Heaven's Vault by Inkle Studios is an archaeology-themed adventure game set in an alternate world where humanity clings to islands floating in a vast abyss called the Nebula. Players explore sites ancient and modern, converse with inhabitants, and translate text trying to uncover the history of the world and its possible future. It has many of the trappings one might expect from adventure games but goes about them in interesting ways, and its setting seems wholly fantastical to start but illustrates its firmer grounding the more you delve. By revealing its world and people cleverly and deliberately, it's not unlike the unearthing during an archaeological dig.
For those used to adventure games often following a script with discrete but minimal branches, Heaven's Vault allows more freedom to discover. Many of the islands you find can be reached in varying order, which can affect certain interactions, and choices you make have bigger implications, though some of these might be clearer upon a second playthrough.
In the role of archaeologist Aliya Esara, players explore 3D locations, from bustling markets to long-abandoned ruins, with a moveable camera, and where the camera is pointing will sometimes show clickable elements. The investigative feel this elicits is remarkable: one can walk through a tiny cabin but at the last moment swing the view around and find a treasure sitting on top of a doorway or a hidden passage, not through pixel hunting but just being thorough in what you observe.
As an archaeologist, one's discoveries are primarily about knowledge, so even if artifacts you find change hands you still retain the information they provide. One of the main puzzles the game presents is the translation of Ancient, a ubiquitous script you often find carved into things which has a consistent morphology and recurring symbols. Players match Aliya's guesses to a particular sentence to see if she has enough of a grasp of the sentence to confirm words she's seen before and to decipher its meaning. The objects she finds also carry traces of their origins which over time will narrow down the location of new islands. Language discoveries add to a lexicon that can expand your understanding of the language (sadly, one can't look up words one knows, though the pause screen includes a map of known islands, a timeline, and a collection of solved and unsolved Ancient phrases). Your accumulated words are retained should you choose to play the game again, allowing for more complicated phrases to be discovered and decoded.
You reach a new island using a relaxing and beautiful minigame where one navigates the air currents that connect the islands, called Rivers, aboard a flying ship, while chatting with anyone aboard, and you can take alternative paths which may net you new artifacts or reveal new routes. This can be skipped to move you straight to your destination, but you will wind up skipping interesting dialogue and missing out on tidbits of Ancient and artifacts you can catalogue or trade, as well as the beautiful scenery and music.
The characters you meet are memorable and varied, and conversations are just as important as hunting for objects and translating text. Many of them are contentious, or eager to use your relative mobility to their advantage. Even your robot companion Six (so named after your five previous companions met with mysterious ends) has protocols that put it at odds with you, but the player is rarely at the mercy of anybody, though circumstances can force compromises. Many of the characters also aid you in your searches, including a junk dealer offering trades that expand your knowledge, a tinker who can reveal new things about a few mechanical devices, and a bookish researcher who can help with translations. These and others all feel logical and well-integrated into the world and can reward repeat visits over time with new developments. Character dialogue is usually pushed forward with Aliya's questions or remarks, but important statements are numbered and are sometimes exclusive choices. Though some choices meet up in the middle again, they add a bit of pressure when choosing what you'll say or do. Aliya herself may be the most interesting character, and her often tumultuous history with others adds not only texture to your interactions, but creates ready-made obstacles that you either work to overcome or accentuate, as is your wont.
A few times we found that dialogue was repeated concepts we'd already established before, or the mood of certain characters shifted abruptly. We're pretty sure that's a side effect of trying to juggle so many potential player sequences. What is more jarring is that sometimes when translating Ancient you will begin to recognise patterns within the words that suggest meanings pretty clearly, but the game will not mechanically let you make that conclusion without more of its style of deduction. Other times Aliya will make a conclusion about a word without enough evidence, more for the sake of furthering the game than any clear data. There's also an irritating side effect where one is expected to enter symbols one knows to be inaccurate just to satisfy the system's need to fill all blanks before progressing to the next stage of translation. The distancing between intent and what the game allows can also happen during exploration of a site, where clicking on something may result in your character moving quite a ways before you regain control, or exploring a site in a certain order can result in irreversible plot advancement when you were genuinely trying to experience as much as possible. Returning to your ship often has to be facilitated by your robot Six, but it's initiated by Six, so at times it will suggest you return a bit too often, or other times when you're ready to go it won't suggest it at all.
Conversations often unfold in real-time, with dialogue choices fading away if you fail to choose an option. One can also miss out on dialogue options, and sometimes you might feel forced to take a long route when flying through the Rivers so that you don't miss little conversational bits while in flight. The ending our final choices lead us to felt like a trap that cut us off from the exploration we had yet to do, feeling betrayed by the save system and the seeming lack of clear warnings that this was a point of no return until it was too late with heretofore unmentioned hindrances, and in the epilogue it felt like a line was missing. There were also a few show-stoppers: once we ran into a site on the Rivers that froze the game, and due to the game's save system, which autosaves at certain points but won't save while in flight, we lost quite a bit of sailing time, and in one situation the usual irritant of Six asking if we want to return to the ship was actually sorely needed given the space we were in; it failed to occur and we were forced to reload, losing a few minutes. Thankfully we didn't run into any other notable bugs.
With most of the negatives out of the way, we'll say that Heaven's Vault is easily one of the best games in memory in terms of interweaving themes, mood, philosophy, and exploration into an experience worthy of standing alongside science fiction literature. If you accept the game's general premise, you will find yourself discovering this world and its mysteries in parallel with archaeologist Aliya, and these mysteries often come out through dialogue: there are no ponderous blobs of lore to slice through. Aliya is one of the few people curious about uncovering the past in a society dominated by people who feel that all that happened before will happen again, so everything you learn as a player is often learned by Aliya at the same time. The game has full confidence in its world and gives the right balance between the tenuous grip the people of these floating islands have on survival, and the richness of their strange history.
In a nice touch, if you've set the game down for a time it helpfully tells you where you last left off. The music is breathtaking, evoking both awe and melancholy, and the story ranges from a Romantic voyage into the unknown to uneasy tension to the cusp of existential horror. The 2D character art is lively and expressive where fully integrating a 3D style would have felt more wooden, and the ghostly way the characters move in the world, apart from the occasional jank, lends to a feeling that you are glimpsing an age past, not unlike an archaeologist might when imagining the people whose things they've found. Every character feels like they have a life of their own and you're only scratching the surface; even Six has surprising depths. Perhaps most importantly, Aliya's struggles against ignorance and the themes of belief, power inequity, freedom, dependence, mystery, and revelation stay with you long after you're done.
Despite the aforementioned hitches none of them fatally tarnished our overall impression of Heaven's Vault. Among adventure games it is extraordinary, but among games in general it is a breath of fresh air. It is a rare game with a healthy respect for the player's inquisitiveness, rewarding your curiosity with a unique world and a story that blooms like a rose. We would love to experience this anew, but here's hoping Inkle has more such surprises in store.
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