Heaven’s Vault (2019)
Sometimes you’re playing a game, and you immediately know you’re playing something special. Very rarely, you will come across game and know immediately you’re playing something really special. Heaven’s Vault is that kind of game. It’s the latest game by Inkle Studios, who brought us the much acclaimed 80 Days (4 BAFTA nominations and Time Game of the Year 2014). I was really looking forward to this game, even though it only appeared on my radar a few months before its release. My expectations were high. Were they met?
An Archeologist Amongst The Stars
Inkle Studios describes Heaven’s Vault as an archeological science-fiction adventure game, and this is spot on. In this game you play archeologist Aliya Elasra who is called back to her university for a mission. She’s given the assignment to find out what happened to a roboticist, and she gets a new companion: a robot she calls Six. Aliya is not fond of robots, but unfortunately for her she’s stuck with this one. Robots, however, are not futuristic devices, but rather dug up; ancient yet sentient automatons. Six is quite handy, though. Aliya has a beautiful ship to sail the stream between the moons, and Six is great at sailing. Is this the start of a beautiful friendship?
Dialogue Flowing Like Wellsprings
The controls are not like a traditional point-and-click adventure. This game can be played with mouse and keyboard, but also with a controller. Walking around you see spots that can be interacted with, and choices that need to be made. These choices usually revolve around dialogue. The dialogue in this game is unlike anything I have played before. Instead of dialogue trees that you need to exhaust, these conversations flow like they do in real life. You can choose to ask a question, make a remark, or do nothing at all. Sometimes the conversations go on for a long time, or sometimes they get cut off after a few sentences because something happens. It all feels extremely natural and adds to the natural feel of the game. And your choices do have consequences.
The sailing scenes, where you can see the space between the moons, is especially gorgeous. It adds to the sense of wonder when exploring the rivers. It makes you want to sail longer than necessary, because it is all so beautiful. The art is shell shaded graphics over 3D-generated backgrounds, and looks gorgeous.
Voice acting usually bookends important moments. The only voice you hear is that of Aliya, and usually at the beginning or end of a chapter. The game uses these moments not to describe not what she is seeing, but more what she is feeling and thinking. It’s kind of poetic. The music really increases the cinematic atmosphere, especially during sailing. I found it esoteric and hauntingly beautiful, another aspect of a game that would not look out of place on the big screen.
Lost In Translation
Archeology plays an important part in this game and most puzzles are centered around that. You can find artefacts that often have writings in Ancient on them, and it is your job to translate these writings. You do this by making educated guesses about the meaning of words, and then later getting those guesses confirmed by other finds. This does not always mean you are right about the translation, but the more you find and translate, the better you get at it. Failing at translating words and sentences won’t stop you from finishing the game, but it does make it harder.
By finding artefacts while sailing the streams, you can also extrapolate the possible locations of undiscovered moons. The more you find, the easier it is to find the location you’re looking for. When you find a big moon, you can land with Six and go investigating the ruins of whatever it is you find there. There are many times a huge surprise that propels the story forward in unexpected ways is waiting for you, and it makes it hard to stop playing!
It’s A Contender
I found Heaven’s Vault to be absolutely thrilling to play. The worldbuilding is spectacular, the music is mysterious and intriguing, the writing is extremely well done, and the dialogue flows incredibly naturally. This is a game that I immediately wanted to play again to see what happens if I made other choices, to perfect my translations, and to see the other endings. As you can’t save your game (it does this automatically when needed or when quitting), I could not go back to the finale and try something different. I didn’t mind that, because I actually look forward to playing it again and exploring more. This is not only one of the best games I have played in 2019, this is one of the best games I have played in my life. Go give it a try. You will be blown away.
An incredibly compelling story
Easy and intuitive controls
Challenging difficulty that won’t keep you from finishing the game
Decisions have consequences
Very replayable due to multiple endings