Archeology is not an easy topic — the main piece of media people seem to remember is the Indiana Jones series and that movie makes the field seem more glorious than it is. But even something so seemingly boring as looking at broken pottery and random words from thousands of years ago can be made interesting — and that’s what Inkle’s Heaven’s Vault tries to achieve.
Basics — Archeology made easy
Heaven’s Vault is an open-world narrative adventure game where you take the role of an archeologist Aliya Elasra as she investigates the Nebula — a network of ancient moons with rich history. Travelling between the various sites on your ship, Nightingale, with a companion robot Six, you discover a multitude of historic artefacts. As you discover the artifacts, you start to uncover the mysterious ancient language present in the game.
The language is the main overarching puzzle of the game — there are dozens of different words you have to find the meaning of to understand the ancient texts. Those texts then allow Aliya to understand the history of the universe and the empires that ran the moons over the centuries.
Visuals — Ghosts of times past
Heaven’s Vault has a really beautiful art style, one not seen in many games. The environments are beautifully done in 3D — be it lush farming planets or tiny barren moons in the middle of a cyclone. The coloring schemes and architecture for them also give a lot of information about what kind of moon you’re on — the institute planet has blocky buildings, completely different to an overgrown graveyard moon. All of this clearly inspired by middle-eastern architecture.
The offset to all of that is the character art — all of them are hand-drawn and 2D. They are also drawn from different angles, so even if you rotate your camera around they still look in the same direction. This, combined with an effect that leaves graphical echoes of where you were before, gives the whole game a feeling of a story being told by someone, which is well fitting with the historical theme of the game. The mild disappointment I had was lack of diversity — in bigger setpieces you can clearly see repeats of the same characters.
The music and sound design brings even more of the atmosphere to the Nebula. While quiet during land exploration, the music swells up while travelling on the rivers. This, mixed with different types of moons and rocks you’re flying by on the ship feels incredibly grand. The sound effects are mixed in well and never take you away, and the occasional narration from Aliya brings it all together as her story.
Feel — Slow but steady
I am by no means a history buff. But even so, Heaven’s Vault managed to get me interested not only in the story of the main character, but the whole history of the world. New words that Aliya has to decipher show up often enough to keep you interested and the fact that once you use them enough times you get told whether they’re correct replaces gaining skills.
Maybe it is just my love of cyphers, but the language you’re trying to decipher feels really good too. It is clear that love and attention was poured into it, and with time you get a certain amount of understanding on what makes a word mean things. At some point I noticed that all of the verbs have a certain symbol in them. You learn more about the language by trial and error, and sometimes thanks to help from other characters.
The characters play a fairly important role too. While there isn’t a lot of them, every single one is well executed with their own goals, ideas and past. Talking to them doesn’t feel like just checking out all of the topics but it instead it has consequences that can impact the game. I intentionally omitted certain topics because I didn’t trust the person with that information.
Interactions with the environments feel very natural — either reading a carving from a bottom of a broken cart or moving planks to safely go down into a stripmine feels very in line with the character. However, I sometimes found it difficult to pinpoint exactly which object I want to interact with when there’s a few near each other.
Heaven’s Vault is a bit slower than I expected at the beginning — there’s only one travel speed on foot, meaning the exploration can feel a bit tedious, especially if you’re doing a last check if you missed something. Sailing down the rivers feels faster, as the distances between locations can be very long — thankfully a patch with fast travel between places you’ve been to has been added recently.
What Heaven’s Vault gave to me is the ability to slow down — after a particularly intense time where I was stressing it allowed me to just relax and figure out a puzzle. With the beautiful atmosphere around it, if the idea of archaeology seems intriguing you should definitely give it a try.
Heaven’s Vault is available on PC for Steam, as well as on the PS4 store.