For me, a game’s story, especially that of an RPG (or MMORPG), comes before all else. The art, music, and gameplay can be solid, but if the narrative doesn’t capture me within the first hour, chances are I will give this indie game a pass. This is primarily due to my love of creative writing as a novelist, meaning I have high standards when it comes to storytelling.
With that said, I’ve had my eye on Batora: Lost Haven, developed by Stormind Games and published by Team17, for some time now, and I was extremely excited to be able to play through its demo and the “action RPG adventure with a rich, choice-driven story” that it flaunts.
Before starting my playthrough of Batora: Lost Haven, I was still making my way through The Witcher 3 (again). Thus, I was already spoiled in terms of excellent use of player choice and exquisite storytelling, so my expectations were a tad bit high. And I am pleased to say that I was not dissapointed.
Bottom Line Up Front
Playing through the eyes of a 16-year-old human girl named Avril, you get a healthy combination of gorgeous art and music, teenage angst, millennial humor, gray moral decisions, and entertainingly dogmatic gods whispering in your ears.
She is empowered by Sun and Moon (those dogmatic gods I just mentioned) and tasked with healing the Earth. But, here’s the best part; to heal the Earth, Avril needs to go to a bunch of other planets, and you know what that means….
INTERPLANETARY SPACE ADVENTURE!
Anyway, without further ado, let’s get right into Indie Game Culture’s Batora Lost Haven Early Access review!
Artstyle and Visuals
I know I just hyped up the narrative, but let’s start with the visuals since that’s the first thing you’ll see (and judge the game on, most likely). Stormind Games went hard here as they opted for, in their own words, “hand-painted visuals inspired by 1950s retro science fiction.” The hand-painted nature of the environment is showcased in the best way possible (don’t even get me started on the loading screen splash arts), but it was clear that there was far more inspiration than just 1950s retro science fiction.
Of the main zones I was able to explore, each was distinctly unique and instantly reminded me of different things. The first planet, Gryja, was probably my favorite, only because I got to spend the most time there. Also, I’m a huge fan of dark atmospheres with colorful lights to illuminate the area, so having this be the first planet for me to explore was a big plus. It also instantly reminded me a great deal of Deepholm, a zone from World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm expansion (and WoW was my childhood game, so I was 100% biased because of nostalgia).
But the visuals only get better from there. They are stunning, and it is precisely because of their beauty that I wish there were more panoramic and stylistic ways to explore these places (like vistas at select locations or something, similar to what Lost Ark employs). There is an option to zoom in/out, but it is only a single toggle, making the difference between the two perspectives negligible in my opinion. Furthermore, there are no side-quests, and a sizable chunk of Avril’s adventures occur in puzzle spaces (also, more on that later), making my time to appreciate these jaw-dropping visuals fleeting.
One more thing: as part of the main story, you’ll occasionally have a quest that requires you to follow an NPC to a designated location. While I have no problem with follow-quests, the game won’t let you stray too far from the person you’re supposed to follow. So, if you want to explore on your own, the follow-quests are not the time to do so.
To wrap up this section, I wish I could see more of the world, as the main story goes by super fast, especially if you’re immersed in it.
It is indeed time to address the foundation of Batora: Lost Haven. As I said in the introduction, I was coming straight into this game from The Witcher 3, and I won’t be so bold as to claim that the story was better than that iconic game. But, the narrative I experienced in the demo definitely held my attention.
I have to say, the post-apocalyptic setting is a tad overused in sci-fi (and therefore, cliche), and the chosen-one storyline is a tad overused in fantasy (and therefore, cliche). So, when utilizing these well-known aspects of storytelling, writers need to do all they can to either surpass the cliche or shatter our expectations by deliberately straying from it.
And while the chosen-one arc Avril follows is pretty standard so far (though the morally gray aspects of the story make the typically all-good nature of the Chosen One a bit murky here), they did an excellent job with the post-apocalyptic setting.
“How?” you may ask.
Well, I’ll tell you. Avril is on Earth for maybe the first five minutes of the game and then immediately ventures into the great unknown of space to explore other planets. So, instead of sticking around on Earth and seeing yet another post-apocalyptic version of our planet, we get to go on a Star Wars (or Star Trek, don’t hate me for prioritizing the former) styled adventure and explore a slew of other gorgeous and diverse planets. Quite honestly, it made me forget about the whole Earth-is-destroyed premise even with those two pesky gods—Sun and Moon—continuing to remind me about it.
Sun and Moon
These two guys are two of the primary deities of the story, as they are the ones who bestow Avril with their powers, enabling her to harness the powers of—you guessed it—the sun and the moon.
The connection between these two gods and the Earth is made clear early on in the narrative, as they are said to be the chief protectors of Earth, so their motivations are clear.
And, without spoiling any of the major plot beats, I must also add that Sun and Moon act like the dogmatic gods they should be.
With that in mind, there’s one thing that bothered me a little. As I said, their motivation for wanting to help restore the earth is apparent, but what isn’t apparent is why they chose Avril, of all people.
Perhaps that is explained later on in the story, but regardless, a reader/player/watcher of any chosen-one narrative should know why the Chosen One is the Chosen One right off the bat. Otherwise, the “why?” question can be pervasive and distracting.
I want to make one more brief mention of the story, but specifically, the aspect of player choice that the game flaunts. Let me be upfront and say that there was a range of choices. Some were inconsequential to the story, some allowed you to voice your moral opinion (but were also ultimately inconsequential to the story as far as I can tell), while some caused actual shifts in the course of the story, be it through the death of a friendly character or the addition of extra enemies to fight.
I can say this with confidence after playing through the demo multiple times to see which choices had significant effects on the story/gameplay, though I must confess that I wish there were more choices to be had. Those that were provided were great, and perhaps later in the game, choices are presented more frequently, but I certainly feel like there could be more choices in a “rich, choice-driven story.”
A super quick word on the voice acting: pretty much the entire game is voice acted, and while most of it is strong, sometimes the delivery of lines can leave a bit to be desired. These are rare enough that they’re easily overlooked and also overshadowed by the main cast’s performance.
Also, the dialogue isn’t the game’s greatest asset, but it’s quirky enough that it never really pulled me out of my immersion.
The taste of the gameplay I got was a treat. The combat system was easy to grasp, but it is clear that there’s a pretty high skill-ceiling. You’re given two sets of abilities: physical (sun-based), which is melee, and mental (moon-based), which is ranged.
You get three skills in each stance, plus a dash in each stance, and you can freely switch between your forms to have access to both sets of abilities at your leisure.
But, there’s a catch: your enemies have sun or moon affinities themselves (or both if they’re hybrid), which means your damage is severely mitigated against them when using the opposite set of abilities against them.
For example, if you use your mental abilities to hit an enemy with sun-affinity, you’ll barely do any damage to them. This is exacerbated in boss fights, as you’ll do zero damage to them when attacking them with the wrong set of abilities (don’t worry, all bosses cycle through both affinities and their abilities change accordingly).
While I don’t have that big of an issue with this, I can see where one can arise, as it may seem like the game is forcing you to play in a certain way.
I’m fully aware that if your character has access to a melee and ranged set of abilities, sometimes you may just want to use one of them, but you can’t do that here as you constantly need to be switching between both stances to efficiently dispatch your enemies.
The runes in this game are one of its greatest strengths. It’s like a talent tree, except it doesn’t force you to take anything you don’t want to take, and best of all, you can swap the runes you own around freely. There are no restrictions or penalties for doing this, giving you free rein to play how you want.
With that in mind, there are different types of runes. Some simply give you base stats (health, damage, etc.), some give you stats at the price of another stat (for example, gain mental-stance damage and lose physical-stance defense), and some are flat-out boosts to specific abilities if certain conditions are met. There’s a great deal of variety and freedom, and I loved it. I can’t wait to explore it further.
Now, a word on the puzzles. They are intricate, well thought out, and visually pleasing (so much so that I sometimes got distracted and screwed up the puzzle). A fair warning that if you are not the type of gamer who likes puzzles, then this is not the game for you, as Batora: Lost Haven is chock full of them.
Moreover, they not only challenge your ability to think solutions through, but some puzzles even challenge your reflexes and sense of control. There are a lot of different mechanics within these puzzles, but they are fed to you slowly, so as not to overwhelm you. That said, all the puzzles are based on your sun and moon stances, forcing you to switch between them a lot.
I love puzzles, so this (aside from the story itself) was an absolute treat. They did an excellent job with making the puzzles feel good to play while not being overly challenging.
Cinematics and Sound
Moving on to the cinematics and sound: I loved it all. The cutscenes within the game were not overused, as I thought they only showed up to tell pivotal moments in the story, which was great. And the soundtrack, while undoubtedly stronger in some zones than others, was an all-around win in my opinion.
I could gush about it for paragraphs here, but to truly do it justice, check out this deep dive into the game’s soundtrack with the game’s Art Director, Gaetano Caltabiano, here:
Pros and Cons
- Exquisite story-telling.
- Impactful player choice.
- Jaw-dropping visuals and music.
- Smooth combat.
- Polished UI.
- Diverse gameplay through the rune system.
- Super easy to learn.
- Forced usage of both sun and moon stances in combat.
- Not enough ways to explore the world outside of the main story.
- Player choice can feel sparse at times.
- No large zone maps (the only map you get is the minimap in the top right corner).
You should check out the following games if you enjoy story-driven and action RPGs:
- The Witcher 3 (I put this here only because of how amazing the story is, and the story/player choice is the only point of comparison)
- Path of Exile
- Lost Ark
Question: Are there multiple endings?
Answer: While the demo didn’t include the entire game, after playing through it multiple times, it was clear that different decisions led Avril down different routes, marking clearly divergent paths based on the choices you made in her shoes. Also, the developers assure us that Batora: Lost Haven is a “branching story with multiple endings.”
Question: Are there side quests?
Answer: Nope. The game keeps you going on the main narrative the entire time. That said, you’re free to roam around most of the time (except for quests that require you to follow certain NPCs, as I mentioned before). When arriving in a new area, you’ll usually be allowed to explore it at your leisure before continuing with the main story, though.
Question: Is there a strictly-story mode that allows puzzles/boss fights to be skipped?
Answer: As of now, there isn’t, so you’ll have to power through the boss fights as well as the puzzles. I’m sure that guides for both will pop up in no time, so if you’re the type of gamer who doesn’t like puzzles or dying to the same boss over and over, you can always wait until those guides come out to help you get through them and back into the narrative ASAP.
Verdict: would definitely buy it.
Bearing in mind this judgment is only based on the demo of the game and not the game in its entirety, I found that what was available in the game’s early access was an extremely strong and promising start.
From the getgo, the narrative flowed smoothly, especially considering the double cliche story of a post-apocalyptic world and chosen-one narrative. The player choice presented, though not as plentiful as I would’ve liked, felt impactful and meaningful.
This added to the richness and depth of the overall story, whether or not the consequences were extreme. The combat was super smooth, and the puzzles were intriguing (and not rage-inducing). And that’s not even mentioning what the art and music add to the game’s atmosphere.
As I’ve discussed throughout this review, the game has its drawbacks; but of course, what game doesn’t? That said, none of them were glaring enough to cause me to not fall in love with the characters, environments, and narrative.
With all that in mind, I can easily say that I can’t wait to continue journeying within the universe of Batora: Lost Haven through Avril’s perspective as she endeavors to heal the Earth from its apocalyptic wounds.
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- Batora Lost Haven Early Access Review - August 18, 2022