Connect with us

Games

Review: Heaven’s Vault Is a Refreshingly Cerebral Take on Navigating History

The game is ambitious for its translation mechanics and its big-picture look at the evolution of culture through the ages.

3.5
Heaven's Vault
Photo: Inkle

Archaeology in video games is descended almost exclusively from the Indiana Jones School of Marauding, where puzzles help players raid tombs or pilfer uncharted temples in competition with gun-toting rivals. Heaven’s Vault, however, has no such trappings of the violent colonialist adventure. Your primary engagement with the game is through language, as you must decipher the hieroglyphs of a fallen ancestral empire, making for a refreshingly cerebral take on navigating the remnants of history.

In Heaven’s Vault, you play as Aliya, an archaeologist who travels the flowing rivers of a spacefaring setting known as the Nebula, a network of moons containing dusty villages, farms, and more. Throughout, she sifts through the fallen empire’s ruins to the dismay and suspicion of many around her, who believe in a fatalistic doctrine, The Loop, that touts cyclical patterns in history. That which has happened will happen again, so they see no point in unearthing the past, especially when sailing the rivers is said to strip away the soul. Undeterred, Aliya continues to explore in the company of a fussy robot she calls Six, morbidly christened after the loss of his five predecessors and the presumed inevitability of a Seven.

Much of the game involves steering Aliya’s ship around those rivers, translating an ancient language she finds carved into crumbling structures and objects strewn throughout ruins. Aliya and Six are free to wander these environments, bouncing theories off one another and bickering while they piece their history back together. Deciphering the glyphs is something of a guessing game, with each word’s definition narrowed down to several possibilities that you choose by extrapolating from context. What are the glyphs on? If they’re on an object, where was it found? What are the other words? The long phrase on what you believe to be a makeshift grave, for example, might nudge you toward a tombstone-appropriate vocabulary.

If this process sounds impossibly daunting, the game mitigates the sheer enormity of the task by not keeping score. There are no end-of-level tallies to track your accuracy, and many of the possible translations remain just that: possibilities, denoted with a question mark. Some are eventually confirmed or debunked by repeated use or consulting another character; most never are. Each individual translation doesn’t matter so much in a pass/fail sense except in how they inform your continued understanding of the ancient language and culture.

The past in Heaven’s Vault is never totally clarified and much of your progress is theoretical, so it’s astonishing that the game provides any sense of accomplishment at all despite dealing mostly in ambiguity rather than absolutes. You really do begin to understand the more you play, learning which glyph denotes a place and then easily guessing the new word when it’s paired with one you recognize to mean, say, a liquid. Combined with environments that task players with using their growing knowledge to uncover possible functions for a building or a mechanism, the game’s sense of discovery feels truly immense. You share Aliya’s excitement, or perhaps her horror, as you’re totally enveloped in her cosmic search for answers.

But for as much as Heaven’s Vault emphasizes the futility of diminishing the messy past into something simplistic and easily digestible, its mechanics never quite escape doing so all the same. The fact that everything works out into a coherent English phrase (sans maybe a preposition or two) built from four options per word feels impossibly neat and composed. To some degree, these concessions are what makes Heaven’s Vault playable at all. When taken next to the game’s emphasis on translations that are mere possibilities and functions that are only theories, however, they’re something of a tear in the curtain meant to conceal a world that’s been neatly gamified yet making every effort to conceal itself as such.

The most challenging opposition comes less from piecing history together than simply navigating the game’s unwieldy interface, which works well at the start before buckling under the translations’ growing complexity. Hieroglyphic text you’ve found drops onto a timeline menu for what’s supposed to be easy access, until the translations clog the menu to such a degree that it borders on unusable, while the translation screen fails to hold longer phrases without asking you to scroll repeatedly back and forth. Most galling of all is the total exclusion of any sensible search function. Indeed, there’s simply no way to search the phrases by word or glyph, while paging to a “related word” is too limited to be of much use. Some amount of repetition would have set in anyway with these mechanics, yet the interface issues only ensure it arrives quite ahead of schedule. The game’s sailing is dull and saturated with similar-looking environments, to the point where you might bypass whichever nondescript rock you’re meant to find if the game didn’t automatically stop you, but it’s outright preferable to the sheer headache of stopping for even a single moment to go back to any old translations.

Despite how these issues range from irritating to outright infuriating, though, they never totally dampen the considerable accomplishments of Heaven’s Vault. This is a hugely ambitious game, both for its translation mechanics and how they provide a big-picture look at the evolution of culture through the ages. It’s an achievement that the game realizes any of those ambitions at all, and that such a rewarding sense of discovery emerges from them.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Inkle

Developer: Inkle Publisher: Inkle Platform: PC Release Date: April 16, 2019 Buy: Game


“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER
Sign up to receive Slant’s latest reviews, interviews, lists, and more, delivered once a week into your inbox.
Invalid email address
Advertisement
Comments
Advertisement

Giveaways

Advertisement

Newsletter

Don't miss out!
SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER
Invalid email address

Preview

Patreon

Trending