Heaven’s Vault is the latest narrative adventure from Inkle, best known for their breakthrough success 80 Days, and features a newly updated version of their Ink story telling system, a program that allows for highly sophisticated branching storylines that keep track of lots of non-linear decisions. For Heaven’s Vault, the system has been turned from giving you 80 Days’ globetrotting adventure to a truly intergalactic journey around a mysterious galaxy full of ruins, surprises, and intrigue. Throw in a central mechanic whereby you must decipher an entirely alien language and you have a fantastically intelligent and gripping narrative adventure.
You begin your adventure as archaeologist Aliya Elasra, an orphan who was brought up around the University moon of Iox. Your mentor and adopted mother, Professor Myari, sends you to investigate the whereabouts of a missing roboticist. As Aliya uncovers the mysteries around this disappearance, she finds out shocking predictions for an upcoming cataclysm, the Fall of Iox.
You’re thrown into this complex and highly developed world that has been meticulously designed. The backstory and lore are amazingly detailed and there are always new developments in your knowledge and understanding waiting to be unlocked. The non-linear travel and branching dialogue choices mean that your story feels specific to you and allows for a genuine sense of exploration. You can choose whether to follow the main story or take time out to look for lost ruins and make further advances in your translation skills.
The central narrative is very well developed and feels like it’s been taken right out of a good science fiction novel. This is particularly refreshing given the often rudimentary nature of video game stories. Any fan of science fiction or narrative games will find much here to enjoy, and the gradual unravelling of layers of mystery will keep you playing – often well past a sensible bedtime if my experience is anything to go by.
The writing is consistently excellent throughout Heaven’s Vault, although there are a few spelling issues and the occasional gap between spoken dialogue and subtitles. It is a wonderful evolution of the branching paths found in choose your own adventure games, somehow managing to feel like an open world despite the relative limitations of the form. Complex historical information is conveyed whilst rarely feeling like exposition dumps and Aliya is a superb avatar to mediate the uncovering of new information and knowledge. Her interactions with Six, the mysterious robot who accompanies you, display a great range of personality traits from interested academic to sassy orphan.
Heaven’s Vault has a visual style all of its own as well. Hand-drawn 2D frames are used in 3D environments to interesting effect, and one that looks beautiful in screenshots. I was slightly less impressed by the full result in motion, however, as the deliberately stilted animation takes some getting used to. A weird ghosting effect means that your character often seems to occupy more than one space on the screen, a neat graphical effect that could be read as feeding into the central themes of legacies and destinies, but one that can be disorientating at first.
The environments themselves are effectively designed, with interesting architectural connections between areas and a range of landscapes affected by different climatic conditions. The different environments allow for some thoughtful considerations of the ways in which humans live in and with their surroundings, as well as some telling discussions of the effects of class concerns.
Navigating between the worlds of Heaven’s Vault means sailing your ship, The Nightingale, through the Rivers of the Nebula. These rivers are the subject of the religious debates of the worlds, being interpreted as the paths of the souls of the dead by the dominant doctrine of The Loop, a quasi-resurrectionist belief system that argues for a cyclical and repeating interpretation of history.
While the cosmic backdrops to these explorations often produce moments of stunning beauty, the actual mechanics of sailing are basic and soon become repetitive. You can turn your ship left and right, and activate a speed boost, but these sections soon become secondary to the conversations you can have whilst travelling. Once you have discovered major locations you can fast travel by sleeping on the ship and leave your robot to navigate, but there is still an awful lot of aimless sailing time here. As there is no danger or risk to be managed, this has the unfortunate effect of feeling like busywork.
Once you find a location to explore, the 3rd person exploration largely works well, as you find objects to examine and solve relatively simple puzzles. The real meat of the game, however, is in the language minigame. Many objects and buildings around the Nebula are marked with ancient inscriptions and you need to translate these to unravel the real story of the Nebula’s past. Making logical connections between word forms in order to translate these phrases is a great mechanic and the effort that has gone into creating this alien alphabet is deeply impressive. As you become more confident with translation, words become locked into your notebook and you can then have more chance of deciding on the meaning of new formations. I loved this aspect of Heaven’s Vault enough to persevere with the dull travelling and felt genuinely rewarded as my confidence – and competence – increased.