Developer: Stormind Games
Genre: Isometric RPG
Reviewed On: PlayStation 5
Also Available For: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, Nintendo Switch, PC
Do you ever spend the whole time you’re playing a game hoping it’ll get better later? That’s how I felt as I was playing Batora: Lost Haven, and not just because it’s a game I’d been looking forward to for quite some time. It is, in many ways, a game that is very close to being good, but falls just short in almost every regard and ends up being slightly below mediocre instead.
The biggest problem is that the writing is, in a word, bad, which is a bit of a fatal flaw in a story-driven RPG. The story follows Avril, a teenager in post-apocalyptic London chosen by the gods Sun and Moon to travel across the galaxy and restore balance to four elemental planets so as to in turn heal the damage caused to Earth. Throughout this journey Avril (and by extension the player) is faced with a number of moral choices with very binary solutions – and very simplistic to boot, never really doing anything beyond the basic mortal arithmetic of “save one life or many”. I don’t find any of these dilemmas to be compelling, not least because none of them have any far-reaching consequences due to the narrative structure of the game moving Avril away from each planet as soon as she completes it, never to return.
Moreover, the moment-to-moment dialogue that conveys the dilemmas is awkward in its best moments and downright unbelievable in its worst, neither of which are helped by the amateurish voice acting and occasionally poor sound mixing. The most annoying parts of the dialogue were on the second planet, where most of the characters are little lizardfolk speaking in slightly broken English and continuously finding new ways to mispronounce words like “Baozhang” and “Xiaia”. It’s a huge pet peeve of mine when the acting talent of a thing can’t get the pronunciation of non-English words and names right, but I can at least tolerate it when everyone is getting it wrong consistently; a solace I could not take here, especially since the same actor would say it wrong in two different ways in two adjacent instances.
I suppose I should be thankful that the lizardfolk didn’t have offensive accents, at least.
There’s also the issue Sun and Moon’s dialogue, two characters who are clearly supposed to be speaking in diction typical of your average lofty, ancient-and-wise celestial being type character, but whose word choice often falls short of that style of dialogue in a very jarring way.
All these issues with the game’s writing might be more tolerable if Batora had a more engaging gameplay loop, but as it stands it’s just okay. The game is at its core a top-down hack-and-slasher with some very light shooting elements added on top. Avril has two “natures” she can swap between at will – physical and mental – each with its own moveset. Physical nature comes with a big ol’ sword to wail on enemies with and spinning and leaping attacks, while mental is about keeping enemies at a distance so you can fire blasts of energy at them without getting hit yourself. In addition, enemies also embody these two natures, and the game is designed around using the right one at the right time. Physical enemies take more damage from physical attacks, mental enemies more from mental, and there’s the occasional bigger, meaner foe that is a hybrid of both. The health bars of hybrids are split in half, and they enter a sort of berserk state when one half is depleted, which encourages the player to whittle both down in balance rather than just focus one and then the other.
Unfortunately, the hybrid enemies do highlight my big complaint with the combat, which is a general lack of visual clarity. It’s hard to tell what exactly you’re looking at sometimes, and with hybrid enemies in particular it can be difficult to tell how much is left of each of its two health bars, which makes the aforementioned balancing act slightly annoying. The player can adjust the game’s settings so that the damage boost of matching natures is removed, but that does remove one of the few interesting things about Batora, which is obviously not ideal.
That said, the nature system isn’t even all that interesting anyway, largely due to it not going far enough. Avril has a visible statblock for each, but they don’t really reflect the sort of difference-in-play style one might expect; there’s no difference in health, attack, speed, etc. On top of this, there is a rune system – items the player can equip to raise Avril’s health, damage, add minor extra functionalities to abilities, etc., most of which also come with the cost of lower critical hit rate or damage or something… but this also doesn’t go very far, because the selection of runes that actually exist is extremely limited, and every stat penalty affects the opposite nature of the one the rune boosts. What sort of build you end up with comes down less to what runes you equip than to whether or not you equip runes at all.
Numerous other small annoyances pile up to the game’s detriment, almost all of which stem from the game wanting and trying to be more complex than it actually is. Each area comes with a minimap in the corner of the screen, which only serves to make it that much more apparent how linear everything is. This linearity, in turn, makes it somewhat perplexing that there is a leveling system for both Avril and the enemies. In a later area, I was going up against enemies three and four levels above me and getting absolutely demolished as a result, which is downright obnoxious in a game where it is impossible to grind. Moreover, those same enemies were also demolishing the health bars of my companion NPCs whose death results in a game over. I was able to get through that bit eventually, it sucked having to fight the same encounter again and again because I couldn’t burst down the enemies fast enough – though, admittedly, every encounter in the game runs together, so it’s not like the repetitiveness was new at that moment.
I honestly wasn’t planning on trashing Batora: Lost Haven so thoroughly when I started writing this review, but as I looked back over my notes I came to the unfortunate realization I can’t think of a single thing I liked about this game. It could be worse, admittedly – the game’s systems do work the way they’re designed to, and the game is stable at least… it’s just that the design itself isn’t good. I’d stay away from this one, dear reader.
I'd have been delighted if Batora: Lost Haven had lived up to its own aspirations, but as things stand it falls far short of the game it wanted to be.