Heaven’s Vault Review – Cryptic Nebula

    Title: Heaven's Vault
    Developer: Inkle
    Release Date: January 28, 2021
    Reviewed On: Switch
    Publisher: Inkle
    Genre: Adventure

There’s no shortage of adventure games now, most of them driven by a strong narrative with plenty of puzzles to add gameplay substance, but very few can claim to be something extraordinary. In the golden age of the genre, games like The Longest Journey, Monkey Island, and Broken Sword set the benchmark by delivering these amazing stories within immersive worlds.

While there are plenty of solid entries on any given platform, few can claim to be extraordinary. So this is where Heaven’s Vault by developer Inkle (known for the Sorcery! text adventure series) becomes such a timely and important release. This an adventure game of RPG proportions, set in a game world that genuinely feels alive, delivering a story that shines as an exemplar for any medium, video games, or otherwise.

Right from the outset, Heaven’s Vault presents a fascinating world and premise which immediately captivates. Although it is largely sci-fi in its genre, here is a world that is still grounded enough in real-world conventions to make it relatable. The game basically takes the Middle East and situates it inside a nebula, where inhabitants sail between moon settlements via celestial waters, a fascinating postmodern fusion of Arabian mythology and sci-fi.

Even as robots and spaceships surround you, you still find yourself in bustling market places straight out of an Arabian Nights tale. The fusion of these contrasting styles is done seamlessly, and it’s hard not to be drawn in. The best comparison is probably Disney’s oft-forgotten animated classic, Treasure Planet, which presented a similar idea of characters sailing through space on boats and ships.

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The story revolves around an archeologist named Aliya, as her former mentor at the university summons her. Here she learns of a missing colleague, and so using her archeological talents, she must set out to search for this person and piece together historical mysteries.

The set up is simple enough, as Aliya finds herself going on a wild goose chase for the most part, but still inevitably discovering that she is part of something far bigger than what she initially thought. For most of her journey, she is unwillingly joined by a robot named Six, and together they search the nebula for answers.

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What’s interesting about Aliya as a protagonist is how she doesn’t really try to be liked by those around her. Strong-willed and largely antagonistic, it appears that a lot of people don’t like her, and it also doesn’t help how most of her dialogue responses tend to be mean and sarcastic quips. And yet, despite her tough front, she is someone who has genuine integrity and stands up for what is right.

Of course, as the player, you get to have some measure of control over her actions and responses, but as a whole, she is a character who is stubborn yet endearing. Her main companion is Six, and despite spending so much time together, these two never quite evolve in their relationship. Aliya finds Six to be an annoying nuisance, and while eventually, she appreciates the robot’s usefulness and dedication, you rarely ever feel a genuine connection or care between them.

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The adventure’s design and depth tie perfectly with the game’s theological lore known broadly as “The Loop.” In short, The Loop represents the core metaphysics governing the universe in Heaven’s Vault, drawing upon religious mythology and motifs. The main intrigue is in the unraveling of a long lost empire via the deciphering of its long-forgotten language. This fits perfectly within the game design itself, especially once you realize that the initial lengthy playthrough is just the beginning.

The adventure has a slow pace, but every seemingly pointless detour and every bit of dialogue becomes more meaningful in hindsight. The game’s design is dynamic and adaptable, where there’s always a way to progress the narrative even when things seem to be unclear.

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As Aliya initially sets out to search for a missing robotics professor, the journey has her use of her own talents to discover new findings on an ancient, forgotten, and largely unnamed Empire. As she explores uncharted territories, uncovers artifacts, and deciphers cryptic scriptures, she soon finds herself in the middle of an ancient prophecy, and sure enough, destined for things beyond anything she was willing to believe.

There are several moving parts to the tale, and in the grand scheme of the narrative, no detail feels inconsequential. As you experience different events and uncover the past, the game’s menu has a timeline where players can chart every event in great detail. Heaven’s Vault delivers a fascinating story; however, you end up building it through your actions, and it really has the feel of a real page-turner of a sci-fi novel. Although Heaven’s Vault could have been just as enjoyable as a multi-part novel series, it is a video game that allows a player to be an active agent within the whole narrative. The unique magic of video games, as they say.

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Heaven’s Vault has you exploring 3D environments where you interact with other characters and objects as an adventure game. There are occasional environmental puzzles, and there’s even a stamina meter for Aliya to keep an eye on, but the primary gameplay mechanic involves deciphering an ancient language.

As you explore the nebula, you will uncover a whole range of scriptures and inscriptions of a lost language, and so the process of making sense of it requires a great deal of guesswork and some lucky trial and error. The game doesn’t necessarily force you to get it right straight away. Still, through a vigorous iterative process, you’re eventually able to piece together a dictionary of words, allowing you then to read entire sentences. The air of mystery surrounding the language, and the satisfaction of learning it, is something Heaven’s Vault executes really well.

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With the game world set in a nebula where humans have settled on various moons, the game requires you to travel between these moons using a ship called the Nightingale. Taking a page out of Disney’s Treasure Planet, Aliya must sail across the nebula through cosmic rivers. The idea sounds fascinating on paper but really disappoints in execution as these are the most mundane and cumbersome segments in the game.

Granted, there is certainly a fair bit of thought put into the river map, and it does provide a change of pace to the usual gameplay, but the presentation and flow of these segments feel boring. It is a dent in an otherwise fantastic adventure experience. Fortunately, the game is lenient enough to allow you to reset if you happen to miss a crucial river turn, and better yet, you’re able to fast travel to areas already visited.

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Heaven’s Vault uses a mix of 2D and 3D visuals to present its artistically charged game world. All the character models are hand-drawn and look like moving pictures, and while the 3D environments are largely on the simplistic side, they complement the 2D artwork quite nicely. Bringing it all together, the orchestral music score and brilliant voice acting all give the game a high production feel. There’s a lot to enjoy about the game’s Arabian inspired art, evident in both the character designs and the game world’s overall architecture.

Those expecting Heaven’s Vault to be a standard 10-hour affair will need to double-check their gaming commitments because this is an enormous adventure that will surprise you with its deep lore and intricate world-building. Here it’s less about following preordained branching paths to a certain ending. Still, rather it’s about constantly reacting to an evolving game world which, in turn, responds to your choices and behaviors. In particular, understanding and interpreting the ancient language can determine the conclusions you make about the game world.

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Getting through the game the first time, even when rushed, can take around 15 hours, but even then, there are so many unresolved threads that warrant a New Game + continuation. Starting a new journey brings some new details and surprises, and while it’s possible to plan for certain endings, the actual journey itself changes so much that you can’t help but go with the flow. Heaven’s Vault is an enormous game by any standard, one with immense replay value and depth.

Although landing on PC back in 2019, the Switch version of Heaven’s Vault translates the experience comfortably. In fact, playing the game in a handheld mode almost feels like sitting down with a really good book. What’s more, is the rumble feedback from the Joy-Cons spices up the experience during various segments, and so this really feels right at home on the Switch. Given how the game wasn’t strictly a point and click affair on PC, the controls map nicely regardless of whether you use the Joy-Con or any other Switch controller.

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Heaven’s Vault is one of those extraordinary adventure games that will likely become more legendary in time. Much like the ancient Empire that players must uncover in the game, Heaven’s Vault is rife with intricate details where players are likely to notice something new each time they revisit the immense nebula. While not all of its gameplay ideas are effective, and Aliya as a protagonist can take a while to become likable, the adventure as a whole is staggeringly epic, one that makes you feel like a providential participant in a dynamically evolving narrative.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Jahanzeb Khan

Old SEGA games will go up in value... you'll see!