The concept of Heaven’s Vault, as thankfully for the most part with its gameplay, is intriguing and ambitious in its scope and presentation. I don’t mean that necessarily in the sense that it’s a complex game, or that it contains totally innovative mechanics, but instead in how it has melded some simple concepts, and some not so simple ones, to create a truly immersive and interactive mystery that will ultimately be shaped by how you play and solve its puzzles.

Playing as Aliya Elasra, a bold young archaeologist, you are tasked by the head of your university on the wealthy moon Iox to go looking for a roboticist who has gone missing. There’s not much to go on initially, except for an artefact left behind containing some symbols of an ancient language, but nonetheless you set off, with your newly appointed robot sidekick (named Six), to explore the surrounding space (the Nebula) in hopes of learning where he went, and of course the significance of the artefact and its mysterious language. What ensues is not just an investigation into a missing man, but discovery of unknown history.

The game fundamentally plays like a typical adventure game. You explore your immediate surroundings looking for things to interact with, and talk to the characters you meet along the way – asking them questions and making observations to your companion. The game offers you a small region of space to explore, which is littered with moons and ruins that you can investigate, generally at your leisure, looking for clues as to the whereabouts of the missing roboticist. Conveniently for your keen archaeologist self, most of these clues consist of artefacts and old objects, allowing you to guestimate their origins – with each new artefact, depending on its time period, narrowing down the location of other hidden areas and moons to explore.

The game feels like a great archaeological hunt, particularly due to your university being, let’s say, withholding about the origins of civilisation (claiming that everything started with the glorious empire), the finds you are making are formative of the game world’s history. It’s an interesting and highly effective narrative device, allowing you to soak up the game’s backstory as you complete your main goal, but putting the onus on the player to fully uncover it.

Hopping aboard your ship, The Nightingale, Aliya can travel what they call ‘the rivers’. These are like winding and branching rivers that flow through space, leading to other moons and floating ruins. There is certainly direction to the exploration – being tasked or suggested by your colleagues/companion to head to specific locations to continue your search, but as you discover more items, new sites will make themselves known on your map, and at nearly every point in the game you can simply plot a course for a new area and go and have a gander.

Sailing the rivers is a fairly linear, low input experience (the most you’ll do is turn and occasionally propel yourself forward), but it’s an enjoyably tranquil one nonetheless. There is the option to fast travel to previously visited areas, but you may find yourself choosing to sail anyway, just to enjoy the music and dialogue that prompts during your commute. The relationship that Aliya has, and nurtures, with her companion Six is humorous and occasionally heartfelt – or at least it can be if you choose those sort of dialogue options (you can just be a dick to him) – with Aliya having had five robots beforehand (hence the name Six), and him not entirely trusting her judgement when it comes to safety. But he is certainly an invaluable companion to have, offering not only a direction to fire your ever prompting questions and remarks at, but also insight and ideas about your objectives and finds – all of which is recorded on a giant timeline, from historical finds to your current moves and decisions.

When you do make your way to a new site, Six will ‘hopper’ you down to its surface and join you in scouring whatever areas you discover. The variety of areas and biomes is impressive, and each moon is unique and fascinating to inspect. You could be exploring a farming village on a verdant moon, trudging through the sand of a windy desert, or breaking into an abandoned temple atop a cliff. There’s not a huge number of moons that you actually set foot on, but there’s enough, and each is unique and intriguing in its own way.

When you explore these areas, you’ll be on the lookout for clues to help with your search and its surrounding mystery. This includes finding artefacts, but also ‘scenes’ of incidents or importance to investigate. Some lead to mere curiosities, but others offer great value to the overall plot. Additionally, there are ruins to find scattered through space. While these are the least interesting discoveries in the game – essentially copy and pasted floating houses and walls that you don’t actually get to visit in person (your robot auto-loots them of artefacts) – they are, however, essential for finding artefacts and increasing your dictionary via the game’s language/translating mechanic (more on this in a bit).

Artefacts aren’t just pick-up and forget items, either, as they also serve a purpose to other characters in the game. Admittedly, these are ultimately in another quest to gain other artefacts of potential interest, but it’s nice that there’s always some extra insight to be given, as well as an excuse to revisit some of the game’s distinctive characters. You have a few friends back on your home planet of Elboreth – a bit of a rundown place, but Aliya is very proud of it. You can talk to the bar tender who you knew as a child for info on your own backstory, or you can go to see a childhood friend who can take a look at mechanical finds and try to work them out. There’s also a dealer in artefacts that you can trade with, and back on Iox a university friend who is very interested in the literature side of your collection. There’s so much effort that’s been put into this idea of hunting for artefacts and historical objects of interest, and it really pays off, allowing you to get invested in your finds and squeeze information out of them where possible. Particularly with regards to translating inscriptions and building your own personal dictionary, it’s a rabbit hole that is A: worth getting into in order to uncover more of the story, and B: very enjoyable to get swept up in.

The game’s language mechanic holds a similar ethic to its attitude towards exploration. Discovering a new language is one thing, but translating it virtually from scratch is another entirely, and while Heaven’s Vault I’m sure pulls its punches in regards to how difficult a task this actually is (and limits the language to a comparatively small selection of words), this is essentially what you end up doing. Painted, scratched and etched into nearly everything you find on your travels will be phrases, words and sentences in this ancient, forgotten language. Translating these functions as a snowball effect. Initially you may make intelligent guesses about short phrases based on their context (for example, a statue of a Goddess with two words must read as ‘something’ Goddess – thus leaving you to guess what the first word might be, based on a small selection of related words), but after many guesses and new discoveries you will have garnered enough of a personal dictionary to tackle longer phrases and return to incomplete ones.

It’s not unexpected of you to get things wrong occasionally, and some sentences, particularly later on, simply aren’t possible to translate until you’ve explored more. The phrases and words you find often offer context to your environment, and it’s such a unique way of telling a story (or at least painting a vague picture). But much like the exploration of the Nebula, as previously mentioned, the onus is on the player to put some effort into making it work. This might be a contentious issue depending on who’s reading, but it is entirely possible to make permanent mistakes in your translations – and in some instances, unless you play the game through again, you might have absolutely no idea about it. Now, this initially might sound dreadful – locking you into an increasing rate of failure at translating sentences completely because you’ve falsely assumed one word means something that it doesn’t (and I suppose the game ticking off words as completed after a few successful uses, regardless of them being correct, doesn’t help with this), but in my mind developer inkle has been really clever in doing this. Of course you won’t get everything correct, it’s an unrecognisable language to you, and so they allow you to slap meanings to words and create phrases based on your observations and guesswork.

But I suppose most importantly, to those who are really worried about this free-form mechanic, there’s no failure state or true/bad ending as a result of incorrect translations, just perhaps a few misunderstood bits of context. Additionally, and thankfully, the games does also offer some support in your translations. When making your guesses you’re given a list of words to choose from, as well as prompts from Aliya if whatever you’ve strung together makes no sense at all. Before you become confident with the words, each will have a question mark next to it, and then once you have used a particular word in the same manner multiple times, it will tick off (adding to your dictionary). Aliya will also cross out words that are later found to be clearly wrong (unless they have already been ticked off). Ultimately, while not exactly holding your hand, the game provides enough of a safety net that you aren’t perpetually stumped or making random, nonsense sentences.

It’s one of those mechanics that you’ll soon enough discover whether you enjoy it or not, and as much as the game has plenty else to offer, this is its primary ‘gimmick’, as it were, so if you can’t stand the idea of playing word puzzles, then perhaps this won’t be for you. Having said that, it is much more interesting and accessible than it may sound, and as that kind of someone who isn’t into word puzzles, I ended up really enjoying translating phrases and discovering the context of the plethora of items I found.

It’s the excitement of discovery and the curiosity of the unknown that makes the language feature more entertaining, and the game in general is drenched in that feeling and desire. The mystery surrounding this universe stays tight right until the very end, and with about 23 hours of gameplay (probably a bit more if you’re very thorough) there’s a fair build up to its conclusion. I suppose this might have something to do with my reaction to the ending, but unfortunately for me I found it a little disappointing. Obviously I can’t go into any real detail, but I felt for all you’d been exploring and delving into this mystery that the payoff wasn’t really there. I appreciate what the writers were trying to do with the ending, and contextually speaking it’s actually quite clever – also giving you reason to play the new game plus mode – but what I really wanted was a proper conclusion, and I don’t feel like I got it.

This is extra annoying as towards the end you reach a literal point of no return. There’s not nearly enough warning for this, and unfortunately as a result I missed out on exploring a whole area of the game, thinking I would plot course for it on my next move, but that move not being ‘allowed’ because I’d reach a certain point in the story. This is frustrating in every game, but I think for one where exploration and travelling at your own pace is initially encouraged, that this is a big, big no-no.

Additionally, while the game’s presentation is unique – and I personally found it to be very charming – it is certainly basic, and I can see that putting some people off. The floating ruins, as already mentioned, are pretty lame and I think these could have been way more interesting, and while the language translating gameplay is generally pretty solid and accessible, I did feel at times that this was made a bit more difficult due to some of the phrases and sentences not making a whole lot of sense (or being grammatically poor) even on completion – you think you’re making a mistake because a phrase doesn’t sound right, but actually it turns out it was supposed read in a clunky manner.

But having said all this, those of the only real complaints I had during my time with the game. I must give a shout-out for the voice acting, as this is superbly delivered (unfortunately not used enough throughout the game) – Aliya sounds unique for a character in a video game, and her lines are delivered in such a believable and relatable fashion (so incredible props to Gem Carmella). They also seem to meld wonderfully with the game’s beautiful soundtrack (Laurence Chapman), and together they really make the atmosphere of the game – perfectly accompanying the mystery and a desire to explore. I don’t often give scores as high as this, but I feel for its uniqueness and execution of concept (aside from the end) Heaven’s Vault really deserves high praise. It is a stunning game to experience, and quite impressive when you think of what the challenge must have been to create the language side of the game alongside a compelling story, workable third person gameplay, AND a selection of interesting explorable locations. I can’t recommend this enough. Even to those who don’t see themselves playing adventure/puzzle ‘type’ games, I’d suggest giving this a shot – you’ll find there’s a lot more to it than one can described in writing



Author

John Little
John Little

I started gaming with the release of the PS1 - Crash Bandicoot and Ridge Racer Revolution being the first 'real' games I ever set eyes on - and have been enthralled with the medium ever since. I particularly love strategy and horror games, the sort offered by titles such as Total War and Silent Hill, though I also have a soft spot for a good RPG. I studied Journalism at university in the hopes of progressing into writing about games. You'll most likely find me covering indie games as I'm always on the look out for interesting little titles, and generally I stick to the PC and PS4 platforms. I'm not interested in MMOs or really any kind of online game, and I have an unusual and frankly worryingly expensive obsession with collecting gaming guide books, but aside from that I like to think I'm a well rounded average gamer. Find me on twitter @JohnLittle29