Adventure Gamers Awards
Space travel in Heaven’s Vault is all very well and soothing – the melancholic string score as you drift around really gets into your head – but my goodness the travel time between moons can feel incredibly slow. It doesn’t help that the Nebula’s geography is basically just faceless rocks and empty (if colourful) space, so there isn’t even anything that interesting to look at as you creep towards the more exciting prospect of translating more squiggles. Thankfully, since the game’s launch inkle has released an update that allows you to now fast travel between moons of the Nebula with the simple press of a button. You might miss out on some of Six’s cutting quips, but probably feel a lot less impatient in the process.
Every moon or clump of rock you land on, whether through fast travel or otherwise, provides a uniquely beautiful, fully formed landscape to explore once you’ve touched down. You’ll find yourself hurrying through the dirty slums of Elboreth, wading through the thick rice paddies of Maersi, and struggling to catch your breath on some secret sand-blown desert you’ve chanced upon in between. Along the way you’ll start to pick up on some of the incredible lore that the developers have buried in books, treasure and translations you discover: tales of a banished Emperor, a Holy Empire, and an entire religion of “loopists” who believe that when you die your body must be cast into the river or your soul will never find eternal peace.
The characters that populate these worlds are equally engaging – even bit characters like Elboreth’s shady slave master feel real and memorable. Headstrong and occasionally rather cold, Aliyah and her constantly concerned robot make a great pair of reluctant buddies whose relationship is even more rewarding to explore because you’re the one forming it through your dialogue choices. Aliyah’s dialogue in particular is evocatively written – “I dream these alleyways” or “spreading fear like a great poisonous snake” – but much of the conversation has a reflective, lyrical quality to it, echoing great Greek literature like Homer’s The Odyssesy in a way that inkle does so well.
Apart from the occasional musical swell when you make a startling discovery, the main sounds heard are background noises of birds chirping, pigs grunting and people bustling about their business. Occasionally at important points in the story, you’ll also get some voice-over narration from Aliyah, the only character you hear out loud (everything else appears as written subtitles). She is played with a down-to-earth British twang that works for the most part – strangely given the mystical, otherworldly atmosphere in which the game is set.
For all its quirkiness, Heaven’s Vault doesn’t shy away from going pretty dark and quite frankly becoming outright unsettling at times. There were a few instances, particularly near the end of Aliyah and Six’s adventure, that I was shocked at how quickly things turned sour. As inkle’s biggest game yet in terms of sheer length (at least 12 hours from start to finish if you rush, but more like 20 if you properly search everywhere), it’s perhaps not surprising that the team decided to touch on bigger themes beyond the central plot. From the concept of resurrection to the fragility of memory and what makes us really human, there’s a lot to process.
The developers have tried to help make sense of it all by creating a “Timeline” menu covering historic events you unearth from the world around you, as well as your own actions in the present as Aliyah. You can easily bring up and access this at any point during the game, which updates as you continue through the story and make your choices. Much like navigating the Nightingale, however, I found the feature interesting to use once or twice, but then much preferred to just get on with the actual tale rather than reading about my past actions.
As perhaps is fitting for a game that ponders the art of translation, the pacing of Heaven’s Vault is at times relatively slow, even for traditional point-and-click fare. Scouring moons does start to feel repetitious ten or so hours in, and even the joy of decoding and unlocking new words starts to drag until a couple of plot twists freshen things up again nearer the end. But a bit of lag and other minor issues like imprecise controls aren’t enough to seriously taint this engrossing, enigmatic universe overall. Even when things slow down there’s always another new world to sail off to, a secret treasure trove to uncover, or another narrative strand waiting just around the corner. It’s a brave game that pursues an endeavour as sophisticated as semantics and etymology as its primary gameplay element, but happily inkle have once again created such an absorbing story filled with engaging characters to meet, charm and/or deceive that whatever your language ability, an exciting adventure awaits.