As it happens more often than I’d like, I’m kind of late to the party when it comes to Heaven’s Vault. The developers, inkle Ltd, who were also responsible for the Sorcery! series and 80 Days, released this game back in April of 2019 and it was met with critical acclaim. Now, luckily for me, I’ve just had the chance of playing it, and I’m honestly really glad that I finally did it.
I’ll just go ahead and say it right away. Heaven’s Vault is quite possibly one of the best and most engaging narrative-driven adventure games that I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. It’s a well-rounded adventure game with an amazing story and an astonishing puzzle mechanic. Heaven’s Vault is a game about finding ancient artefacts and deciphering the language of an ancient civilization. This is done by slowly building up your vocabulary by translating various inscriptions that you find etched in artefacts and numerous locations that you get the chance of visiting throughout the game.
The game takes place in the Nebula, a mysterious place where its inhabitants are able to travel between different moons through some sort of ethereal river network. It’s a world full of intrigue and social struggles that stem from thousands of years worth of knowledge that was lost and clouded by superstition. As the player, you play as Aliya, an archaeologist from the University of Iox, the current seat of power, that seeks to understand the world and what came before.
At its core, Heaven’s Vault plays very much like your typical point & click adventure game, and you’ll often see yourself going back and forth between certain places if you so desire. A lot of people might associate this kind of games with linearity, in one way or another, but with Heaven’s Vault that isn’t quite the case. If anything, the only thing that’s linear about the game are the locations themselves, as they’re just enclosed areas. Everything else leaves quite a lot of room for replayability. This isn’t so much because you can drastically change how the story plays out but more so because as you spend more time with the game, you’ll get better at translating the ancient inscriptions. What I mean by this is that, a lot of times, you might think that you’ve translated something correctly, and thus you just assume that the inscriptions that you encounter from that point onwards mean something specific. However, you might eventually be able to figure out that you’ve been translating some hieroglyphs incorrectly, and that can totally change how you perceive things.
There’s a timeline which you can consult to learn more about world events as you find leads about them, as well as your findings and actions. This includes making sure that you got translations right, by comparing different transcripts and trying to make sense of this long lost language. Figuring out the meaning of the ancient inscriptions might be tricky at first, but you’ll slowly build up your vocabulary and expand your knowledge. As this gradual process unfolds, so does the game’s narrative, and this makes for a really compelling mechanic to keep the player’s interest alive.
The whole translation process starts with the game giving you a few options for each word, and there are various ways to be certain that your translations are actually correct, so you slowly start to make sense of what are initially just random hieroglyphs. Some of the earlier glyphs are easy to figure out, as their shape resembles their meaning, so it’s not like you’re going into the game completely blind. Still, as you progress through the game, the strings of hieroglyphs start to become more complex. Even though you continuously translate the ancient language, the game manages to keep up with the challenge and the intrigue of its puzzles thanks to this increased complexity.
Meanwhile, on the narrative side, the game keeps up the pace by continuously introducing you to new locations and characters. Also, Aliya isn’t alone in her journey, as she’s accompanied by Six (her sixth robot), courtesy of her professor from the University of Iox. As you wander through the world, whether that be through its several points of interest or by sailing the river, it’s Six that keeps you from going insane from boredom. There’s tons of dialogue between the two, and although a lot of it might not serve any actual purpose in aiding your investigations, it certainly adds a lot of flavour to the game world and experience. Without it, the game would certainly feel very bland. With that said, while Heaven’s Vault is unquestionably a text-heavy game, it does have some great moments of voice acting in the form of Aliya’s internal monologues.
It took me around 30 hours to complete my first playthrough, but you can actually keep playing in New Game+ if you want to experience more of the story and approach it differently. With NG+, the game allows you to continue with the words that you’ve already learned, but you’ll have to decipher harder and much longer strings of words. Speaking of which, I found that, although the game’s translation interface worked well for most of my playthrough, it clearly doesn’t work that well once you start to deal with long phrases and lots of possible meanings. There’s plenty of space on the screen which could’ve been better used.
If there’s one thing that I wished that Heaven’s Vault had, that would be the ability to sprint. There’s a lot of walking around, and while the scenery is more often than not immersive, I do wish I could move around faster. Still, I think I understand why the developers have opted to leave such an option out of the game. Although I’m sure that it would’ve been convenient to be able to move around quicker, I also think that this slower approach gives time for players to reflect upon the story and their findings. In a way, this gives Heaven’s Vault a sort of meditative feel, so, I guess that in the end, this is probably for the better. Besides that, the lack of manual saves might also put some people off, as this means that you’re at the mercy of the game’s auto-save system. So, because of that, you can’t go back on any choice that you make, you’ll have to live with the consequences.
Furthermore, I also have another complaint in regards to sailing. As you’re sailing between different locations, you’ll inevitably run into ruins and shipwrecks. These aren’t explorable, but your robot can search them for artefacts that can help you in furthering your translation efforts. Although every time that you sail you happen to chat with your robot, the act of sailing itself gets old pretty quickly, especially when you get into areas with almost no river flow. There is an option that lets your robot take you to your destination, but this obviously not only means that you’ll skip any dialogue that might have happened during your journey, but you will also miss any potential sites along the way.
In any case, Heaven’s Vault contains such a thoughtful and captivating story that kept me hooked right until the very end. With that in mind, after spending roughly 30 hours, I honestly couldn’t force myself to play the game again in NG+. Don’t get me wrong, I really wanted to go through the game and interact differently with its characters, and I also really wanted to try to experience the other endings that the game has to offer. However, just thinking about all the walking and sailing around that I’d have to do all over again was enough to stop me from replaying the game. Instead, I just looked up the different endings and did some reading on the Steam forums, as there are plenty of insightful and thought-provoking discussions in there.
Heaven’s Vault is one of a kind. It’s one of the most intriguing and captivating narrative-driven video games that I’ve ever had the chance to play. The beauty of Heaven’s Vault is the fact that there isn’t a right or wrong way to play it. Most often than not, you can reach the same place through different means and by interacting with people in distinct ways. The fact that the narrative adapts seamlessly to your choices makes the whole experience feel so much more dynamic. Despite its shortcomings, I’m pretty sure that Heaven’s Vault will be one of those games which I’ll forever remember. It isn’t perfect, but it sure as hell is one of the best gaming experiences that I’ve ever had. If you don’t mind reading, I wholeheartedly recommend to any fans of narrative-driven adventure games.