Talking about a game like HEVN is tricky. On one hand, you appreciate that it’s a passion project from a small developer and don’t expect it to be graphically impressive or overly ambitious. On the other hand, those elements that detract from the game being really enjoyable are the very things a big studio and a big budget could bring to the table: polished and detailed textures, better writing, story, editing and gameplay. Not every triple-A game is guaranteed great, and there are plenty of small, indie games that shine despite their limitations. It gives me no pleasure to say that, unfortunately, HEVN isn’t one of them.
HEVN is nothing if not a collection of influences and tropes lovingly borrowed from the world of sci-fi games, film and other media. System Shock, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, Half Life… naming them all is almost a game unto itself. Taking place a hundred years in the future (more or less), you play as Sebastian Mar, who wakes up in his seemingly empty planetary lab complex to find it ravaged by… something. Solving the mystery of who or what destroyed the lab and its workers and get to the surface of mining planet Naic and ultimately escape sets the game in motion. Sebastian is assisted by the disembodied voice of coworker Edna, who helps guide him and puzzle together what happened and what to do.
Graphically, HEVN looks like a game from a decade ago, with bland interior spaces that lack detail and purpose. Oddly, the technology featured in the surroundings looks very much like that of thirty years ago, with oversize computer terminals and on-screen text that looks like it came from the first generation of PCs. Likewise, the gameplay also seems last gen, consisting of cobbling together bits of information and objects in the environment to solve “puzzles” that will advance the story. Sometimes logical and sometimes not, this kind of gameplay often seems like busywork that might extend play time but does little to create tension or drama. Combing through journals to find the code to activate a terminal to open a door does not add to a character’s arc or create any sense of urgency.
Once on the surface of Naic, things are temporarily more interesting, as at least the color palette changes and the exterior textures have more detail, and there is a moody synth-heavy soundscape to create a feeling of alien foreboding. Alas, the outdoor environments pretty quickly become repetitive as well and the game moves back inside other structures. HEVN is not terribly successful with its alien lifeforms, either. Although the game is primarily about story, exploration and puzzle-solving, there is a bit of combat but it’s imprecise and unrewarding and the alien lifeforms lack imagination. HEVN bills itself as an “open world survival game” in addition to the puzzle-solving and exploration elements, but the survival mechanics are relatively superficial, with a generally manageable set of health and well-being stats to monitor and maintain via consumables.
Even if HEVN’s visuals, puzzles and gameplay were amazing, it would still lack a central character about whom we care. Sebastian is written and voiced with little regard for the emotional truth of a situation, moving from a few moments of initial disorientation to bland quips that hardly reflect a survivor in a desperate circumstance. Thanks to HEVN’s storytelling firmly being in the “tell, don’t show” camp, we learn most of the story from journals and logs that just feel like artificial expository breadcrumbs in a game.
The danger of borrowing so many ideas and mechanics from other sources is that, invariably, the source material comes off looking better. HEVN is a patchwork of sci-fi, survival and puzzle game influences that almost feels reverse-engineered. All games are the product of thousands of hours of labor and the sincere effort to create an entertaining result. In the case of HEVN, I wished the focus of all that effort had been on a smaller, more original game that started with a compelling character and story that suggested the most appropriate genre, instead of the awkwardly seamed collection of bits and pieces it ended up being.