Heaven’s Vault – Review
01 May, 2019
In Heaven’s Vault, you uncover an ancient past by translating an extinct language. What did we end up discovering? Here’s what we think.
What can ancient artefacts tell you about the way your ancestors lived? Heaven’s Vault illustrates that this question itself is flawed. Ancient artefacts aren’t talking to you. If you still want to eavesdrop on the past, you must spy, guess and infer until ultimately, you figure something out. Even so, you can’t reply to the past.
Or can you? As the game’s protagonist Aliya says, “The past is always present.”
Aliya is a weary archaeologist working for the University of Iox, infamous for her poor track record with assistant robots. Aliya’s shrewd mentor Myari, who once rescued her from the dusty slums of Elboreth, gives her a detective-ish task. Aliya has to investigate the disappearance of a university roboticist, who was himself on the trail of something big. To aid her, Aliya is assigned yet another robot—her sixth one so far—who she names, simply, Six.
In the imaginative world of Heaven’s Vault, glowing rivers snake across the skies and form complex water networks. Aboard your wooden, dragonfly-shaped ship, you sail these waters and reach ‘moons’ both habitable and otherwise. Upon landing or teleporting onto the surface, you may conduct your business: be it inquiring the locals or exploring ancient ruins.
Along the way, Aliya and Six chat once in a while. No, actually, they chat all the time. In fact, Heaven’s Vault might be the chattiest game I’ve ever played. It isn’t much of a hyperbole to suggest that you can’t go half a minute in this game without dialogue popping up. Thankfully, it’s good dialogue; brimming with character and surprise, and not without a little bit of humour.
When you’re not reading conversations and walking around, you will be studying and translating an ancient language called, well, Ancient. Be it a gate, a sextant, a map, a sword, or a piece of a ship’s hull, you’re sure to find something inscribed in it.
Although the game would like to give you the impression that you are an expert linguist and translator, what you do is actually a little less involved than that.
The ‘translation’ mechanic of Heaven’s Vault is roughly akin to a lite version of Duolingo exercises. Grammar is already sorted out for you, and pronunciation is not within the game’s ambit. That leaves the task of transliterating Ancient’s logographic script to the alphabetical script we write English in.
What this entails is separating phrases into words (like many ancient languages in our world, Ancient is written without spaces), and then comparing similarly-written words to deduce meanings. It seems like a lot of guesswork at first, and indeed, it is. Until late in the game, you will not get anything right on the first try. You’ll have to shelve away your inscriptions, hoping to compare the words you have found in different contexts.
But then, before you realise it, your mind comes to understand how Ancient was written.
It starts by figuring out the simplest words, like ‘and’ and ‘of’. Then, even before you can properly ‘read’ a sentence, you become able to tell which word is a verb and which word is a noun. You may not know what a particular word means, but you do know that it has something to do with holiness, or negation, or water.
To get to that point, though, you have to go through several hours of unrewarding guesswork as you build up your vocabulary. The game intends for you to keep returning to past inscriptions and work on translating them, but the interface offered to you is almost no help in this regard.
The game offers you a very expansive timeline, stretching from ancient eras to literally seconds ago, giving you both a view of ancient history and microscopic details of what activities you have performed in the game. It also allows you to filter incomplete transcriptions to work on, but I couldn’t reliably use that feature without it shifting into the rest of the timeline.
Even the translation interface itself offers very little feedback, leaving you to work in unrewarding silence for the most part. It would seem to add to the effect of how uncertainty can cloud research in ancient languages: you never really know if you’re on the right track or not. But then, Aliya or Six will—without explanation—announce that a given word is correct or incorrect. Getting used to this system takes a while, which is to say, more or less the entire first half of the game.
When the moment of learning does strike, though, it is thrilling. As the game went on, I came to guess words with greater confidence. That ‘bullseye’ feeling of getting a translation right matched very well to my own experiences of studying real-life languages. Even with its limitations, the game does present an authentic and informed take on portraying language study within a video game format.
Heaven’s Vault revels in an obscure, ancient past, but does not care to make the present very interesting. Perhaps this is intentional, given Aliya’s jaded personality and her interest in history. Like her, we come to glamourise past empires and wonder at their lives, while caring little for the world of the now.
The ‘present’ world of Heaven’s Vault is peculiarly aloof in a way that seems to run against the laboured and voluminous dialogue writing. The game uses illustrated 2D sprites in 3D worlds, and forgoes animations entirely. Combined with underused audio feedback and po-faced non-player characters, this leaves all the action to your imagination.
Still, this is an Inkle game. The meat lies in the branching story.
Heaven’s Vault has a particularly organic story structure, offering considerable freedom in what you can do, all while still feeling like a guided adventure.
Choices come in all shapes and sizes, and they all weigh the same. This means that the characters and narrative of the game showcase a surprising level of reactivity, even with the smaller decisions that you make. An insolent tone or a hasty alliance can have just as impactful consequences as your more obvious decision-making.
Conversations and decisions feel natural in Heaven’s Vault, which is why Aliya and Six quickly become memorable characters. Their adventures become your adventures, and their choices become your choices. What you choose to do as Aliya (or even when you choose to do it), always feels deliberate and intentional. It makes the narrative feel distinctly natural and unsystematic, all while still letting you call the shots.
The trade-off to having such a vastly divergent narrative is that the game abounds with continuity bugs, particularly in the second half. As the branching story gets all the more complex, you often end up with situations where Aliya knows things you don’t. Sometimes, she even knows things that she doesn’t.
At one point in my game, Aliya met a character who she abruptly started referring to by name. I assumed she learned the name off-screen, and carried on. But then, maybe an hour or two later, Aliya learned the character’s name as intended and reacted with some surprise.
It’s not a serious knock on the game, given that Inkle is already hard at work ironing out the game’s bugs and flaws. Shortly after the game’s release, Inkle even introduced a fast travel feature to the game that is utterly indispensable in the second half. Maybe with time, they will also fix the bafflingly poor sailing, and the painfully slow walking, and the imprecise selection controls. Okay look, they need to fix a lot of things.
What may require a considerably greater rework is the game’s ending, which ties up the story’s many threads in one hasty stroke. Although the game’s divergent storytelling and New Game Plus mode invite a second playthrough, I really couldn’t be bothered, having uncovered the game’s core mystery and knowing how it ends.
Heaven’s Vault is a different game than most, and that alone makes it worth celebrating. It comes with many a wart, and it never really gels together the way a more conventional game would, but I had a great go with this moon-hopping, language-studying archaeology adventure.
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Release Date: 16 April 2019 (PC, PS4)
This review of Heaven’s Vault is based on a copy provided by the developer.
For more information on Heaven’s Vault, have a look at our coverage of the game.