to the next campsite while your patrons bemoan sleeping on the cold, hard ground. And still the only thing you'll lose is time, because eventually the forest will keep producing wood and fiber as it always has.
For such a relatively short experience, Haven Park is the kind of game that rewards your time – in fact, if the developer doubled or tripled the size of this map, I would spend weeks happily learning it inside and out. Unlike so many huge “open worlds” comprised of flat plains, it feels like there's no wasted space in the park. Every hill is strange and unfamiliar when you first see it, and a memorable landmark on your tenth viewing.
Flint keeps a paper map that you can find in the pause menu, sure. But the real map is kept in the player's head. And in that way, I felt a deep connection with this environment that I so rarely have with other games. Very appropriately, I started out feeling literally lost in the woods, but soon felt surrounded by something of a second home.
It doesn't hurt that the patrons are almost childishly kind, or that every acre has an Easter egg or two squirreled away. But I navigating from Sunshine Cove to the northern Atoll by memory gives me a deeper joy than as I feel from finding the last firefly for an arbitrary fetch quest. Both are valid ways to enjoy the game, to be sure, but the former feels unique to Haven Park in a way that makes me want to dwell there longer than I strictly need to.
Somewhere around the third hour of play, you pass a tipping-point and start to feel perfectly at home. And then, every tree and hill becomes a familiar source of joy.
If I can be even more indulgent for a moment:
When you're not near anything, the Action button makes little Flint chirp up with a cute little “Pew”. It's a tiny touch, and it's silly, and it never ever ever gets old.
If you need any proof at all that Haven Park is deeply, inseparably about appreciating small joy in the world, here's your sign.
There are plenty of reasons why Haven Park might not be your cup of tea. It's on the short side – I have two save files, one at 100% completion, and I've still only clocked 6 hours. In that time, it's a lot of walking, which some people will find annoyingly repetitive. And it's hard to ignore that, despite its polished design, the game still has its share of rough patches.
But I personally adored Haven Park. It's a game that's focused on feelings and experiences, and it delivers on through charming art and sound direction all the way down to meditative gameplay and a quaint story. And, most poignantly of all, I just feel calm when playing it. It's small and intimate and friendly, the gaming equivalent of a reassuring word and a hug around your shoulder.
And if that sounds the least bit appealing, you owe it to yourself to give it a go.