Heaven’s Vault review

The Good:
  • Entirely made-up language to decipher captures spirit of real world translation and provides a unique challenge
  • Absorbing universe bursting with intricate details and lore to delve into
  • Dialogue is beautifully written with lyrical flourishes
  • Involving and original story with plenty of twists and turns
The Bad:
  • Pacing is slow and the gameplay starts to feel repetitious many hours in
  • Controls can be imprecise, particularly when choosing between hotspots
Heaven’s Vault review
Heaven’s Vault review
The Good:
  • Entirely made-up language to decipher captures spirit of real world translation and provides a unique challenge
  • Absorbing universe bursting with intricate details and lore to delve into
  • Dialogue is beautifully written with lyrical flourishes
  • Involving and original story with plenty of twists and turns
The Bad:
  • Pacing is slow and the gameplay starts to feel repetitious many hours in
  • Controls can be imprecise, particularly when choosing between hotspots
Our Verdict:

The detailed landscapes, engaging plot and intriguing premise of a completely fictional ancient language to decipher make Heaven’s Vault a game for which it’s worth getting lost in translation.

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“Day…is…discovered…sky?” “Eagle…is…open…light?”

I always thought I was a bit of a whizz at linguistics, but Heaven’s Vault, the latest title from the developers behind the hit story games 80 Days and Sorcery!, wants to show that there’s more to learning a foreign language than simply knowing the equivalent of “one beer please.” Never ones to shy away from making huge amounts of work for themselves, the team at inkle have created an entirely made-up vocabulary from scratch to be decoded. But rather than feeling like a trip back to school, the game’s eccentric characters and distinctive worlds turn you into a language-obsessed Indiana Jones, decrypting curios, uncovering the secrets of a forgotten empire and, naturally, running into all kinds of trouble along the way.

Playing as feisty archaeologist Aliya Elasra, you navigate across moons and stars, deciphering ancient symbols you find on trinkets you pick up along your journey. Set within a strange alternate universe called the Nebula, where robots and humans co-exist in a mostly peaceful manner, and spaceships ride along rivers of oxygen, hydrogen and ice, you find yourself tasked with hunting down Janniqi Renba, a roboticist who’s gone missing under very suspicious circumstances. You’re joined in your travels by your rational-to-a-point robot companion Six – so-called because Aliya has already broken or done away with five other mechanical mates before the story even begins.

You move about as Aliya using the keyboard (or gamepad), with the mouse working as a free-moving camera. Aliya herself appears as a 2D, almost ethereally translucent figure set amongst rich 3D backgrounds. Hotspots like hidden treasure, people you can speak to, and alleyways you can walk down appear as yellow circles when you draw near, with the first line of dialogue Aliya will utter when they’re clicked hovering permanently above them. If there’s more than one hotspot within close proximity, it can occasionally be a little hard to interact with the one you want, resulting in a bit of frustrating mouse waggling. For the most part, though, it’s a fairly seamless and unique way of making your way through the villages, cities and ancient temples you’ll encounter on your quest.

When you find some loot, it’s likely there’ll be ancient glyphs scrabbled on it somewhere. Translating these can help you learn more about the world around you, and even point you in the right direction. The language inkle has created is completely pictorial and based on Ancient Egyptian and Chinese writing. During this year’s EGX Rezzed conference in London, Laura Dilloway, the Lead Environment Artist of Heaven’s Vault, wonderfully referred to the game as being the “Guitar Hero of languages.” And there’s some definite truth to that, in the sense of allowing you to tackle a very complex process in a simpler, more accessible way.

You’ll start off each translation with a bunch of scribbled glyphs and some suggestions of words underneath that you can try to match to each symbol. At the beginning it’s pretty much a case of random guesswork based on what symbol seems like it might represent one of the words below, or looks like another similar word you might already know. You won’t find out straight away if you’ve gotten everything right – it’s only when the same translations keep popping up that Aliya can make a judgement on whether you made the right call the first time around or whether that word doesn’t make sense anymore. Just like in Guitar Hero when you master a tricky tune, eventually things do start to click into place and you’ll feel like a linguistics pro. The first time Aliya confirms that she thinks your translation is accurate is just as fulfilling as slamming a difficult guitar riff in any of Harmonix’s musical titles.  

Translating everything accurately on your first try isn’t essential (or even normally possible), but you can always go back again at any time to the transcriptions menu, which stores everything you’ve tried already for when you have more clues to give them another go. You could technically go through the whole game barely translating anything properly, as correct interpretations don’t further the bigger story as such. Instead, they help explain more of the backstory of the temples and shrines you’ve wandered through and occasionally help you pinpoint the exact location of an ancient site on your map a little quicker. So even if you find yourself hitting a brick wall in your linguistic pursuits, you’ll still be able to enjoy the narrative twists and turns as Aliya and Six venture further into the Nebula – you might just arrive at those twists and turns a different way compared to someone who’s deciphered everything closer to 100%.

The same is true of the way you interact with the various thieves, academics and merchants you bump into as the story progresses. For every conversation you’re given three options of dialogue to choose from, each with its own tone (from sassy to questioning to flirty or something entirely different) and a limited amount of time to select one. It’s hard to know how much these choices truly affect their respective plot strands in any grand way, but it’s fun having to quickly pick dialogue options and hope you’ve chosen wisely. For example, at one point you’ll have to decide whether to go along with or correct a confused villager who mistakes you for someone else. Agreeing with her could yield vital information she wouldn’t provide if you explain you’re not who she thinks you are, but you’ll not gain much approval from your anxious, ethically sound comrade Six, which could raise complications later on. As with previous inkle titles, half the enjoyment of Heaven’s Vault is in taking a risk on saying or doing something outlandish without knowing what the consequences will be.

Aliya and Six travel throughout the Nebula on the Nightingale, your part-boat, part-spaceship mode of transport. One right-click of the mouse propels your ship forward, whilst appropriate keystrokes steer it right or left alongside the atmosphere’s vaporous rivers. Arrows pop up on-screen to guide you on your route, and it soon becomes obvious that you’re not really driving the ship on its course at all, merely there to make it turn the right way now and then whilst the game does all the hard work. Which is perhaps just as well, because as you sail along warped zones of red, green and blue, Aliya and Six share philosophical exchanges about their recent mind-boggling discoveries.

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