Heaven’s Vault review – language has never been so much fun

Heaven’s Vault is the first game to actually make me feel like an archaeologist. Sure, Nathan Drake and Lara Croft might call themselves archaeologists in polite company, but everyone knows that they’re essentially cultural vandals, as likely to collapse a historical site as to glean secret knowledge from it. Aliya in Heaven’s Vault, on the other hand, is the real deal – right down to translating ancient texts and dating artefacts. And as an added bonus, her archaeological studies happen to be conducted in space, which obviously makes everything approximately 2.7 times better.

The plot of Heaven’s Vault is wonderfully absorbing. Aliya works as an archaeologist for Iox University in the Nebula, an archipelago of moons that are linked by ‘rivers’ that spiral through space. Aliya has a sort of spaceship/boat hybrid that can float along these rivers, and she uses it to explore the ruins littered across the moons to try to piece together the Nebula’s intriguing history. She’s accompanied by Six, an ancient robot who is one of many that were found buried throughout the Nebula.

It’s a weird but compelling set up. Who built the robots? Why were they buried? How was the knowledge of the seemingly technologically superior ancients lost, and why? And what exactly is the Heaven’s Vault of the title? I’m around 16 hours into the game now, and every time I uncover an answer to one of my many questions, two more mysteries pop up. It’s a wonderfully constructed narrative, and I’m totally hooked – I MUST find out what happens. Or rather, what happened.

But perhaps the best thing about the game is the archaeology itself. As you carefully explore each location, you’ll come across scraps of text written in ‘Ancient’, the language of your ancestors, which no one alive now understands. At first, you’ll only be able to decipher simple phrases based on their context. The writing on the cover of an ancient tome is likely to contain the word ‘book’ for example, and you’re given a range of words to complete the phrase and make sense of the squiggles in front of you. But there’s also a good chance your translations might be wrong – each word is given a question mark until you can find other phrases that corroborate your guesses, at which point the question mark disappears as you become confident of your translation. But equally, later inscriptions might indicate that your original translation was wide of the mark, necessitating a look back through previous phrases to work out what you did wrong.

And the language itself is incredibly clever – I can’t imagine how much work it took to create. What at first appears to be a meaningless mass of shapes gradually reveals its meaning – that squiggle with what look like legs, for example, could that mean ‘human’? And those lines swooshing downwards, maybe they mean ‘light’? It’s easy enough to make guesses like this at first, but the complexity piles on as you delve deeper into the game and start having to deal with grammar and words made up of complex strings of symbols. But there’s an immense satisfaction to working it all out – like the ‘aha’ moment I had when realising that a certain symbol acts as a modifier to create the past tense.

Let me say this again – the language is incredibly clever. It’s essentially one massive puzzle, with constantly evolving difficulty. There’s an amazing sense of satisfaction to be found from mastering the meaning of certain symbols, allowing you to translate phrases with ease – only then to be given a new, entirely unrecognisable symbol, plunging you back into that urgent quest for meaning once again. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it – except, perhaps, for learning to read Japanese in real life. (Something that I’m afraid to say I eventually gave up on. Real life is harder than games.)

It’s not perfect though. There are two things about Heaven’s Vault that niggled me throughout, one of which is the character animation, or rather, the lack of it. The game looks beautiful in screenshots. But in motion, Aliya jerks between static 2D poses while her feet blur out of existence, and frankly, it looks rubbish.

One of the developer’s from Inkle responded to a fan’s concerns about the animation on a Steam community post, and I think it’s worth publishing their comments here in full:

Hey! The style is a bit different, we know, but we love it…

It’s inspired by two things – first up, we love hand-drawn art: it’s more expressive, and human, than 3D characters can be (well, unless you go SUPER photorealistic, or Pixar-style). 

And secondly it means we can have a *lot* of characters, doing a *lot* of things. Animating every movement would hugely limit the size of our cast, and how much they can get up to. (Even the walk cycle: we’d need to hand-draw every in-between frame for every step from every angle; which is hundreds of extra frames that … aren’t very exciting?)

So overall, it’s partly the rotoscoping effect – we were inspired by the Last Express – and partly, the graphic novel thing: we love that *every* screenshot in the whole game looks like a frame from a comic book. 

(We also find that people playing the game don’t notice the crossfade as much as people watching videos of the game; we think it’s because when you’re moving a character you’re looking more at the environment. YVMV.)  

So clearly the look is a compromise as well as an artistic decision, and I respect that. Also, it’s unreasonable to expect an indie studio to have the resources to create photorealistic animation. Nevertheless, I maintain that it looks pretty damn awful in motion.

The second thing is the ‘space’ sections as you glide along the rivers that link the moons. Every time I was faced with another one of these journeys, I uttered an inward groan, because unfortunately, they’re mostly tedious and uneventful. There’s little skill involved, as your ship automatically avoids any objects like rocks in the rivers, and your only real job is to steer into the middle of the stream where the current is faster, as well as to make the occasional turn indicated by a flashing arrow. In short, you’re given very little to do.

Very, very occasionally you’ll come across a small ruin by the river that Six can explore, sometimes bringing back a scrap of text, sometimes bringing back nothing. And that’s it. It feels like these exploration sections are a huge missed opportunity – they would have been far more compelling if there was much more incentive to explore, more things to discover and people to meet. But for the most part, they’re just an interlude between moons and the real meat of the game: picking your way through ancient locations.

These flying sections are plagued by technical problems, too. The camera is far too close to your ship, which means it’s often hard to see what’s coming, and it’s also very bad at staying behind your craft – often you’ll turn a corner and find yourself looking at your ship at right angles, prompting some right-stick camera wrangling. And the lack of a minimap is clearly a stylistic decision, but it makes finding your way very frustrating since you’ll be constantly pausing to open the Nebula map.

And discovering new sites is also far more dull than it should be. Often you’ll find artefacts that point you towards an area in the Nebula, and the more artefacts you find, the narrower the search range becomes (I’m not quite sure how that works, but there you go). Still, when you get to the search location, you’ll basically spend ages going around in circles on very slow-moving rivers until you stumble across what you’re looking for. It feels less like an exciting episode of space exploration and more like being trapped on the one-way system of an unfamiliar city while hunting for a parking space.

I would have liked to see a system whereby you could work out the location of new sites for yourself – perhaps decoding a piece of text that revealed that X site was west of Y moon, with other texts providing further directions so you could accurately triangulate the location. And adding more secrets to discover and random encounters along the way would have made travelling far more entertaining – instead it’s a bit of a slog to get around for the most part.

But. BUT. Despite these Two Big Moans, I’d heartily recommend Heaven’s Vault. The core of the game – proper archaeology! – is fantastically absorbing, and I’ve simply never played anything quite like it. And then there’s the brilliantly twisting plot and thoroughly engaging writing, which gives each character a memorable personality. Quite often in games I’ll forget the names of the characters as soon as I stop playing, but in Heaven’s Vault I can’t wait to dive back in and catch up with Aamir, Mina and the rest of the cast.

In short, Heaven’s Vault, although not without its flaws, is a wonderful breath of fresh air – an intelligent, compelling journey. Here’s hoping it sparks a new wave of archaeology adventures.

Heaven’s Vault was developed by Inkle and is available for PC and PS4. We reviewed the PC version.

Disclosure statement: Review code for Heaven’s Vault was provided by Inkle. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.