A Sermon on Discovery
There is a special kind of wonder in discovery, whether it be of something new or, in many cases, of something fascinatingly old. The past can often display illuminating truths of the present, and it is a worthy endeavor to seek out that which has been lost or untouched for countless years. This is definitely the motivation for the protagonist of Heaven’s Vault, Aliya, a space archaeologist with plenty of spunk to go around. Aliya works for the wealthy and prosperous University of Iox, sailing the rivers of the Nebula in search of magnificent history. When a renowned roboticist from the University mysteriously disappears, Aliya sets out on a different course of discovery, one that has dire and monumental consequences.
Accompanied by her stoic robot Six (so named because Aliya had a “certain number” of robots before – she seems to be a bit careless with her mechanical companions), Aliya begins her search by seeking out artifacts which will aid in her quest. The relationship between these two characters is done fantastically, as Aliya’s brashness is often tempered by Six’s logicalness and apparent timidity. The direction their many interactions take is up to the player, but regardless the relationship will blossom into something with meaningful depth, further enriching the world that developer Inkle has crafted. In addition to the life breathed into its characters, Inkle has also done a marvelous job of littering the world with hundreds of objects and inscriptions to find. Most items seem to hold some form of significance, which in turn makes their discovery that much more exciting.
In conjunction with seeking material items, Aliya also keeps a notebook filled with glyphs and script from the Ancient Language, which she has been faithfully attempting to translate for years. For me, this was the primary highlight of the game, and is something that Heaven’s Vault does remarkably well. Inscriptions can be found nearly everywhere, and their correct translation (or at least nearly correct) is vital, as Aliya’s slowly growing vocabulary and knowledge aids in discovering new areas to explore.
Aliya’s slowly growing vocabulary and knowledge aids in discovering new areas to explore.
The actual act of translation itself is fairly simple. An inscription or fragment of text is presented to players as a string of glyphs, with accompanying words that Aliya guesses may be related. At first, it can feel a bit like just trial-and-error, where you simply attempt to find glyphs that have matching shapes to the given inscription. It’s almost like fitting pieces into a jigsaw puzzle of Ancient words. After some time, however, you will begin to discover that the intent is not for you to just shoot blindly, but rather use context clues to aid in finding the translative solution. Was the inscription in question found on a planet full of water? Is Aliya translating a scrawl on an ornate telescope? These subtleties are not to be ignored, and are always there if you know where and how to look. This is important, because it is almost always possible to finish a translation incorrectly, which can in turn lead you in the wrong direction.
This may sound almost mundane at the outset, but as the story progresses it all becomes so much more fascinating. You are given a timeline of when certain events occur, in addition to the approximate time period of individual items and inscriptions. This is brilliant, because so often these events and translations intertwine and influence one another. For instance, sometimes Aliya or Six will confirm that a guessed word is the correct translation, given the framing of the phrase as a whole. Using this new knowledge, past inscriptions can then also be fully translated, which further bolsters the progression of the story and the direction that players ought to take. It all works together seamlessly, and makes learning every new word feel like a victory in and of itself.
What I found to be most impressive, though, was how each glyph was so intricately designed. Clearly, Inkle put a lot of thought and time into the Ancient language, and with careful observation it can be seen how the structure of the language is organic, building on itself like any “real” language. Patterns emerge, which can aid in much more accurate guesses. Certain symbols can denote a transactional meaning, or can negate a positive translation. Ostensibly, one could keep an actual notebook of glyphs and correctly guess solutions on their own. I personally did not take this route, but it is something that I feel language-lovers would be fascinated doing.
Though the translation of inscriptions is a major part of Heaven’s Vault, there is also a heavy emphasis on exploration. Inkle has created many interesting and diverse worlds, each with their own biomes and art design, all connected by the vast Nebula. Each of these places have a story to tell, and it is really easy to get caught up in the excitement that Aliya possesses for revitalizing the past. All of this is presented in a very interesting art style. The textures for each environment are light in the detail department, but that is not to say that they are of low quality. Rather, Inkle has run with a minimalist style that works wonderfully within the primary theme of the game. Everything feels old, but also still presently relevant.
Inkle has run with a minimalist style that works wonderfully within the primary theme of the game.
The most interesting aspect of the visual design, however, is how the characters are presented. Contrary to the physical world, characters are all hand drawn. This was a bit jarring at first, especially since the animations themselves are also limited, making characters move in stilted and jerky motions. One clever bit is that as Aliya moves, you can briefly see a faded image of her following behind, a hearkening to the emphasis of times past. I will admit that at first I did not like this direction in the art design, but after while I grew used to it, and then I started to enjoy it. I think it all fits perfectly within the aesthetic that Inkle is trying to achieve.
Perfectly accompanying the unique visual direction is a sweeping and beautiful soundtrack. Though there are actually long stretches of time where the music was minimal or nonexistent, when it did kick in, it was glorious. It had an almost melancholy feel, as if sadly (but also fondly) remembering times past. It never quite rose to levels of epic proportion, but really it doesn’t need to. This is not a journey to be taken at a blistering pace, and so I think the music matches the mood of the adventure admirably.
When I first started Heaven’s Vault, I was thrilled. I felt that I was embarking on a journey unlike any other I had taken in the video game world, and I was right. I love the sense of wonder, the discovery of new things, and the sense of exploration. Unfortunately, it is not without its faults; the main offender for me (and many others, as I’ve come to see) is the primary mode of exploration: sailing. Aliya has her own ship, the Nightingale, which she uses to sail the coursing rivers of the Nebula. When I first started sailing, I found it wonderful. Sure, it was simple and very laid back, requiring only a few keystrokes every so often, but the Nebula is beautiful and awe-inspiring. It was nice to just sit back and essentially be along for the ride. But then I began to sail more and more, and started to do a lot of back and forth between the same two planets. This became incredibly tedious and felt like an immense slog because some routes could take upwards of several minutes to traverse.
Sometimes, shipwrecks or ruins could be found along the way that contained new inscriptions to translate, and the travel time did allow for opportunity to engage in dialogue with the robot Six, but after a time it became mind-numbingly boring. I spent nearly half of my early hours in the game sailing, which essentially meant sitting back and staring at my screen doing nothing. It just simply was not fun; I just wanted to get back to translating and discovering! Mercifully, after many comments from early players, Inkle released an update that allows players to pass control to Six while Aliya “rests,” which essentially acts as a quick travel mechanism. This was a game changer, and definitely made backtracking more palatable.
However, and this was probably my biggest complaint, I was baffled that with all of the worlds that I was able to discover, the game would not let me pick my destination unless it wanted me to. For a handful of hours, I was limited to traversing between two main locations, which each only had a couple of NPCs that I could interact with, who in turn had a few items that I could take from them to show to other NPCs. This was the only way to progress through the story. Even though I had discovered dozens of other locations, I was not able to return to any of them. I was also not able to explore “undiscovered” locations, because Aliya did not yet have enough information to sail there. It was very frustrating to feel constrained by the game in this way, when the rest of the adventure felt so open ended and free.
Heaven’s Vault is best served in bite-sized portions, rather than in a long marathon session.
I do feel that my frustrations could have been alleviated a bit, however, with a different playstyle. I actually think that Heaven’s Vault is best served in bite-sized portions, rather than in a long marathon session. Doing so would break up the monotony of travel, and make each play session feel like a breath of fresh air. Additionally, Inkle has done something really cool with how they return players to the story. Every time the game starts up, players are presented with what is essentially “the story so far.” It serves as a really neat and helpful reminder of what has transpired and what the imminent goal is for players. It also made it feel like I was part of a continuing and epic saga.
Ultimately, Heaven’s Vault is truly something to behold. Inkle has crafted something incredible and ambitious, and I am thrilled that I got a chance to explore their creation. At the end of it all, though, I am exhausted. The gameplay is slow, sometimes plodding, and making progress can sometimes feel almost not worthwhile. But then you make a new discovery, and everything opens up again. Somehow, they reel you back in for “just one more translation.” It is a fascinating dichotomy that I find difficult to properly convey. There were times when I was immensely frustrated, and others when I was smiling uncontrollably with pure joy. Heaven’s Vault is most certainly not for everyone, but for those who long for a sense of wonder and discovery, it is a true diamond in the rough.
Yes, if you:
- Have a deep appreciation for language and history
- Are looking for a unique and well-realized story
- Enjoy the thrill of discovery
No, if you:
- Need something adrenaline-fueled and fast-paced
- Dislike dialogue-heavy gameplay
- Don’t want to think hard while you play
Heaven’s Vault is available on PC and PS4 (Released April 16, 2019) for the MSRP of $24.99.
Note: Cannonicity received a copy of Heaven’s Vault on PC in exchange for a fair and honest review.