I’m a huge fan of anything zen in games – from pretending fast-travel doesn’t exist in Skyrim or Ping as a taxi driver in GTA, to intentionally zen titles like the underwater exploration game Abzu, the original Strand-type game Mudrunner and its sequel Snowrunner, to the indie darling A Short Hike- these are what I play to unwind after a stressful day or when my anxiety picks up.
It goes without saying then, that I’m a fan of farming/life sims as well. Games like Moonlighter, Graveyard Keeper, My Time at Portia, Spiritfarer, Summer in Mara (my favorite of these), and of course, the ever-influential title that single-handedly started off the genre’s resurgence, Stardew Valley, are the safe havens I take shelter in when even a couple rounds of Hades seems like too much effort (the gaming equivalent of not being able to get out of bed).
The last time I played one of these was back in June of last year when I reviewed Summer in Mara, so I was definitely overdue for some gaming rest and relaxation. Plus, waiting to see if I got accepted to this Masters program I had applied to and not knowing what I’d do if I didn’t get in, I was on pins and needles for about a month and desperately craving for a simpler alternate life to lose myself in (heck, I even installed FF14! You know when you resort to time sinking MMOs something’s horribly wrong). Enter: Sun Haven.
Sun Haven is a farming sim/fantasy RPG hybrid developed and published by Pixel Sprout Studios, now out in Early Access on Steam.
Elves, Demons, Monsters, Dragons, and um… Crops
As is typical of the genre, you play as a newcomer to a quiet, pleasant town full of fun, quirky characters to meet, befriend, and even wed – in this case, the namesake town of Sun Haven – where you’re quickly set up in a small farmhouse with some land to start off your farming. Unlike other similar games, Sun Haven takes place in a fantasy world, complete with knights and mages, dragons, elves, demons, and monsters.
The pixel art visuals are in a similar vein, but even better than Stardew Valley, and there are a few really cool animations to enjoy as well. The dragons, in particular, look great and some of the environments are legit ‘stop-and-look-around’ beautiful. The character designs are solid as well and I especially loved the look and sound of the monster town Withergate (though there’s not a lot to do there right now) – that was the definite highlight for me, visually.
The fantasy setting and RPG elements are definitely what sets Sun Haven apart in a quickly-saturating genre and easily what drew me to the game in the first place. This mix of an RPG questline, leveling up and skill trees mixed with the zen life sim elements of farming, mining, and fishing is an intriguing and promising concept, to say the least. So, does Sun Haven live up to my expectations?
Well, the fantasy element is very much on display right from the get-go- from the character creation screen. Though a lot of it hasn’t yet been fully implemented, the character creation in Sun Haven is already miles ahead of any of its genre peers, especially Stardew – you get to choose from 6 different species: Human, Elf, Demon, Angel, Element, and the animal-based Amari (which are further subdivided into 6 body types).
After a few days of exploring the surprisingly sizeable town, getting the lay of the land, meeting the residents, and learning the usual gameplay mechanics (which we’ll get to later), you’re tasked by the guardian dragon of the town, Elios, to travel to the Elven town of Nel’Vari in order to seek help in fighting a growing evil in the monster city of Withergate. And then… I have no clue what happens because that’s all the story content that’s available to play through right now!
Here I was, all excited to see where the story goes after spending hours in the mine grinding for the best gear to be prepared for what’s to come, only to be greeted by this ‘no more content yet’ message from the devs. Man, did I feel blue balled! I guess I should’ve expected it, Early Access definitely comes with its faults, but I definitely expected at least one proper questline. The only story quest that’s on offer is venturing into the woods to get an item for the dragon, and that’s about it. If you ignored the rest of the content and decided to just follow the storyline, you’d be done with the game in barely a couple of hours! Just when the story actually gets going and you’re allowed to visit different towns, the content stops.
While the gameplay elements are all implemented, Sun Haven is still majorly lacking in the story area. Though you can get to know most of the characters in the main town and give them gifts and romance them, the marriage content hasn’t been added yet so you can’t pursue it any further than a few dates. Well, that’s okay for now, as long as the rest of the game is reasonably complete, right?
Stardew, Plus A Little More
Most of the gameplay loop is, for the most part, identical to that of Stardew. You can buy seeds from the general store for your farm, water your crops and sell the harvest, raise chicken and cows for eggs and milk, cook dishes, mine for ore at the mine, go fishing, decorate your house, or go fight monsters in the woods. There are also daily quests you can accept from the bulletin board in town (though the rewards for doing most of these are pretty low and not worth the time).
The main difference when it comes to gameplay is, of course, the RPG skill trees. There are separate skill trees for the various gameplay systems – farming, combat, exploration, and mining, each with their own magic abilities to unlock as well. There is also a noticeable lack of an energy meter (you have a mana pool instead, for your spells. Take that, Stardew!), which I personally found to be a great change as it’s one less thing to worry about – you can spend the whole day mining without worrying if you have enough food to replenish your health.
In fact, I found playing through Sun Haven much more relaxing than Stardew, not just because of the lack of energy meter but also because of the lack of a calendar. The calendar in Stardew Valley, though obviously essential to keep track of birthdays and upcoming events, felt at times like a ticking clock and was counteractive to the whole reason I play games like these in the first place – to relax, not worry about deadlines and just chill out. Apart from the not fully implemented relationship system, you can also choose from a wide variety of pets from the pet store. Though they don’t do much (I would’ve loved if they helped out in combat especially), it’s still nice to have them and the variety is surprisingly great.
Speaking of combat, it is pretty um… lackluster. But then again, this is probably just because the number of spells available at this point is very low. By the time I finished the available content I had only unlocked 2 of them, a fireball spell and an AoE spell that I used primarily to mine faster.
Still, I have to mention that the combat is pretty undercooked and even unnecessary as if you have good enough armor, they do 1 damage to you so you can literally ignore them, and even if you don’t, you can just run past them anyway most of the time. When you do engage with it, it just doesn’t feel satisfying to play. There are also other minor issues with the combat – it’s very easy to stun-lock enemies so there’s no challenge, the enemies respawn almost instantly after being annihilated, etc. There are no boss fights in the current version of the game either, which was a huge letdown.
Look I get it, this is a casual game, not Dark Souls. But hell, let’s not go so far and make it Cookie Clicker either okay? Having access to a host of other fun spells could definitely fix the sub-par combat but, let’s be honest, no one played Stardew for the combat so this is likely a non-issue for most in the target audience. As for the other systems, mining, fishing, farming, and romancing all work very similarly to Stardew so anyone familiar with it will have a straight flat line for a learning curve.
The one fun addition is a bit of platforming in the mines and some explorable areas – you unlock a jump-dash early on for this purpose (which is much faster than walking so, super handy to save time getting from one place to another). These sections can be tricky and a bit wonky with unfair invisible walls existing in places that look like you should be able to jump across, which makes them especially annoying when you’re rushing out of the mine to get back home before 12 AM (failing which you pass out and lose a certain amount of gold). All in all, it does add a little unpolished flavor for platforming fans but nothing much beyond that, really.
Where’s The Fantasy At?
One of the main reasons I wanted to try out Sun Haven was the potential for synergy between the fantasy aspect and the traditional gameplay systems. Since the raison-d’etre of Sun Haven in the first place is “What if Stardew Valley was also a fantasy RPG?”, I wanted the devs to go all out and fully embrace and exploit the potential in this meeting of two worlds. What I mean is, I wanted the magical aspect to not be separate but go hand-in-hand with the combat, mining, fishing, cooking, and – why not? – even the romancing!
For example, there’s a gif on their Steam page that suggests you’ll be able to conjure a rain cloud to water crops faster. This spell hasn’t been added yet (I didn’t come across it in my playthrough at least) but as I mentioned earlier, there IS an AoE spell that’s very effective to use both in combat and for mining. This kind of usage of magic could definitely add a fun twist and an additional layer of gameplay upon the traditional “click on an enemy to attack, click on ore to mine, click on crops to water” type of static gameplay. I mean, just think about all the cool shit you could do to make these zen but simplistic activities a bit more fun, while still keeping it zen.
Sadly, so far (except for that one spell) there hasn’t been any other incorporation of magic in the classic Stardew gameplay, but the devs do seem to have the intention of fleshing this out and I would love to see this idea fully explored. The Steam page also hints at Sun Haven granting the player the freedom to accomplish tasks – even the final boss battle – in whatever way they want, without any combat for example, which I’m super intrigued about – would love to somehow beat a boss through farming! Again, sadly, in the current version there’s nothing that points to this possibility – probably because, as I said, you only have the tutorial and one questline of content available right now.
Early Access Woes
Suffice it to say, Sun Haven has a great concept and as much potential as the gold under the great Smaug himself but is currently lacking in content and polish in quite a few areas. The RPG questline that made me want to pick this game up is almost non-existent – there are only the outlines of the story so far. A lot of character customization options are still yet to be added as well – outfits and cosmetics, house upgrades beyond tier 1, etc. and, while the relationship system is in place (you can even buy a ring), the marriage update is yet to come.
Plus, there are a ton of problems to address. The 8-player multiplayer could be incredibly fun, if not for it causing crashes all the time. The daily quests are apparently on a random timer which isn’t communicated to the player at all. Literally, all food items say they permanently increase your health- that’s a flat-out lie, only some of them do and only up to a certain point. Heck, there wasn’t even a map in the game until very recently! I had to use a player-made map to learn my way around the confusing map to find a character to turn in my quest, who just teleported away from me after a conversation (no, they didn’t use magic, it was a bug).
Haven residents say ‘good morning’ when it’s clearly nighttime, most shopkeepers have the same dialog about being in debt and some characters literally say they have nothing to say yet since their content hasn’t been added (why are these characters even in the game then?). Not to mention, pets disappear if left alone at home as do floor tiles for some reason, and reportedly important items do from your inventory as well.
Sun Haven definitely has quite a few wrinkles to straighten out, and an RPG storyline as well as a bunch of other content to add to justify a full-price purchase, but I honestly believe the gameplay foundation is extremely solid – all the gameplay systems work well and the classic Stardew loop feels fun and zen to play, no question about it. The potential for a fantasy RPG Stardew Valley is immense and I do believe the developers will be able to pull it off in due time – they’re very active and open to feedback on their Discord, which is awesome to see.
As for whether you should buy it right now, if you want a great, flawless, and full experience, obviously not, that’s not what Early Access is for. I suggest you give it a few more months in the oven before you pack your bags and move to Sun Haven. However, if the concept of an RPG/life-sim sounds so intriguing to you that you can’t wait, go ahead and try it! I’m confident Sun Haven will deliver on that promise… eventually.