Let me fill you in on a secret. I adore games that take players on an emotional journey without really even trying. This is the first thing that jumped out to me about Heaven’s Vault, the latest release from the team over at Inkle. Described as an archaeological science-fiction adventure puzzle game, there’s a lot of stuff to really champion about Heaven’s Vault. At the same time, there’s a lot of roughness around the edges, which is why it honestly won’t be for everyone. But I absolutely loved it.
Title: Heaven’s Vault
Available On: PC, PlayStation 4
Reviewed On: PC
Release Date: April 16, 2019
Game Provided By Inkle for the Purpose of This Review
You play as Aliya Elasra, an archaeologist with a robot companion known as Six. Together, you will traverse the Nebula in search of the missing roboticist Professor Janniqi Renba. Before we dive into the puzzle solving and what really is the core gameplay experience of Heaven’s Vault, I want to briefly mention what sucked me in to this. The Nebula, as it’s called in game, is a vast network of moons and ruins that are all interconnected by these mystical rivers of clouds. The currents change along the way, and the amount of speed you’re able to get while moving from location to location will dictate how long it takes to travel between each area.
This is all done thanks to Aliya’s ship, which is more or less a personal vehicle in this universe. The shoulder buttons allow you to bank left and right to try and find the sweet spot of the current to move swiftly down the rivers, while one of the face buttons will allow you to sweep the sails in order to pick up even more speed. This was so relaxing for me, partially because I played through a good chunk of the experience during the witching hours of the night with no distractions and was completely absorbed into the world. The music that plays was powerful and beautiful during these segments, and I honestly never grew bored with the sailing mechanics. Yes, you are definitely able to skip these portions eventually thanks to fast travel and handing off the controls of the ship to your robot friend (thanks to an update that released a week after the game came out). But I found more enjoyment by personally sailing myself, and listening to the stories that unraveled between Aliya and Six.
Okay, the puzzle mechanics. Basically everything you do in Heaven’s Vault has the chance to contain new symbols or words that you will need to try and decipher what they mean. This is the main gameplay element, as the lost language needs to be uncovered. Written down and known as the Ancient language, it’s a series of hieroglyphs very much inspired by the ancient Egyptians and Chinese writing systems. Containing a legitimate language, actual words and patterns that can start to be recognized over and over again, it was an interesting concept that I’m dying to see more of in the future.
Talking with every NPC is crucial, as you could pick up on clues for a new location to explore, or get handed an item with symbols on it that need to be revealed. You’ll also need to be meticulous with how well you explore each moon and ruin, as I cannot begin to recount how much times I found a phrase or symbols well off the beaten path. As you begin to discover more or more symbols and get a better idea of this lost civilization, you are theoretically shaping the timeline of events that have transpired throughout this Age that no one knew about. What you write down becomes fact, and you do have direct control over this. It was a neat mechanic that I really enjoyed. For example, I revisited a location I hadn’t been to since the beginning of the journey, and while there, I stumbled upon something I missed the first time around. This discovery opened up an entire new Age in the timeline of events. Things like that were super cool to me.
It isn’t all rainbows and unicorns however, as mentioned. Heaven’s Vault is a beautifully done game that didn’t spend enough time in the sanding station to smooth out the roughness around the edges. First and foremost, the way you walk around the moons and ruins is honestly quite clunky and takes some getting used to. Trying to examine objects can oftentimes be a chore, with players needing to point the camera at a very specific pixel in order to get the prompt to appear on screen for examination.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the sailing mechanics because of how serene they ended up being, I can also see how some players seeking more to do or more action in their games would absolutely despise this part of the game. Sometimes sailing from one location to another, if they are at opposite ends of the Nebula, can take upwards of 10 minutes or more to reach the destination. This is a large amount of time to be spent doing this constantly, but trust me. If you try Heaven’s Vault and find yourself not enjoying the sailing, try doing it when you are distraction-free and can let your mind escape into the music being played and the peacefulness of it all.
Growing up, I often fantasized what it would be like to be an archaeologist. Thanks to Heaven’s Vault, I sort of have that fantasy fulfilled. By simply paying attention to the surrounding areas where Aliya finds the symbols, you start to shape the world and she will view various buildings and areas differently depending on circumstance. Is this a temple, a garden, a graveyard, or something more? How you choose to decipher the symbols and phrases will decide what the building is. Are you correct, or are you completely wrong? You may discover another fragment of a phrase on a totally different moon or ruin that will change many things you’ve already thought were “locked in stone” in terms of the translations.
That’s what keeps me thinking about Heaven’s Vault after having finished the initial playthrough. What could I have done differently? What did I miss? Did I really translate everything the correct way? No two playthroughs will ever be the same, because one simple translation difference can impact the universe in ways that are unimaginable. And that’s an impressive feat the team at Inkle were able to achieve with this release. Clocking in around 18 hours, it’s long enough if you don’t want to see other options, but short enough if you want to keep exploring after the first time through.
Don’t get me wrong. Heaven’s Vault is a flawed experience, with the flaws jumping out early and persisting until the end of the story. But there’s way too many other things bundled into this package to simply ignore them on that premise alone. I wasn’t expecting to like Heaven’s Vault as much as I did, but it’s honestly one of the more enjoyable games I’ve had the pleasure of going through so far this year. If anything at all has ever intrigued you about it, I say give it a chance. Don’t let this go down as being one of the better games in 2019 that absolutely no one played. Because that would be a tragedy.