The desire to uncover and make sense of the past is something I believe is an almost universal human trait. Heaven’s Vault taps into that innate need to understand and rationalize the past and does it in a way that is both stylish and compelling.
Developed and published By Inkle, hailing from Cambridge in the United Kingdom, in this award-winning game, you take on the role of Aliya Elasra as she explores the mysterious world referred to in-game as the Nebula. Embark on an epic journey to places no man has been in centuries along with your faithful (to a degree) robotic companion, Six, and unlock the secrets of the forgotten history.
Story – One For The History Books
This game is heavily driven by its narrative. It is presented in a non-linear format, where players can work their way through the story as they see fit. It’s a bit of a slow burn but remains intriguing throughout.
Heaven’s Vault kicks off at the University of Iox, with Iox being the seat of power in a grouping of “moons,” which are essentially asteroid-like bodies scattered throughout a nebula that is capable of supporting human life. Your initial task is to find a fellow archaeologist, Renba, who has sent an ancient artifact back to the university and then seemingly disappeared without a trace.
Renba found something of great consequence, and it is up to you to track him down and find out what he knows. This premise is effective in its simplicity, and as you might guess, things don’t remain simple for very long. As you explore, you uncover secrets of the past and visit long-lost ruins. Each answer you find only brings to the fore more questions, the finely woven layers of intrigue becoming a tapestry as you follow each thread.
One could argue that it’s the characters that make a good story, and Heaven’s Vault has characters in spades. The interactions you have with each are rich and satisfying. From less well-to-do characters on poverty-stricken moons who despise the Ioxian Empire to pompous intellectuals at the university and even robots like your companion Six, this game paints a picture of a divided world of inequality through its myriad characters and pulls it off with aplomb.
Gameplay – A Slow, Steady Burn
If you have ever fantasized about being an archaeologist, here’s your chance! A large chunk of the game is spent finding and evaluating ancient relics. That’s not all – you will also be exploring a world that grows as you uncover its secrets and making choices along the way. Overall, there is a lot to love in this title in terms of gameplay, so let’s break it down some.
When embarking on a journey, you do so via a map of the Nebula. Prominent locations are marked, such as Iox and Elboreth, while others that you have yet to discover are given as areas in or even outside of known space. These vague locations start out as wider areas, getting smaller as you become more certain of their general location through research.
On this screen, the main character also provides commentary about these places, as well as possible objectives that can be pursued by visiting them. This is a refreshing design when compared to your generic list of quests and objectives and lends itself well to the non-linear nature of the game.
Once you have chosen a destination, you sail forth on your ship along “rivers”, which are flows of gas and particles that resemble and behave like the ones we are used to in real life but sometimes also like rollercoasters. The sailing mechanic is simple and quite fun, you steer the ship left and right through these branching rivers towards your destination, and you can enjoy some dialogue along the way as the characters aboard the ship discuss events and discoveries.
If you are anxious to get to your destination, there are some quality of life features that make this a little easier, and the game is all the better for it. Missed a turn? Not to worry, simply tap a button, and you will be returned to a place shortly before your mistake. For longer journeys, you can let Six take control until you reach uncharted waters, at which point you will have to steer the ship into the unknown.
Once you have landed, our heroine proceeds on foot; as I have said earlier, this game is something of a slow burn, and Aliya is no athlete. She walks at a somewhat leisurely pace, but this is not at all a bad thing as it gives the dialogue time to unfold and adds a sense of realism. We certainly don’t run everywhere in real life. Encountering people and objects of interest bring up various prompts, giving you control over how the main character responds to them.
Choices That Matter
When dealing with other characters, usually, you have a few choices in terms of dialogue and actions at your disposal. Many of them are quite ambiguous – there is no clear cut right or wrong way to deal with a situation. You can achieve your objectives occasionally by lying to or deceiving other characters, and many times being honest does not seem like the best route to take.
I thoroughly enjoyed Heaven’s Vault for the carefully written dialogue and branching choices, allowing you to either try to be as nice as Aliya’s personality would allow or to be an outright jerk in some cases. The NPCs respond in ways that feel natural and well-written and are equally capable of being deceitful for their own gain. This gives the game innate replayability, as well, so if you are tired of games throwing feeble and inconsequential choices at you, then this should definitely be on your radar.
Possibly the most entertaining mechanic in the game for a wannabe archaeologist such as myself is unravelling the mysteries of an ancient language through guesswork and determination. The majority of the artifacts that you’ll find have some or other inscriptions on them, and through analyzing the words, you can unlock their meaning and learn new things about the world or possibly even find the location of a previously unknown historic site.
I found this both intriguing and exciting, and I think this is in part due to how intuitively this mechanic was implemented. You can start out by complete guesswork, and as you become more confident in a word’s meaning, Aliya will add it to her dictionary.
If you make the wrong guesses, our protagonist will say so and remove certain words from the list. This will help keep players moving forward and keep frustration to a minimum. Encountering new texts might also rule out a previous guess allowing you to have another crack at guessing the meaning of a word. If the text is too challenging, you can simply come back to it at a later stage. You can also ask certain characters for help by showing them your discoveries; they might even bring you new ones you had not yet encountered.
There is something so satisfying about decrypting an ancient language and learning things that completely refute the known in-game history. This mechanic should make this game very attractive if you love some puzzling goodness.
Graphics And Audio – Less Is More
Heaven’s Vault has a unique, and quite frankly, beautiful visual style that is unlike any game I have ever played. The Middle Eastern aesthetic is eye-catching and fits with the overall theme.
From exploring lush, overgrown gardens to desolate rocky moons and ruins, each location feels and looks unique. The character designs, similarly, are striking and colorful yet pleasingly simple and easy to recognize.
No two characters look alike at all; from our cheeky protagonist to minor characters with only a few lines of dialogue, they all have a unique look that fits with their respective personalities. I must add that I did encounter some noticeable framerate drops playing in handheld mode. That said, it’s likely that performance will be improved with patches over time.
In terms of audio design, the soundtrack is mostly composed of somber violin and vocal arrangements. While nothing to write home about, it provides a fitting atmosphere for exploring the lost and forgotten. The voice acting, although minimalistic, is excellent – Gem Carmella lends her voice to Aliya as she shares her thoughts throughout the game. Overall, in terms of audio, Heaven’s Vault is well presented. This also goes to show that sometimes less is indeed more.
I reviewed Heaven’s Vault on Nintendo Switch and would like to thank Inkle Studios for providing the review key.