I’d had the opportunity to play a demo of Heaven’s Vault at last year’s EGX Rezzed event and what I’d seen there had intrigued me. So when Emily Morganti kindly offered a review key, I accepted and got stuck into the title. But after a couple of hours I really didn’t know what to make of it: was it trying to be interactive fiction, a point-and-click, a puzzle game? All three perhaps?
A quick search on Google revealed a number of articles and reviews about it and almost all of them were favorable. The Steam page showed a ‘Very Positive’ rating also; so what was it I wasn’t getting? I decided to delete my current save file and start again with a fresh mind a few days later, determined to see what other players had enjoyed so much about inkle’s latest release, and after 15 hours of travelling through the Nebula I think I may have just caught a glimpse of it.
I think my issue with Heaven’s Vault originally was that it’s a very slow burner and it takes a while to get to grips with the plot. The story starts on Iox, once the political centre of a vast empire but now reduced to universities and libraries. Technology peaked a very long time ago and few people understand the machines that now exist – robots, teleporters, spacecraft – and they’re not particularly interested in doing so either. Except you that is, archaeologist Aliya Elasra.
Your adoptive mother Professor Myari sends you in search of a roboticist named Janniqi Renba who recently went missing and provides you with a robot companion named Six. Together you explore the Nebula in your ship The Nightingale, sailing between moons like floating islands connected by ‘rivers’. Their ability to provide oxygen and water have made them culturally significant and the Loop, the dominant religion, believes that everything flows back round to happen again just like them.
You travel to the moons in your vessel and unfortunately these sections can be tedious. On one hand they’re great because you’re able to have conversations with your companions to find out more about the world; but it’s necessary for you to control the ship yourself and it’s not always pleasurable. Although the environments look beautiful, longer journeys can become dull – but I’m pleased to say that in a recent update inkle added the ability to have Six take over the controls and this helps immensely.
Once you reach your chosen destination, it’s time to explore and get your archaeology on. Points of interest are highlighted when looking at the environment from certain angles and selecting them will give you a number of possible options: further questions, observations and inferences which may or may not be correct. If you’re thorough enough you may find a hidden relic from a past era or inscriptions from an old language called Ancient, and it’s during these instances where Heaven’s Vault really shines.
You’re taking a ‘best guess’ when translating these rune-like symbols initially, and over time the inscriptions grow longer so the difficulty level increases. But there’s a joy in realising you’re starting to recognise a few of them and the phrases are beginning to make sense; this game is good at making the player feel clever at these points and it’s very satisfying. It’s still possible though to make an incorrect translation however or to learn what a word is before Aliya does.
For example, after assigning a word to a set of symbols earlier in my progress, I found further information which made me realise my interpretation was wrong. Unfortunately though Aliya was not so quick in her comprehension which meant that every time those symbols appeared for the next few hours, I was stuck with my original translation and couldn’t change it. It’s a shame an Ancient dictionary isn’t included because I’d have loved to have seen how many words I’d uncovered during my gameplay.
So that pretty much sums up Heaven’s Vault’s gameplay: sail to a moon, uncover inscriptions and translate them to increase your understanding. Do so often enough and you’ll be able to locate previously undiscovered moons where there is more to explore. Ultimately, you’re trying to find out what happened to Renba, why the Nebula is failing, what it is the robots have forgotten and the fate of the universe, with all threads eventually pointing to an ancient observatory.
I mentioned above that it takes a while to get to grips with the plot and here is where my issue lies. inkle’s release is a game of choices – many choices – and it’s possible to get lost. You may start off investigating one lead and find a relic which then points to another; but do you switch to this new clue or continue looking into the first? At one point I became a little overwhelmed and started wandering between moons in the hope of some guidance, until I was pointed in a new direction by an ally.
If you become stuck in this way you can visit several friends who will look at a relic or inscription and provide you with some information. However, I found it extremely difficult to know who to trust and it made me very cagey about what I showed to whom. It does add to the sense of unease within the Nebula but I’m still not sure whether this distrust is actually intended – or if it’s not and I’ve just completely misinterpreted the writing and characters.
What makes me think it could possibly be the latter is the way Aliya responds to Six and other friends. In conversations you’re given several dialogue options and even if you opt to choose the nicest one, she can still respond in an unexpected way and come across as rude or sarcastic. She’s fiercely independent, always wants to uncover the truth and doesn’t let the Loop’s belief dictate her actions but sometimes she could do with watching her sharp tongue.
Although there were many elements I didn’t warm to immediately, Heaven’s Vault is a unique experience. I don’t think I’ve played another release where the translation mechanic is so strong or fulfilling and, even though it’s an incredibly slow-burner with a somewhat abrupt end, the story is an interesting one full of mysteries to uncover. It just won’t be to everybody’s taste and I’m still struggling myself to figure out how I felt about the experience overall.
Just like the Ancient you’re translating in-game, I’m not certain whether I’ve interpreted Heaven’s Vault in the correct way.
Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.