If I’ve ended up being disappointed in Heaven’s Vault then, in fairness, that’s not exactly a fault of the game itself but rather its not living up to the quality demonstrated by its stellar choose-your-own-adventure predecessor 80 Days. Developers Inkle do interactive text adventures, and 80 Days was basically a text adventure with a nice interface over the top of it; it was Inkle working with tools and structures that they were already familiar with, and so 80 Days demonstrated what they could do at the peak of their powers. However, it’s also quite a difficult act to follow, both from the point of view of the people playing their games and the developers who actually make them. I do understand the motivations behind wanting to take a slightly different tack with Heaven’s Vault, making it much more of a traditional point-and-click adventure game. I also can’t help feeling that almost all of the problems Heaven’s Vault has (and there is a not inconsiderable list) stem from this leap from text to a 3D world, and that Inkle would have been able to do a much better execution on the idea if they’d stuck to what they knew.
Heaven’s Vault is a high-concept science-fiction adventure with more than a few fantastical elements thrown in — not quite full science-fantasy, but it’s definitely staking out an extremely distinctive pitch well away from the traditional spaceships-and-aliens concepts that video games usually concern themselves with. Heaven’s Vault is set in a region of space called the Nebula, which is essentially a collection of small moons and asteroids connected by bizarre rivers of water that flow through space. Most moons in the Nebula are under the control of the Iox Protectorate, a quasi-religious nation state that believes history circles back around on itself in a loop, and that this loop only extends back a couple of thousand years or so; they don’t believe history is all that important because they’ve already lived all of it through the Loop and so know all that there is to know about it. This makes your job a little awkward, as you’re playing a researcher from the University of Iox called Aliya, who is apparently the only archaeologist in the entire Nebula. Through her many field trips Aliya is constantly turning up writings, artifacts and other historical evidence that point to the existence of dead civilizations older than the Iox, and that history extends far further back than their Loop would suggest. Heaven’s Vault is ultimately all about piecing together this ancient history to uncover the secrets of the Nebula and save it from its centuries-long slide into stagnation and decay.
Now, Heaven’s Vault isn’t really point-and-click; it’s more of an odd third-person adventure with a free camera controlled with the mouse and Aliya’s movement through the 3D environments being handled via the standard WASD setup. When you get close to something that can be interacted with you press space to interact with it — in theory, anyway, as getting the interaction prompt to pop up often involves some annoyingly precise positioning of both Aliya and and the camera — but there’s not really an inventory (instead you’ll automatically be given the option to use an item in a dialogue prompt if you can) and there’s not all that many people you can interact with, either. Heaven’s Vault is not really a game about other people; it’s instead a game about exploring the Nebula and its hidden history, whose backstory is exposed via conversations between Aliya and her robot companion Six as you slowly uncover more of it. I remember the places I went to in Heaven’s Vault — a farming moon, a dead palace, an abandoned bazaar — far more than I do any of the characters I met there beyond Six.
That can perhaps be seen as one of the few positive consequences of the shift to a 3D engine. The locations are rendered in moderately attractive, stylised detail that ensure they’re memorable even if there’s a few too many dusty desert moons in the Nebula. Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the characters inhabiting it, who are condemned to being relatively static 2D sprites walking around inside this 3D world. I’m not sure if this is a stylistic choice or a technical limitation (my money is on the latter) but my personal opinion is that it looks absolutely terrible. The profile shots used in some conversations and reflective monologues are fine – better than fine, they’re great – but what you spend most of your time doing in Heaven’s Vault is walking around a location to explore it, and this is represented by a painfully primitive two-frame long walking animation that makes Aliya look like she’s dragging herself around with a permanent limp. Frame limitations are the sort of thing pixel artists figured out how to get around decades ago in games such as Lemmings and Command & Conquer, and so it’s faintly shocking to see an unvarnished take on it in a game released in 2019; the same limitations are present on every character in the game, with the background NPCs doomed to stagger around in precisely the same manner as Aliya. The walking animations just scream “this is a placeholder and we’ll do the proper animations later” except they never got around to it, and to add injury to insult it is painfully slow, often taking upwards of thirty seconds to cross a scene and get to the obvious point of interest. Combine that with the seemingly-unskippable dialogue — Heaven’s Vault is only partially voiced and I can read text much faster than the game displays it — and it’s yet another game that doesn’t really seem to value my time all that much.
More than that, though, is that despite the perfectly decent quality of the 3D visuals the overall impression I’ve come away from Heaven’s Vault with is that its environments are sterile — almost totally immutable and unchanging, with the only moving elements being those ambling 2D sprites. The ability to interact with an environment is a huge part of making it feel alive, but Heaven’s Vault lacks this quality, with only a few points in the game where you can affect the environment itself, and even these are handled in an animation-less, Myst-like series of static state transitions. I think the big problem here is that Inkle are relying on the visuals to do much of the legwork they’d usually have to put in describing a location via the narrative, but while it does work up to a point it’s nowhere near as effective as the wonderfully evocative verbal descriptions from 80 Days. Part of that is shortfall is that Inkle are good at writing and they were always going to struggle to match with a fully 3D environment what they could conjure up in a player’s imagination with a few lines of text, but the low-budget, limited nature of what’s on offer in Heaven’s Vault really hurts the game.
As far as the actual gameplay is concerned, Heaven’s Vault does at least pay rather more than lip service to the role you’re supposed to be playing as an archaeologist. You travel around the Nebula on a ship called the Nightingale via a pretty and atmospheric river sailing sequence that would have gotten incredibly tedious if Inkle hadn’t added a fast travel option after the first week of release. You’re free to choose your own destination, with Six providing directions to wherever you’ve chosen to travel, but much of the Nebula is lost, forgotten, or simply unexplored, and the river system is extremely complicated; you’re not going to find anything interesting by just randomly sailing around. This is the first point where the archaeology comes into play: whenever you pick up a new historical artifact and translate the inscription on it (the ancients were apparently mad for writing on anything and everything they could lay their hands on) you narrow down the location of the site the artifact came from. This is displayed on your map as an area covering possible locations, and at first these are impossibly vast, covering nearly half of your map. With each successive artifact the area shrinks, though, and after you’ve found three or four from the same site it’ll focus down to a more concrete region of space and the game will give you a message saying you can now search this area to find the artifact site. This is mostly a process of sailing around the region very slowly looking for the right spot (again, not a huge amount of respect for my time) but after you’ve found your second site you’ll notice a massive tell in the river system as to where the true location is that holds for every successive site you find, making the actual exploration process rather boilerplate.
This is a pretty simple idea for all that it’s got several systems built around it, and it’s simpler still considering how you find a lot of these artifacts: when you’re sailing around the Nebula you’ll notice ruins and wrecks in the rivers, and you can stop next to them and have your robot teleport over to pick up anything of interest, which is a process handled via a couple of lines of text. It’s hardly an involved procedure on your part, and so while you also get location information out of various artifacts you pick up as part of your exploration of a moon rather than having some robot do it for you, the site discovery side of the archaeology is more than a little bit flat; it’s mostly a matter of happening across the right ruin or wreck that’ll give you last piece of information you need to harden your location data.
The other side of the archaeology is the inscription translation, which honestly feels like 90% of what you do in Heaven’s Vault that isn’t walking around very slowly or sailing around very slowly. The way this works is that you’ll be presented with a string of symbols in the ancient alphabet along with a list of all of the words you know that match the symbols present in the string. By dragging known words onto the inscription you form a partial sentence; once you’ve matched all known words correctly you’re then given the opportunity to guess at what the unknown words are, with hints given by a short list of “related” words you already know that are likely to have a similar subject or theme. By translating inscriptions you uncover more of the Nebula’s backstory; most inscriptions are just flavour text intended to help you expand your knowledge of the ancient lexicon, but a few inscriptions do provide information that’s extremely helpful for moving the plot forward as well as narrowing down those new site locations.
Unfortunately I don’t think the inscription translation really works either — at least, not for me. I was hoping it would be a process more along the lines of basic cryptography1, and it kind of is since you can make some headway using frequency analysis and a little common sense. Shorter words tend to be conjunctions and prepositions, just as in English (and, for, with etc.). The same characters tend to crop up in words with a similar theme, such as a tall L for words denoting height and a weird S for words involving religion. If you have a known word in your lexicon, such as do, then the opposite do not will be the same set of symbols with a little X symbol mixed in somewhere, which is somewhat logical if a little bit on the nose. The problem is that these logical inferences of meaning based on the actual symbols you see quickly give way to brute-forcing inscriptions via the game mechanics. Say you have six words in an inscription, two of which you already know, and the game gives you four possibilities for each unknown word (don’t ask me how Aliya knows what these possibilities are). Since you don’t know the majority of the words you’d think this would be moderately tricky to decipher — except of the four candidate words you’re given for each unknown, only one of them will make sense when chained together with the rest of the candidate words into an actual sentence. You just need a couple of known words for a baseline and you can figure out the rest of the sentence from that context and most of the alternative word combinations being totally nonsensical.
This meant the translation part of Heaven’s Vault ended up becoming fairly rote. The game doesn’t confirm what words are until you’ve correctly translated them a few times so finding new inscriptions is important in the early game just so that you can get some known words to anchor the rest of your translations around, but once you’ve built up a moderate corpus of words it’s reduced to just picking the obvious choice from a list for however many unknown words there are in the sentence you’re trying to translate. Perhaps this criticism is partly a result of a tendency I have to attempt brute-forcing things pretty early on in my solution process2. I lambasted Return Of The Obra Dinn a little unfairly for being brute-forceable when there were some perfectly good environmental clues that I’d missed in the haze of pixels, and I’m a little wary of doing the same here; perhaps there was something else to the inscriptions that I was missing. I doubt it, though, and I view it as much more of a cardinal weakness in Heaven’s Vault since it means I’m not really engaging with the intended mechanics at all.
So, given that the 3D environments hurt more than they help and the archaeology elements don’t really land, Heaven’s Vault has to fall back on its narrative and writing to deliver a game experience that feels worthwhile. And, fortunately for Heaven’s Vault, this narrative and writing is still pretty high-quality. The backstory to the Nebula is impeccably well-written, and Aliya’s occasional bursts of voiced narration to lend an additional bit of much flavour to a location via a short monologue are always welcome. As are her frequent arguments with Six, her robot companion; it’s established very early on that Aliya Does Not Get Along With Robots and is forced into taking Six along with her by her boss, and she’s constantly slinging insults at it as you’d expect. What Heaven’s Vault does here that’s interesting, though, is that it avoids the Hollywood cliche of the robot calmly soaking all of this abuse up and eventually winning the respect of the protagonist through its deeds. Six is just as antagonistic to Aliya as Aliya is to him; he’s snotty and snide and constantly comments on her inadequacy despite the fact that he’s technically supposed to be her assistant. They are not friends, and they stand no chance of becoming friends, and that’s an usual relationship to have between the two main characters in an adventure game.
I can’t go much more into the details of the narrative because, as befits a game about archaeology, Heaven’s Vault only works if there’s a mystery to uncover. I thought there were one or two areas where it lurched a little and the ending was somewhat abrupt, but seeing what would happen next was what kept me playing through all of the clunky mechanics I’ve spent the last 3,000 words criticising. First and foremost is that it was different; I’m probably not playing the right sort of games, but Heaven’s Vault having rather more overlap with fantasy than I’d anticipated gave it a feeling very much unlike anything else I’ve played recently — there’s a sense of wonder and mystery to it that’s just like an old-school text adventure, in fact. If the narrative has a drawback it’s that it doesn’t branch very well. It’s not that it doesn’t branch at all, because there’s some really big decisions you can make along the way that would, in theory, make the game play out completely differently. Unfortunately the reality of those decisions is underwhelming, mostly being confined to doing a find/replace on a few names and terms and otherwise leaving things to continue exactly as they would have if you hadn’t made the choice, which in itself is utterly nonsensical. Giving me the option to make what appears to be an impactful decision and then not translating that into the narrative at all beyond a purely superficial treatment really cripples the otherwise good work that’s been done on the writing, because it feels like Inkle don’t care so much about the world they’re creating, and by extension that means that I shouldn’t either.
But of course Inkle care about this game. Nobody spends three years working on something like Heaven’s Vault without deeply caring about the end product. It’s the very antithesis of the the easy sequel for a small team like Inkle, and I suspect that’s exactly why the narrative ended up feeling so straitjacketed in comparison to 80 Days’ sprawling paths: Inkle spent so much time experimenting with the 3D world and the archaeology stuff that there wasn’t enough time to polish up the narrative, and so what’s ended up in the release version of Heaven’s Vault feels more than a little bit rough. It’s a shame that the new stuff doesn’t really land, and that it exists at the expense of the thing that Inkle do really really well, but ultimately I do think I’d rather Inkle tried those new things instead of sticking with the safe path of going with what they know. Because, much as I praise it, I don’t want them to do 80 Days again. I have the AAA gaming studios for my safe comfort gaming; what I want out of indie devs is an experience that the Ubisofts and Electronic Arts of this world are too middle-of-the-road to provide, and Heaven’s Vault is certainly that, flawed as it is. Much as I like to complain about things, and much as I have complained about Heaven’s Vault, I don’t regret the nine hours I spent playing it at all. The primary issue the game has right now is that I feel no desire to play through it again while grappling with all of its clunkiness, which is a big weakness for a game with branching narrative. I don’t begrudge Heaven’s Vault existing, because even going through it once makes it a perfectly worthwhile game in spite of its many, many flaws, but it doesn’t live up to its potential and so I also hope Inkle fold some of the painful lessons of Heaven’s Vault into their next game. After all, what’s the point of experimenting if you don’t learn anything?
- It sure as shit isn’t going to be anything like translating an actual dead language — hieroglyphics baffled archaeologists for centuries because they were totally unrelated to any of the living alphabets, so I’m all for Heaven’s Vault speeding that process up a little bit. ↩
- Combination locks in games are always fun. Resident Evil 2 had bonus lockers scattered around with 6 x 3 combination locks, giving only 196 possibilities that took me four minutes or less to work my way through. I’m sure you’re wondering why I’d spend time in a game doing nothing but twiddle with rotors, but from my point of view this is actually a more efficient use of my time than having to scour the environment for the right combination and then coming back later, a process that could potentially take much more than four minutes. ↩