Discover an Ancient language. Discover a forgotten past. That’s ripped straight from the game’s official website and it pretty much sums up what you’ll be doing in developer Inkle’s latest release Heaven’s Vault. Now I admit I don’t review games quite as compulsively as I used to but after I spotted a trailer for this game I got straight on the blower to the guys at Punk and Lizard and asked if they could get this for me. Why? Because it looks different to anything I’ve played before. Very different.
Heaven’s Vault is a sci-fi graphical narrative driven adventure. You play as as archaeologist Aliya who, with a robot named Six, must explore a nebula full of moons in search of ruins and a missing roboticist. While the game starts off feeling quite linear, it quickly opens out into an open experience where you can take the story in a multitude of directions depending on where you decide to go, how you act and how you speak to the inhabitants. The developer’s say that every action counts and I can well believe it.
Aliya’s academic interest in the past is immediately in contrast to the people around her. One of the first characters she meets seems to view archaeology almost on a heretical level, setting up one the game’s first mysteries. One thing is clear, though, there is a deep history in this nebula and Aliya is determined to uncover it and learn from it. The way she does this feels very unique. Aliya can transcribe ancient inscriptions from objects she finds on her travels. At first neither she or you will completely understand what the symbols mean and here’s where the puzzle aspects come in. You’ll start with a very limited understanding and you learn worlds as you play. Fit words together from what you know already or make educated (ish) guesses. The wonderful thing about this is that you will often not know if you’re right, but your choices here will still affect how Aliya thinks and proceeds.
There’s no going back on Heaven’s Vault. Once you’ve made a decision that’s that and an autosave will seal your fate. I’ve made that sound a bit sinister, and to be honest the story does take some dark turns. The sheer amount of choices you get is almost overwhelming and like any good choice-based game, it’s difficult to know if you’ve made the right decision or if a right decision even exists. Even the smallest choice can shoot you down a completely different path and the story is mysterious enough that you will be plagued by doubt all the way through.
The story is extremely layered. As you play you learn all about Aliya herself, her background and childhood, the history of the nebula and the fate of the missing roboticist. There’s a lot to take in and its well paced and well told. A narrator will kick in at specific moments and she has a great voice that seems to fit Aliya’s no nonsense, passionate and particular personality.
My first encounters with the menu unfortunately felt rather confusing. The touch pad accesses the glyphs you’ve found and also several timelines. There’s a historical timeline, a timeline of Aliya’s life and another timeline for the game’s events and the choices you make. There’s also a map of the nebula where you can plot your expeditions. It does feel quite higgledy-piggledy and I was unsure at first what I was supposed to do with all this information, when I was supposed to access it and how it was supposed to help my journey. I got the hang of it eventually but I’m not keen on starting any game with a ‘what the heck is this’ for the first hour. Greatness awaits in Heaven’s Vault but you’ll need a few moments to realise it. The historical timeline for example is a great way to access the nebula’s history in your own time without being bogged down by tiresome exposition.
Once you’ve got the hang of things and the game opens out you’ll be able to concentrate on visiting various moons and dig sites. While you can’t choose to go absolutely anywhere, the game does keep you busy with plenty of places to choose from. It’s great but the latter parts of the game can feel repetitive when you keep deciding to visit locations from the opposite sides of the Nebula. Actually it’s not the visiting that’s repetitive because every visit will move the story on, sometimes substantially. The problem is the sailing. You need fly your ship through rivers to get where you need to go. These twisty turny rivers have their own wonderful history and lore but journeys can feel overly long, the controls not quite perfected and it’s easy to loop round in a circle when you’re searching a particular area for a new site. You have to make these journeys every single time you switch locations and while I started off thinking ‘oh this is nice and relaxing’ by the time I neared the end of the game I was thoroughly sick of it – figuratively and literally. I had to put the controller down and retreat before my chicken and mushroom risotto made a reverse appearance. These sections are great for Aliya to ponder what’s just happened and to talk with whoever is in the ship with her, but it goes on for far too long far too often and can sometimes loop you around and around with badly timed directions from the passenger seat. We also encountered a couple of bugs, even despite two patches from the devs. While such a carefully crafted game is bound to sort issues out promptly, it’s worth noting that at the time of review the game was a little unstable.
Heaven’s Vault feels quite serene at times, with a beautiful and haunting soundtrack. The graphics are pleasingly simplistic with 3D hand drawn environments contrasted with 2D characters that have a floating, semi-transparent quality that gives them a ghostly appearance, like an echo of the past. It’s a beautiful game with a relaxed pace and a real sense of something incredibly important happening. Life, death, faith, afterlife, consciousness, empires and civilisations and the life of individuals both living and artificial. It’s got incredible scope contrasted by extremely humble settings.
With its highly original gameplay and branching narrative Heaven’s Vault is a worthy adventure. While the travel system is unnecessarily long and repetitive, it can be forgiven as the rest of the game is pretty damn good. If you’re looking for story that needs to be unravelled little by little with a strong sense of ownership, knock knock knock on heaven’s vault.
S J Hollis Rating – 7/10
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