Heaven’s Vault was developed by Inkle Studios (the studio behind the rather well regarded 80 Days, though I have not played it). Heaven’s Vault is a Philology/Archaeology simulator. A slow methodical game with educated guesses at decoding an ancient language, In Heaven’s Vault, the player character, Aliya Elasra, and her robotic companion, Six, explore the many moons around The Nexus, a water-way-like section that connects each area you can, and will, explore on your journey through this game.
The setting is a semi-futuristic / steampunk-adjacent galaxy where travel between the many dead moons (and a few live ones) is easily accessible by airship-like space boats. However, many of the residents of the lively moons don’t travel anywhere due to fear and superstition. The story follows an adventurer, archaeologist, philologist, and player character Aliya Elasra. The game starts on Iox, a futuristic place filled with scholars, and the main character’s mentor, Myari. There is also Janniqi Renba, a fellow archaeologist who has worked with Aliya and Myari in the past.
You go on a journey from the slums to an ancient but advanced “Vault” of sorts, learning about Aliya, Myari, Janniqi, and all of Aliya’s other friends and associates.
In general, the story is a serviceable enough tale of an adventurer and the sixth robot her (basically) adoptive mother gifted her after she broke the first 5. It is mostly about personal connections and history. The characters talk about a religion that believes mainly that looking at history is essentially looking into the future. The main plot seems to be about the main character being a brash archaeologist/philologist who needs to learn to take better care of herself and be less obsessive over her work, while still changing how people see history.
The gameplay is walking around with slow and slightly outdated controls; talking to people, and piecing together the narrative of an ancient advanced civilization. You get a timeline to look at where you can see what you’ve personally done in the story as well as the ancient civilization. There is an interesting story here if you are looking for that, and an intriguing mechanic of the language-deciphering.
In-between talking to people and piecing together an ancient language, you travel between moons in a strange space air travel system on your character’s DaVinci-like airship. Early on, it’s tolerable, but later on, I don’t particularly appreciate these segments as much as finding out the words in the ancient language.
The main gameplay loops between deciphering a language long forgotten by most living beings and adventuring from area to area. Learning the history and “character” of each ruin you discover and go through is so satisfying; when you get something wrong it’s not frustrating because you can get back to it later near the end of the game when you understand more of the language (or in New Game Plus where you keep all of the translations you’ve figured out but get to go through the story again).
As I played through the game, a few glitches occurred and some general slowdown. It’s not the worst thing possible but it’s good to note, your mileage may vary if you play the Windows version or even if you play on a PS4 Pro (I played on an original PS4, a rather old one I bought used at that).
Compounding with the slowdown and glitches, the controls that feel like a particularly “janky” old PS1 game. Slow-walking with no option to run and the by-default slow text (though this can be alleviated in the settings), Heaven’s Vault is a slow game, and for a good amount of people, that isn’t the type of game they would be looking for. It’s not an action game by any stretch, it’s a slow game, so that might be bad for some, but good for others, depending on what you’re looking for.
Graphics & Audio
As mentioned above, Heaven’s Vault is a visually and auditorily stunning game. The hauntingly beautiful soundtrack is just amazing to hear when it kicks in (which, given, isn’t often enough). It’s up there with the Lord Of The Rings soundtrack in some places, especially the main theme of Lord Of The Rings.
The music, specifically, is a major draw to the game. Orchestral-style sweeping, and emotion-driving. The music is the kind of thing you could listen to outside of the game without annoyance or too much repetition. Reminiscent of the feelings you get when seeing a landmark in real life for the first time, or get to the top of a mountain after a long hike and seeing the view.
Even while the music and art style is beautiful and stunning to me. The art in this game reminds me of a painting within each frame (excluding the… almost questionable 3D model background segments that feel like a PS2 game with 3D models my 15-year-old friend could probably one-up in Blender). The distinct character design and stunning visual style overall help this game during the parts that drag on immensely, especially the boat segments, (which, I will note, can essentially be skipped to an extent).