Haven Park review: wholesome exploration

I really like the idea of video games as meditation. The raison d’etre of a certain gaming genre – often labeled as wholesome games – is to be exploratory, relaxing and often experiential. These games veer in a different direction from what we’re familiar with, and are all the better for it. I’m all for mastery over systems and interactive storytelling, but there needs to be more games that focus on a relaxing experience through ambiance, familiarity and warmth.

Fabien Weibel’s Haven Park is inspired by Adam Robinson-Yu’s A Short Hike, and has more than a passing similarity, at least visually, to Nintendo’s Animal Crossing – but it feels unique, distinct and unabashedly clever in its own right.

The conceit is this: you play as a little anthropomorphic chickadee named Flint who takes over maintaining a large, natural park from his grandma. It’s a little run down, but with a little TLC it can return to its glory days. So, our intrepid ranger meanders around the park nabbing basic resources like wood and fabric, which he then uses to build up the various campsites littered about. After decorating them to your liking, folk start to hike in and stake up at your waypoints. Some of them ask you to add different accoutrements to make their stay a little nicer; others just give you their opinion or advice. Sometimes you’ll even run into some who will give you side quests, such as playing hide-and-seek or find a missing bauble. These help to break up the flow of the game and give you another fantastical yet thinly veiled excuse to journey out into the woods.

Haven Park has plenty of errands to run and experience points to accumulate, which fulfill those game-like requirements that keep people engaged. But what truly drew me in was literally taking a, well, short hike. The sense of place this game has is phenomenal. It’s not densely filled with details like an open world game, but it has enough to give it a feeling of being a real place, ripe for exploration. You gain a map that you can eventually expand as you find new areas, but the game never explicitly lets you know where you exactly are, which is wonderful for those looking for a good exploratory wander. The system prompts the player to learn the lay of the land and, in a pinch, to find a signpost or marker that will help you to figure out where you are. It makes you feel accomplished in ways that games rarely do these days.

What’s truly nice is that Haven Park is very good at valuing your time. While I would have been up for more adventures, more quests and a wider variety of things to build and expand on, I didn’t feel robbed of an experience when I wrapped it up over the couple of days it took me to take in all the sights. Whereas some games burn you out because they’re bulging with content, Haven Park takes the path less traveled by giving you a satisfying, succinct experience that doesn’t seem wasteful.

Even when I wrapped up every little thing I could possibly do in Haven Park, I still found myself ambling around, seeking to sate that wanderlust – much like in real life, as I love to hike around the Black Hills that I call home. Haven Park is a game that both exhilarates and calms in equal measure, letting the player dictate the pace and control the experience for themselves. So cheers to Fabien Weibel for making such a unique game, and here’s hoping that more developers follow in his footsteps.

Haven Park was developed by Fabien Weibel, and it’s available on PC and Switch. We played the Switch version.

Disclosure statement: review code for Haven Park was provided by Fabien Weibel. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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