I personally have never been great with any non-English language. I took years of Spanish classes back in school, but I could never manage to learn the basics. This made me a little nervous approaching Heaven's Vault, a game all about translating an ancient language and discovering a culture that doesn't exist anymore. Yet after I finished my preview, and talked to the developers at inkle, I knew this was the game for me. So does Heaven's Vault belong in a museum or should we let top minds take care of it?
You play as Aliya, a young woman who specializes in archeology. One day she's called in by a professor on the moon of Iox and given an assignment. She wants Aliya to go out and find a missing man, taking a robot named Six with her. It's not her usual work, but the money is good and Aliya is up to the challenge. Of course, were this nothing more than a simple missing person hunt, it wouldn't be an issue. However, it doesn't take long before Heaven's Vault begins to unravel into a galaxy-wide search. Your target? Heaven's Vault, a mysterious location hiding something that could save the world.
Exploring Heaven's Vault to the Fullest
I loved progressing through Heaven's Vault's impressive central plot and seeing where it'd go. Each new moon I visit seems to have tons of new exploration options. A farming moon seems innocent at first, but the statue of a goddess gave more clues that I can expect. An abandoned library may seem like its been destroyed by a fire, but looking closely reveals some important documents that lead me to another piece of the puzzle. No matter where I go next, I feel like I'm finding some new important facet to the mystery. I could often lose hours on these moons.
A good reason for this is just how insanely fleshed out Heaven's Vault's setting is. It's clear that the team really cared about making sure the setting was fully realized, and a massive timeline spreads back events from thousands of years. Each item you recover can be placed on this timeline, letting you discover as much of the past as you're willing to look for. If you're only interested in the here and now then it can be ignored, but there's a certain joy in diving into this timeline and learning more about the history of each culture. Watching assumptions get moved about when new evidence comes to light is certainly a highlight.
Meeting Heaven's Vault's Expansive Cast
It also helps that there's a ton of great characters to back this plot up. The central duo of Aliya and Six are likable, and spending time with them is enjoyable. They play off each other well, both having secrets worth discovering. The supporting cast is just as great. From shady artifact traders that are okay with stealing from their own clients to bookworms that have a fear of leaving their library, to a farmer suspicious of why anyone from an important position would ever give him the time of day. Each character is interesting, and digging through dialogue trees with them led me to discover some great chains of discussion and argument.
Of course, you're doing more than just talking to people. Along the way, Aliya needs to discover artifacts to help her advance and translate the mysterious language known as Ancient. Exploration is key, though Heaven's Vault does at least highlight objects you can interact with when you're close enough to them which I greatly appreciated. Each time you found a new artifact then you were able to pinpoint new locations that can be visited. I counted around 15 different moons I could visit by the end of the game, and I'm still convinced I missed a few. Each moon introduces new artifacts, new stories, new history, and new items to translate.
Learning a Language in Heaven's Vault
These translations really are the most interesting thing about Heaven's Vault. In the beginning, Aliya has minimal knowledge of Ancient. Each new item you find lets you take some guesses at what it says, offering up four different words in English that each word in Ancient could be. At first, you have little to go by other than context and guessing. As you advance, Aliya can learn if some of her translations are definitively correct or incorrect. You'll then see words similar to the ones you're translating and can use these to help further your own translations. For example, I learned that a little "x" next to a word usually indicates a negative version or the opposite of the word. So while a squiggly line would mean "can", an x next to a squiggly line would translate to "can not."
After I realized that, it dawned on me that I was learning a language. I'd notice similarities without any prompting. I'd recognize pieces of words without needing to look at the provided translations. Heaven's Vault did something I thought I genuinely couldn't actually do. Am I going to be writing reviews in Ancient any time soon? No way. But I do love that I could figure some small phrases out on my own without help. The developers absolutely nailed this aspect of the game.
Sailing into New Game Plus in Heaven's Vault
If you want to learn even more Ancient, you can also choose to play New Game Plus for your second run. Here you get to keep all the Ancient that Aliya already learned in her first 30-hour adventure, helping you learn even more. You can also try story options you didn't go for in your first run. There's plenty of interesting variation in the story depending on what you do, and equally importantly what you don't do, that you could end up with some wildly different situations.
At one point I mulled over if I wanted to tell an untrustworthy robot merchant about a stockpile of robots I found. Six noted I could get information from it, but also that the merchant had a pretty good chance of dying rather than getting robots. I may not have liked the dude, but his daughter was pretty great. Was it fair to harm her for that information? I decided against it, but I sure spent a lot of time wanting to give it a shot. New Game Plus gave me that opportunity.
However, there was one gameplay element I came to hate, and that's sailing. To travel from different moons, and discover new places to search, you need to sail along "rivers" in space. This is as simple as turning your ship left and right when instructed. Sometimes you're given search zones you need to sail in to find the next moon. As you search, you come across objects hidden in tiny ruins to help narrow down the zone.
It's kind of fun the first few times, especially thanks to the beautiful vistas you see along the way. However, I quickly found myself wishing for a fast travel button. Sailing seems to take an obscenely long time, something that especially is a problem when there's very little to do. Get unlucky with your searches, and you could spend around thirty minutes doing little more than making turns and hoping this time you stumble back upon the fun content.
Polish and Presentation in Heaven's Vault
It also doesn't help that Heaven's Vault is an occasionally glitchy game. Sailing seems to suffer the most. There's more than one instance of heading off in one direction and then promptly discovering that was the wrong way. This only compounded on my dislike for sailing even more. However, it wasn't just sailing that suffered. At one point a character said he was going to get something, then promptly trapped himself on geometry. This ensnared me in a scene, my only escape coming from the power of Alt+F4. I couldn't advance from one translation puzzle because the game kept floating it to the right until it went off the screen. This meant that I had to drop one particularly interesting avenue of discovery. These aren't game breaking, but I sure wish I saw less of them.
At least I never saw less of the beautiful artwork that made up the world. Heaven's Vault is a wonder to behold, looking like a piece of concept art come to life. The use of the drawn 2D models in a striking and stylized 3D world works fantastically. The camera helps make even basic conversations look like they've stepped right out of a graphic novel, with characters framed against the background. There's also a lovely soundtrack, one that fits the tone of all the scenes. However, there's no voice acting outside of some narration. Normally this isn't a problem, but once again sailing makes it an issue. Because you can't see which characters are talking, and there's nothing to differentiate lines of dialogue, sometimes it's tough to figure out who's speaking to who during sailing segments.
Heaven's Vault Review | Final Thoughts
While I may have hated sailing, there's so much more to Heaven's Vault than that. This is an absolutely beautiful game that manages to succeed at something genuinely unique and interesting. It also does something many of the best adventure games do. It makes me want to spend more time in its world, as Heaven's Vault is well worth my time. These are characters I want to talk to, Ancient is a language I want to learn, and Heaven's Vault is a game I want to replay. Maybe next time I'll actually figure out how to write the whole review in Ancient.
TechRaptor reviewed Heaven's Vault on PC via Steam using a copy provided by the developers. The game is also available on PlayStation 4.
Heaven's Vault manages to make me look forward to learning a new language, which is something I honestly never thought a game could do.
- Facinating Story
- Wonderful Setting and Characters
- Interesting Story Branches
- Awesome Translation System
- Beautiful Graphics and Soundtrack
- Sailing Quickly Became Annoying