Heaven's Vault Review
What a difference an update makes. While one could make a case for Heaven’s Vault being a deliberately ponderous experience which lets you explore its odd blend of futuristic and archaic worlds at your own pace, there were times when it was too plodding, too lethargic. Most of the blame here should be directed at the mode of travel: a sail craft which navigates the “rivers” linking various moons. As archaeologist Aliya Elasra, you’re tasked by the head of a university to track down a missing professor and discover what he was researching when he vanished. The issue is that doing so involves a lot of travel back and forth between moons, dig sites and other points of interest, and that travel is deathly dull. This review would have been out days ago if I’d a) been able to steer my ship along the course I actually intended to follow and b) not had to fight off the urge to nap during this process.
Thankfully, developer Inkle has recognised this shortcoming and added a means of fast travel in the game’s latest patch, which means you can now head directly to points of interest from within your ship, or set off and then hand over to your trusty robot companion Six to navigate you the rest of the way. Travelling isn’t totally without merit, since conversations you have with Six and any other passengers you collected along the way as the story unfolds do add flavour to your discovery of the world around you. But because travel makes up such a huge (and hugely uninteresting) part of the game otherwise, you end up frustrated and desperate to land on the next site to see what relics Aliya will uncover. The option to skip it is therefore a huge boon.
When you do land, Heaven’s Vault brims with atmosphere, lore and interesting characters. There are a number of very different worlds: some rich, like the university moon of Iox, some poor, like Aliya’s home of Elboreth whose inhabitants treat her like a pariah for leaving to better her life. While you’ll only encounter a few main NPCs during your play through, they’re fleshed out well. A roguish trader will give you information and trade artefacts to help you decipher inscriptions, while a waspish old “friend” has a backstory which slowly reveals itself on subsequent visits to her house. Your main verbal sparring partner however is Six, who is a cross between Johnny Five and GERTY from Moon. The robot is under the employment of the university, and what you discover on your travels may be reported back to Iox whether you like it or not — so choosing what to reveal to Six forms an important part of how the story develops.
The main gameplay involves translating inscriptions, markings and texts on the artefacts, items and structures you find. Each new inscription brings up a string of characters which are a combination of bespoke hieroglyphs with vague influence from the Arabic alphabet. Underneath, a bank of translated words can be dropped onto different portions of the text to try and make sense of the overall inscription. If you are successful in making sense of a phrase, the translated words are added to your dictionary and then become available for future translations. If you get it wrong, Aliya makes a note to remove that as a potential translation for a given word. It’s a simple idea, executed in a way which makes you feel pretty smart — and related words often have recurring characters which lets you make a decent stab at something if it looks similar.
Each translation helps expand the story a little, either by Aliya discovering a bit about the area she found it in or the age in which it was created, or by correlating it with other relics to discover new places she can travel to. There’s a big Raiders feel to many of the discoveries which, alongside the characters and general vibe of the locations, make Heaven’s Vault a delight to explore.
Aesthetically it’s a mixed bag; the sailing sections are fairly basic — although the areas in which you ride rapids are both dizzyingly exciting and painfully scarce — but locations are wonderfully detailed. The difference between the sterile, clean and progressive development on Iox contrasts nicely with the sandy temples and bazaars on Maersi and Elboreth, and the hand-painted characters with oddly chopped-off legs stand out. Points of interest are clearly marked in light point-and-click segments, but any puzzles you encounter are usually constrained to the area (and often the same room) you’re in. Aliya narrates the main links between story beats in an endearing Cockney dialect, but otherwise the story and conversation is delivered through text, with an odd abundance of italicised words in the wrong place, like a comic book letterer who lost focus. If you can get past that quirk, the narrative will unfold leisurely and deliver a few twists as it does so, establishing the lore of the nebula you navigate and the fascination with time loops which the population believe themselves to be a part of.
Without the addition of fast travel, Heaven’s Vault would have been a frustrating curio only for the patient to persist with. But by taking on board feedback and letting players get to the meat — and indeed the highlight — of the game, Inkle has made it more accessible and more enjoyable to experience. It still remains a bit of an oddity, one whose ambition in tying together numerous story strands into a cohesive package while allowing for branching narrative choices doesn’t quite succeed. Yet it isn’t for want of trying, and players may well get a kick out of a more cerebral take on a traditional adventure with an interesting protagonist; it’s less Lara Croft, more Susie Dent.
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