Ever since I was a wee spawnling, I dreamt of being Indiana Jones—intrepid adventurer and discoverer of ancient artifacts… but with less of the grave-robbing and more of the puzzle-solving and ancient languages. When I was older, everyone assumed I would be a Lara Croft fan, and while she is definitely cool, she is not really my style. Carmen San Diego was closer, but she is more geography than ancient history. So, in truth, I have been waiting a long time for a game like Heaven’s Vault, where I can finally be the archaeologist I always dreamed of being!
Summary: Heaven’s Vault by Inkle
Heaven’s Vault is like reading a book as a computer game. It is possibly the most accurate portrayal of fantastical archaeology I have ever seen. Now, I am a huge linguistics-nerd. HUGE. Big celebration for 2019 as the Year of Indigenous Languages. Two of my dearest friends are also archaeology nerds; they pay to go on university-sponsored archaeological digs around the world for holidays. You have no idea how jealous that makes me.
However, I digress. My point is: archaeology is not Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. There is far more patience required. There is a bit of “educated guessing,” some puzzle-solving, and a touch of swindling others into thinking you know what you’re doing so they trust you with more stuff. Heaven’s Vault has included all of this in a beautiful layout to truly immerse you in the experience of archaeology and ancient linguistics.
Story-wise, you are Aliya, an archaeologist who kind of works for a university. However, you have a kind of “history” with the academics, especially your mentor. It all relates to Aliya’s dissenting view of the Universe. Most people believe in The Loop—a religious belief in a connection between all events, flowing back through time to repeat over and over again into the future. Aliya, however, believes in history, a sense of events happening in the past and thus we can learn from them and move on to the future. As an archaeologist, discovering any historic facts that are different is both phenomenal and highly unusual. Thus the attraction of the game.
Assigned by her mentor to “team-up” with a robot, Aliya is tasked to track down a colleague from the university, a roboticist who has gone missing. In all honesty, I never felt like this was the key story element. It was more like the invitation to go and discover the bigger problems. However, as the game progresses, you will soon learn how an archaeologist learning from the past is connected to a roboticist planning for the future.
The missing roboticist has left clues, spread out across the Nebula and connecting across a multitude of ancient sites. Aliya’s role is to piece together the clues, find the roboticist, and decipher the ancient lost language at each site… at least enough to understand the warnings for both present and future. Each discovery places another pin along the timeline, connecting history and bringing the story together. At first, it is overwhelming in its loose threads and ambiguous clues. And then you have this moment when a word reminds you of another image you saw on the last planet. The sense of eureka! The appreciation for the dedication from the Ancients and First People… THAT’S what Heaven’s Vault is about.
Opening the Mechanics
I feel compelled to advise you: this is not a shoot-’em-up game. I’m pretty sure I made that clear at the beginning, but the pace and sense of discovery with this game may not appeal to all. In fact, this is the perfect game for me to come back to. It is not the type of game I can sit down and binge in a couple of days—nor should it be. The style of this game is paced in the same manner as a real archaeological dig. It takes time to appreciate the work both you and the developers are putting in.
The game progresses with a distinct story-telling nature, but it is not with a distinct timeline or structure. You, as the player, have allowances and freedom to explore as you need. Ancient sites and relics are spread out across multiple worlds within the Nebula. The only part that didn’t appeal to me was the flight between worlds in a ship that is half space-craft and half tall-ship or whatever that is. I’m not a sailor—as clearly indicated by my lack of coordination to master this small section of the game. I hated this part. Just give me a damn teleport hub. And yet I know some people who will love this as a break from the more academic elements of the game. I was so relieved when the developers updated the game with the “quick travel” option to the sailing sequences; you can pass control to the robot when sailing through the rivers where you have been before. Unfortunately, the damn robot hands control back when I reach unchartered waters.
For me, the academic elements MAKE the game. When you hit the ground, you need to actively go hunting for clues. Search everything, question everything, look at everything. There is significance in every symbol and translation. I have taken to keeping a notebook next to my computer whenever I play, sort of like a makeshift dictionary of ideas and concepts. Some of the symbols are rather picturesque; you start to see the correlation between symbols as variances of words and meanings. Each discovery and translation is noted on your timeline to create a thread of understanding. And then BAM! You have that moment of enlightenment. Suddenly you feel smart enough to take on the whole Nebula!
All of these discoveries are pieces of the puzzle. Sometimes, it refers back to a conversation you had at the university. Sometimes you are digging through artifacts from eight planets ago. One thing I am forever grateful for is the quick reminder when you return to the game: “previously, on Heaven’s Vault.” Together with the timeline and all of the pins of discovery, it makes this game an absolute joy.
In saying all of this, the game is designed to encourage you to explore. Similar to other games on my Love-List, such as Breath of the Wild and Some Distant Memory, Heaven’s Vault rewards the player who takes the time to investigate. You may be able to piece together a selection of words, but the context of the discovery is revealed through its relationship the artifacts. The beauty of each scene draws you into the search for secrets and clues. There will be no skim-reading or speed-running this game. You will take your time and you will enjoy the journey.
Who Will Enjoy Heaven’s Vault?
This is not a game for the young ‘uns. Heaven’s Vault falls squarely on the shoulders of word-nerds and history geeks. It is suitable for anyone aged 13+, however, the pacing and the style of the discovery will not satisfy anyone looking for quick exciting gameplay. The slow-burn of anticipation and the bursting of proud accomplishment are rewarding for those who are willing to work for it. This game has taken me a long time to finish, but it was worth the wait. (To give you an idea, the game originally released in April 2019. Yes, the publication date for this review is December 2019. Still worth it.)
This is possibly one of the most intelligent games I have played. I loved how the game takes what you do and don’t do to create the path to what happens next. Certain points in the story are unavoidable, and you will find your way back to them no matter what your choices may have been. However, there is a distinct sense of “individual life path” that makes this game a refreshing mind play with a deceptively innocent narrative engine.
Heaven’s Vault is currently available on PS4 and Steam. You can purchase it for USD$24.99 on PS4 and USD$14.99 on Steam. It is worth every penny and then some.
It is coming to Nintendo Switch in 2020. Stay tuned to the official website for updates.
2 thoughts on “Video Game Review: Opening ‘Heaven’s Vault’”
Picked this up for a small discount and it’s well worth it. The only thing I’d appreciate is something to speed up walking around the various scenes. Overall, I’ve enjoyed the exploration and finding the hidden sections along the “rivers” of space to provide new options for translating. Definitely a game that I can appreciate for lack of fighting, much exploration, puzzles to solve, and what seems to be a promising story. I look forward to more exploration and translation as I get chances to play.
Hey Peter – I only just came across your comment now. HI! I totally hear you on the need for speed – I was never sure if it was game or my computer. However, I did find it was a great lesson in patience; slowing me down to appreciate the thought I need to give to the translations and the story itself.
If you like puzzle/narrative games, you might like Necrobarista – it is a heavy narrative game with an extra puzzle/wordplay element which gives it a strong translation/psychology feel. The animation is very different but the transitions have the same steady graphic novel style. I have a review here on GeekMom – just look through my author bio.
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