Confusion and Bugs Lead to HEVN's Fall

11/18/2018 - 13:00 | By: Trevor Whalen

Story-focused, atmospheric first-person space games come from a proud design lineage. There are classics like System Shock, recent releases like Prey, Alien: IsolationMetroid Prime and everything in-between. In these games, players explore areas virtually devoid of life. You scour ancient ruins, breached starships, abandoned space stations, and everything in-between. Find log entries to read or listen to. Fight or sneak past antagonistic life forms. You collect and use objects via an inventory system, and piece together an immersive story. All these activities take place largely by themselves, sometimes guided by an external voice. This formula has made masterpieces, and MigaGames’ HEVN mimics it.

At the start, you awake in a mining facility on a planetoid named NAIC. From there, you'll discover that something has gone wrong. A form of larvae has infested areas of the station and there are dead bodies. Soon enough a friend rings you via radio and tells you what you need to do to save the situation. There are log entries, items and an inventory system, atmospheric ambiance and a host of hallmarks from the first-person, space-themed immersive sims.

Despite having the ingredients, from what I’ve played of HEVN it fails in execution. Technical issues significantly mar the experience, and gameplay objectives and narrative can be unclear at times. Aesthetically the game has a few okay qualities, but these aren’t enough to merit praise. A couple of issues hit me in the face right from the start. The first is that you can’t rebind the keys. This is a fault other small indie games suffer from, and it perturbs me since I use my left hand on my mouse. Developers should never assume the WASD bindings are universal.

hevn youre dead text over menu screen
You died while perusing the menu, by the way.

 
 

The second problem that hit me early was in the first playable area of the game. A cold environment causes the player character, Sebastian, to breathe heavily. This breath audio consists of about two noises that play one after the other, again and again. As I was trying to figure out how to proceed past the first area – there was a malfunctioning, locked door hindering progress – the heavy breathing noise grew repetitive. I had to take off my headphones to remain sane.

In this scenario and others like it, pressing the menu key offered no respite. This is because the game stays in real-time even when the menu is brought up. I confirmed this later when, while paused, my character died from a status effect, and the "You're Dead" text appeared over the menu. The inventory screen is also brought up in real-time, which is fine, but I don't think it makes sense to have the main Escape-key menu be in real time. These two early frustrations set the tone of my time with HEVN.

Once I figured out how to leave the starting area, HEVN did little to win me over. The story doesn't set itself up well. There is no hook or angle that draws you in. I’ll give you a few threads that certainly didn’t grab me right away. The mining facility you find harvests a form of energy called “Soviten”. Your player character has “Lunarfungiosis predisposition” or whatnot.

HEVN screenshot - NAIC exterior
HEVN has bits of appealing aesthetics, but the overall experience will turn you off.

Your first main objective is to find and import eight data packets. There are larvae of some kind squirming around. And so on. There’s no “core” to the narrative at the outset, no suspense, no mystery or tension. There are no monsters or aliens beyond stationary larvae, no reasons were given to care about the larvae or what they could be, or to care about the characters; no story thread has begun that you want to keep following. Compare this to System Shock, wherein immediately you are battling evil droids and mutants and finding out about the mad plot of crazed AI Shodan to destroy the earth. That kind of setup draws you in. Mining, larvae, and data packets do not.

Further, those mundane elements could pull the player in, but that requires a more effective introduction and more expert orchestration of the story elements than what HEVN has. For example, you could encounter your first larva by seeing it sliding down a glass door, slime in its wake, right in front of you, with a dramatic beat playing, and Edna, the voice guiding you, screaming “Look out! That’s a [insert creepy alien name here]!” Instead, Sebastian walks into a hallway, sees them just kind of hanging down there, and says, while sounding dead tired, "Uh...? There aren't supposed to be any life forms on NAIC.”

 

There's no surprise or horror, just a rudimentary note that seeing these little larvae is odd. Sebastian then proceeds to a decontamination chamber and complains about it as if he's starting another typical work day. After this, there's an interaction with a "Med Bot" and Sebastian receives his checkups as if all is okay, even making a snarky remark about a piece of the equipment malfunctioning ("No surprise there," he says). The larvae have been forgotten about.

Moments later, when you encounter your first corpse in a bathroom, he says "What the...?" followed by a faintly whispered "damn it." After this refreshing bit of shock, he lightheartedly says "Looks safe to drink" once you approach the sink. Is this a normal workday? Have things really gone wrong? Are these larvae life forms they had been studying - why is Sebastian not more freaked out? I did not know what I was supposed to think. Clearly, there is no horror on Sebastian's part at seeing these larvae or even a corpse, so neither is there dread on the player's part.

HEVN screenshot - no life forms on naic
I know, bro, it's crazy, right? Can't make it to the coffee soon enough, man.

The one narrative bit of some intrigue was a memory sequence I encountered that takes place in some kind of waiting room, like for a doctor’s office. The transition to it was odd - a lightning strike on my character - and the memory “room” itself glitched. While I walked in it, I suffered the same environmental effects as the present-day area I had been in prior – the surface of NAIC. Additionally, the game's setup had given me no reason to be intrigued by this memory or what it may have been suggesting. HEVN's narrative is dry at best, nonsensical at worst.

 

Story goofs in mind, the game's atmospheric design has some good touches. I like the audio ambiance, especially in one area called Quadrant 8. There are also engaging journals, news magazines for example, that interested me in the backstory. You also pick up evidence dossiers from dead bodies you find. These let you see a photo and brief biographical description of who the person was in life before their death - a nice touch. Audio logs would have been welcome, but I found none in my playtime. I can't find many other positive notes to give here, unfortunately.

Above, I referenced the game’s Escape menu being in real-time. This means that you could die from a status effect if you left the game paused. There are plenty more technical issues on top of that. Another inexcusable and glaring fault with the design is the use of a single save file. This, more than anything else, hindered my playthrough. The game uses an autosave system and you can save manually at consoles placed at different locations (I only discovered two during my play time). The problem is that each autosave replaces your last hard save. Having a single hard save file would be bad enough, but the autosave being in that same slot is extraordinarily frustrating.

hevn screenshot interior
HEVN's story needs a good hook to make it absorbing.

At one point, suffering from a status effect I could never find out about (more below), I ran to a door leading to an interior section. I had supposed that the weather on the surface was affecting my health, and wanted to get inside. Right after I had entered the interior, the game autosaved, and I died. My health was just about to expire, and I had unfortunately fallen into a trap of constant death upon every reload. There was no other save to load, as that recent autosave replaced my earlier hard save, so I had to restart the game.

I also had to restart the game twice more because of inevitable death ruining the single save. Each time I walked the surface of NAIC, the same, mysterious status effect would plague my character. I could never figure out what it was. Sebastian would constantly moan in pain and cough, and his health would lower, but I could never get it to stop. I had three healing items to use: Zenilex, C/Z Pentacid, and Poxilin. I used each, and nothing happened. The text notification onscreen said that Zenilex cures Soviten exposure, but I used three to five Zenilex doses to no effect. By process of elimination, then, I knew I wasn't suffering from Soviten exposure. Nothing else was communicated to me.

The standard medkit refilled some of my health, but it would soon start draining down. I looked at the Health tab in the menu and would heal specific parts of my body that were glowing red, but this too did nothing. Since I could never figure out what was wrong with me or how to cure, I just kept loading and inevitably dying again. Due to the single save, I would have to start the game over each time this unknown sickness possessed me, which was every time I walk the surface a little bit. I even had the suit donned that should have protected me from the outer environment. Go figure.

hevn screenshot health screen
No matter how much I examined this screen, I never knew what was wrong with me.

Bugs litter the game. One time, sliding doors slid their opposite direction, preventing me from entering. When you “die” from a fall, you don’t immediately die. You’ll hit the ground, walk around as you watch your health empty to zero, and then die only after it has run out. Once after death, as the screen went red, all my items dropped. As Sebastian cried out his “I’m not gonna make it” line, I picked up an item and examined it a while. I set it back down, all with the "You're Dead" text covering the screen.

Another time, I climbed a ladder to its top, only to fly off of it to the right each time I did so. There were moments the game saw a significant slowdown and buggy movement. I had to press A to move forward and D to move backward while using the mouse to "steer" at one point on the exterior surface, for example. The game has some sloppy flaws and is inconsistent in its performance.

As my initial impressions, this piece is not as final as a review would be. However, I don’t know if I could do a proper review of HEVN, anyway. The game has annoying technical hindrances and an uninspiring story and can get clunky in its performance. One frustration after another quickly swallows up whatever potential it has. The pieces of an immersive first-person, space-based sim are here, but they stand alone lifelessly. As is, HEVN is a sci-fi immersive sim that has fallen from glory.

TechRaptor covered HEVN on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.


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I am a lifelong, enthusiastic gamer, freelance writer and editor, blogger, and Thief FM aficionado. I think that exploration-heavy, open-ended first-person games are the best vehicle for story-telling, with the finest Thief missions leading the pack.