Heaven’s Vault takes you on a long and arduous journey sailing across a nebula of rivers to uncover a forgotten past by decoding a long lost language.
Genre: Adventure, Puzzle
Developer: inkle Ltd
Publisher: inkle Ltd
Release Date: Apr 16, 2019
I was looking forward to Heaven’s Vault, there were so many aspects to it that appealed to me in a new indie; adventure, story, dialogue, deciphering a new language, puzzles, branching narrative, and more. It just felt like a journey that I would inexorably find enjoyable.
As I started out, the protagonist character Aliya came across to me as a strong-willed person possible of achieving anything she set her mind to do. Character choices left you with options to make her arrogant, indifferent, or docile, reminding me of Quantic Dream games such as Detroit Become Human. The attributes she acquired from your choices generally carried on through the dialogue, though I could tell there were areas where it made no difference at all.
The core gameplay consists of walking around, discovering something you can interact with, and then analyzing written snippets of an entirely foreign set of symbolic characters to begin understanding a hidden language. Unlike a traditional adventure game, this game is entirely focused on decipherment. You have a completely unknown language made of obscure symbols and glyphs and for the entirety of the game your job is to figure out the language. You could call it the ONE BIG PUZZLE if you like. It’s all trial and error, with a good deal of error because it could be hours before you finally are able to understand a sentence in a book or a phrase engraved into the side of an oil-lamp. As you progress, you are able to unlock clues about ancient history and locations of places in the game with the use of your confirmed translations. In this way, every translation from an artifact brings you that much closer to the next section of the game.
What’s emphasized here is the actual archaeological aspect, as that is your given profession. Your goal is to discover what happened to a robot engineer named Renba, who disappeared as he was uncovering some ancient secrets for the university of Iox. Your boss, Myari and head of Iox, who apparently is some sort of adoptive mother to you, has tasked you with finding out what happened and why. You are given a robot to aid you, and off you go to sail around the nebula.
That sounds a bit more like a sci-fi adventure, doesn’t it? Not quite the Indiana Jones type of stuff you were envisioning. However, the robot is apparently 1,500 years old, buried deep in the ground on Iox and only unearthed quite recently. There are a number of technological marvels in this world and all of them are complete mysteries. In other words, all the knowledge of the past has been lost. No one knows how anything works, they just rely on the fact that it does and nearly all traces of the past have been forgotten.
So, that made the story all that more intriguing to me. What happened? How did all this come about? Robots don’t just last 1,500 years without a scratch and no instruction manual. Are they hiding something? It left a lot of unanswered questions. Thankfully, the game dives right into these scenarios and you eventually uncover some background about the history of the nebula. In fact, there is an absolutely marvelous looking timeline that ebbs and flows in an almost snakelike fashion to keep things straight. It’s a very beautiful presentation of things to help gamers wrap their heads around what is going on. I mean, this is an archeological game after all.
Once you are off Iox, you begin sailing on rivers of water that flow from one moon to the next. That part never quite made any sense to me, but I took it with a grain of salt and just kept sailing on, literally. Ah, but here is where the game begins to take a serious nosedive downward. It begins easy enough, follow a river, use the guide arrows, arrive at the next moon. Simple, just like following directions in a car in GTA or something. Yet, it didn’t stop there. While the game could have just used the sailing as a means of transportation and a way to break up the gameplay a bit, it took things down another path.
As you progress, the sailing becomes more exploratory. You’ll still get from point A to point B, but you may not really know where point B is because you have to uncover clues about its location as you play. If you don’t have enough clues, then you will need to sail all over the place, decode artifacts, and hope for the best. This can range anywhere from 15 minutes – 1 hour of sailing with no idea where the hell the next stop is. It’s insane.
I understand the intent and the directed focus for doing it, but it is a terrible idea that plays out like a frustrating sailing game of the old board game BattleShip. I swear, I sailed for a solid hour trying to find a hidden library and it was exasperating. For folks who have no issues meandering for ages, no worries, but for anyone who has time constraints in life with scheduled activities, this is not a good way to play a game. This design choice is poorly implemented and does not serve the game like I believe the developers envisioned. Instead, it’s a rage-inducing mess of simply trying to find the next stop. I hated it, outright hated it. At first, I tolerated it okay, but towards the end of the game, I was at my wit’s end. Sail in circles, follow the guide arrows, get insulted by a robot, have the arrows show me one way only for the robot to tell me I am an imbecile who is going the wrong way, rinse and repeat.
On top of all this, you have to decode artifacts on the go and this does not help the frustration level. All too often I’d get a sentence that just made no sense, but I was forced to do the translation. I did, but then I was also forced to make mistakes and it would cross ONE WORD that didn’t make sense so I could do it all over again…repeatedly. So, I’d make my best attempt at a sentence for 3-5 minutes, then it scratched out one word, often possessive, re-translated the exact same sentence again so it could scratch out one more word, then again, then scratch out one word, then do it again, then do it again, then do it again, then do it again, then FINALLY it would scratch out all the wrong words which were obvious to me in the first place, and it would let me guess as to the correct transaction, tell me “That will work for now”, and I could go back to endlessly searching for my next stop that remained elusive to me anyway.
I have to remark right here that were it not for the superb writing in this game, I would have rage quit. Actually, I did rage quit while looking for the Steel Age site. I simply left the room and didn’t come back for a good while with my ship bouncing on rivers aimlessly. Then I came back, let the robot autopilot to the last known area and somehow managed to find it on the next attempt. Deep sighs and relaxation yoga poses may be mandatory towards the end of the game, let me tell you.
The written story here is EVERYTHING. Erect a new “story” statue in the god circle in the game because this is one of the best-written indie games I’ve ever played. I loved it. That is because it is heavy on dialogue, and I love character study storylines.
The banter between Aliya and the robot never ran out of dialogue. Seriously, they went on and on and I only had a repeating sentence a total of two times. That, in and of itself, is astounding. They just kept on talking like best buds with actual meaningful content that was relevant to both the main plot and the development of the relationship between the two.
Several times during a visit to a location, the robot will ask if you want to return to the ship. Don’t. Just keep playing and enjoy all the extra dialogue that sheds light on the meanings and reasons behind going there in the first place. You’ll uncover so much more of the game just by walking around, you’ll be surprised. It does lead to the fact that it encourages aimlessly wandering, which may or may not be your idea of a fun time. In any event, if you want more info about the story and revealing bits about why you are there, keep searching around. You’ll often discover entire sections of the game that you would have otherwise left had you “hoppered” off too early to the ship.
What you should expect from this game is a story with an incredibly wide palette of actions and events that shape and form the next section of the game to be explored. It’s brilliant in that regard and rather unique with the language translations. I have never come across anything quite like this. I would say if I was to think of a game with a similar feel, The Longest Journey is the only thing that comes to mind. Yet, this game is more visceral and involved because, quite frankly, the characters develop far beyond what most games could even hope to achieve.
GRAPHICS & SOUND
One of the surprising aspects of this game is that it is a 3D game with 2D characters. This is good and bad. The good being that it’s a bit different than most games, giving it a more unique presentation. The bad is that you end up with some camera angles that just obscure your field of view or zoom in so much that you see a blurry 2D image. I also noted that too many of the male NPCs looked exactly the same. It could have done with a few extra faces in the crowd. I never thought the look of the game was off, and I loved the scenes in the ship, but the 3D part of the graphics was a bit sparse at times so that it felt too empty. This varies, depending on the location. In my opinion, if the game had a AAA budget it would have been lush with detail and graphic enhancements, but sadly this was not the case. I did have to mention that sailing on the rivers looks great even if it is annoying to sail, it still looks good doing it.
Also, I want to note that while this could easily be a point and click adventure, there is full controller support. I played with both a Xbox 360 and a Steam controller with zero issues. I never even missed my mouse.
As for the audio, there is some voice acting, but not enough. You’ll be reading for the majority of the game, so don’t go in expecting full voice actors. I did think what little voice acting there was, was done quite well with a strong sense of articulation about how phrasing impacts a scene.
This game just barely rates as a Save for Later because you will need a large amount of patience to play this game. The storyline covers an immense amount of detail and the breadth of information is enormous, but the actual method of moving to and fro is so frustrating as you progress that it almost ruins the game as you get closer to the end. It’s a shame too, as the writing is top-notch for an adventure game, but the exploration travel is downright ragey.
It’s not your typical adventure game either, as there are almost no puzzles and instead you are translating ancient language excerpts pretty much non-stop. While I enjoyed it at the beginning, past the 10-hour mark and I was getting really tired of constantly looking at symbols and wanted a change of pace with a puzzle or two. It didn’t happen until much later and it only happened once that I am aware of, though since there are branching narratives perhaps there are a few more puzzles to be found on subsequent playthroughs. Once you finish the game, you can play on the Save+ setting where you get the option of keeping all your ancient knowledge or not. The repetitive nature of the puzzling, since there is only one type of puzzle for the vast majority of the game, really makes the puzzle gameplay very shallow. If there were a few more puzzles involved, it would break things up tremendously, but by the time I was past the 12 hr mark I was literally sighing after each translation popped up. It just felt like a chore after some time rather than an intriguing head-scratcher.
The story is where this game shines the most. If you like character interactions and knowing what people are thinking, this is for you. If you love plot twists and convoluted ancient history with mysterious occurrences, it has you covered as well. I never ran out of a desire to know what happens next, all the way to the end. Just keep in mind you will be translating for roughly 20+ hours and that can be tiring along with hidden locations you have to ferret out with clues and guesswork. Traveling from one location to the next by exploring was easy at first, but quickly became annoying to the point where you may rage quit the game while sailing. I’m not the type that rage quits easily, but it certainly happened to me. Play this only if you have the patience of a seventh god.