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Red's Read on Space Haven

By Red Thomas on July 17, 2020 | Columns | 0

If I have a regret, it’s that I didn’t play Space Haven sooner.   We’ll just get it out in the open early on that I really liked this game and I’m going to recommend it almost without equivocation.  There’ll be a few caveats at the end in my typical fashion where I really stretch to invent a reason people might not want to play this game, but the truth will be that I’m just stretching for the sake of appearances.

So, come in and pull up a chair.  Watch me pretend to be unbiased for a couple thousand words while I delve into all the things about Space Haven that hit my personal sweet spot.  Yes, I know that not everyone will like the game as much as I do, but I’ve slipped into a bit of a child-like state of happiness and just can’t really see much past my own joy for the moment.  I’ll give my best attempt at adulting, but no promises.

Rogue-Like

A lot of indie games have adopted this similar system of Rogue-like randomly generated content, and I’m actually a big fan of it as a design choice.  It rules out a lot of game development overhead by creating an automatic excuse for imbalance.  In more traditional projects, the game has to have a carefully crafted power curve, which of course is blown out of the water the moment a player tries something the developer didn’t think of.

Each new system has a limited set of initial resources, including derelict ships.  New ships will appear in the system with various levels of hostility, so systems aren’t static.

Rogue-like randomly generated content completely dodges that bullet by immediately making it okay if the content is too easy or too hard, because it’s randomly generated and will be a mix of both, which the player naturally forgives.  This saves truckloads of development time and cost because less play-testing is required and developers aren’t pulled off of content development to fix progression imbalances.

It’s part of what I really like about games like Space Haven and Rimworld, because it means a single investment offers countless experiences and opportunities to replay the game.  Additionally, simple updates to the client expand the game exponentially.  Compared to the more traditional model with a linear story, each new mechanic introduced initiates a whole new balance pass through the entire game.  This slows the introduction of new context, drives up development costs, and introduces more room for bugs and errors.

Thus, the choice of Rogue-like content generation by Bugbyte was a very smart move and one of the key reasons why I not only like Space Haven as it is but expect to increasingly like it more over time.  Each new introduction of additional in-game systems will expand the options for how you play the game and from there the dynamic stories you partly create for yourself through the choices you make as you play.

The game is even thematically well suited to Rogue-like elements, as well.  Each dynamically generated system you can jump into not only comes prepopulated with a randomized environment, but new ships arbitrarily jump in and out of the system.  Whether those ships are friendly or not and whether they have items to trade or not, all go into a randomly generated story.

It’s a system that easily allows the devs to add new types of resources, unique systems, and unique NPCs over time.  Those updates can be enabled or disabled on demand and with no effect on the playability of the client.  I’m a big fan of flexibility and it’s something in this case that’s baked into Space Haven.  The business guy in me sees a very cost-effective develop and update system with a lot of room for expansion, and that translates to a very healthy project.

Early ship-builds are just about functionality, but soon you find yourself trying to arrange the ship into sections and aesthetics will take on some importance.

Fine Arts

My enjoyment of Space Haven isn’t limited to the technical side of things, either.  There are a lot of very intelligent art choices in the game that are worth bragging about.  For one, the pixelated style has started to get a little old for me, but Bugbyte managed to bring me back around again.

The colors in Space Haven are built around this blue palette, but with highlights of red that really pop out at you without being jarring.  I found the style very nostalgic and it takes me back to being a kid and watching shows like Galaxy Rangers, DinoRiders, and Voltron, not to mention the tons of anime that I came to discover and love later as I moved off to college.

The UI is far better done than I had thought at first.  Upon first glance, I thought it was this odd mix of minimalism and busy.  The relatively simple UI presents in that minimal style, but then the depth of the game’s mechanics drive a lot of complexity behind that initially presented simplicity.  In a strange way, the UI developer has actually managed to capture a great deal of depth and present it in very usable fashion that doesn’t detract from the game.

The moment the title screen loaded, this game was telling me that I would have fun and enjoy my experience.

And let’s all be honest for a bit.  If we had a problem with some of the procedurally generated games like Rimworld, it would be the complex UI required to manage that depth of gameplay that we love so much about the game.  That’s a challenge in Space Haven, just as it is in any other similar game, but I really feel the developers managed to contextualize all the relevant information in a way that makes navigating the interface far easier.  More importantly, when not looking for specific information, the UI keeps that superfluous data out of your way so that you can enjoy the environment.

You might not think of space as being much of an environment to enjoy, but the gambit of asteroids, moons, planets, and other space-based backdrops make for wonderful scenery as you struggle to keep your crew alive and expand operations on your ship.  All of it backed with an exceptional score that perfectly defines the mood of the game with a touch of sadness, a splash of loneliness, a scoop of hope, and just the barest pinch of fear.

Space Haven won my heart almost as soon as I launched the game with one of the most beautiful title screens I’ve ever seen and the haunting vocals of the introductory track establishing the emotional expectations for the game moving forward.  I know this seems like such a small thing, but this is easily one of the best main title screens I’ve ever seen and that sets the tone for the rest of the game.  Look out, Jeremy Soule.  Paul Zimmermann has something special and may be giving you a run for your money as the go-to composer in a few years.

Zimmermann shows fantastic understanding of the medium and gifted ability to merge expressive melody in a quietly understated way that adds to the video game experience without trying to compete with it.  That’s not a common feat among even highly experienced composers, as the desire to see yourself featured pushes compositional aggression that ends up being more detractive than supportive.   Like the best thematic composers, Zimmermann summarizes his desired narrative in a few melodic notes and then takes a step back to allow the scene to develop.  The result is a masterful elevation of the whole as his subtle support pours emotion into the player’s ear, extracting the desired mood without effort or notice.

Heart’s Content

I know I’ve gushed over the game and I haven’t even really gotten into the gameplay yet.  In part because the gameplay is pretty straight forward.  You’re a small crew on a floating chunk of space debris.  You spend the first few minutes of your game stabilizing the environment and ensuring you can survive.  Then, you focus on improving the standards of your crew to better their mental stability.  The next step is building systems to ensure long-term viability in space, and then you move on to more complex ship systems like navigation and flight control in order to search for better resources and new adventures.

It’s simple, and there’s a brilliance in simplicity, because while on the surface level those tasks are straight forward, the game introduces a dynamic set of challenges that ensures you never complete a task the same way twice.  I’ve also found myself excited to start new games just because I want to try managing resources in a slightly different way or I’m wanting to try building my ship with a different design.

That might be my favorite part of the game.  I’ve really enjoyed building out my ships with different design concepts, seeing what works or doesn’t work, and what I think looks cool.  I’m a bit of a planner and I love architecting new ship designs.  In reality, you could probably just throw stuff all over the ship and it’d work, but I like trying to construct specific ship sections for engineering, cargo, living quarters, and such.

Salvaging other ships is one of the main ways to accumulate resources and improve your own ship.

I’ll play the game over and over just for the chance to build new ship designs and see what new problems the game will throw at me.  It’s one of those games where messing up is as much fun as being successful and I have a huge appreciation for games that make mistakes as interesting as winning.  Besides how much I enjoy the challenge myself, I’m always glad to find a game that I believe will help kids better understand, embrace, and learn to enjoy failure.

The myriad of ways the game gives you access to resources I think creates unique avenues of play that I’m excited to try, as well.  For instance, you can obviously mine local resources in each given system and salvage damaged ships, as you do in the introductory tutorial, but you could also notionally choose to hunt down and destroy hostile ships, salvaging them for resources, or even just trade salvage and mined resources for more complex material you’ve chosen not to manufacture for yourself.

Limited manpower, at least early in the game, forces you to prioritize and that opens the door for more mistakes, and thus more chances to replay the game and try something different.  Because the sound design is so well done, the mechanics are so straight forward, and the content so enjoyably dynamic, I find myself excited about each new attempt at the game.

Red’s Read

I know there are folks that don’t enjoy the colony builder games as much as I do, and those folks might not enjoy this game quite so much.  If you’re like me and have enjoyed games like Rimworld over the years, then this is about as much of a must-buy as you get.  As it is now, I’ve found the game to be an absolute blast and it has greatly helped me to unwind as my work-related stress has recently been a big issue.

One of the main reasons I’m recommending it is because of where I think the game will go, though.  The nature of Space Haven allows it to be rapidly and easily updated over time to add new features systems, and to expand the playable universe.  I fully expect this game to follow similar patterns we’ve seen from others in the genre and expand overtime to become increasingly deep and more complex.

That’s not even counting the opportunity for mods, and even thinking about what different modders might do with a space-based colony builder game is incredibly intriguing.  Knowing me, I’ll appreciate that those mods exist, but will probably never bother to install them because I enjoy the base game to much to bother.  Still, easily modded games are one of the best things about the video gaming industry and I have a great appreciation for games that provide a good platform for those efforts.

I’m not even going to pretend to be unbiased.  I loved this game and had so much fun playing it that it’s an easy title to recommend.  As always, watch some videos and make sure Space Haven right for you before purchasing, but I do emphatically recommend that you at least check it out.  For most, I think this will be a good title that they’ll appreciate having added to their libraries.

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Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.