While I am a huge fan of Inkle’s work, be it the Sorcery! series, 80 Days or Pendragon, Heaven’s Vault was one that for some reason always slipped my mind. I am not sure why that is, but I believe it might have been because of how interesting of a departure this title is. Compared to the team’s other projects, this one is not based on an old story or something reminiscent of a tabletop RPG. Instead, Heaven’s Vault is an original project that only shares some elements of the studio’s other games. I always felt bad for even forgetting that this was made by Inkle, but I am fixing this by giving it a thorough look and see what I have been missing out on.
In a world that is best described as a mix between a steampunk and a sci-fi take on Arabic culture, you play as Aliya, an archaeologist looking for insights to a forgotten past and trying to decipher a lost language known as “ancient”. One day, she is called upon by Myari, the head of the university at Iox and Aliya’s adoptive mother. A roboticist by the name of Janniqi Renba has gone missing, and Aliya is asked to look for him. Our protagonist accepts this task and is provided with both a robot and a brooch that might help her out on this journey, while still continuing her own research on the history lost in the mists of time.
Searching through artefacts and finding words to translate in order to discover a world that is no longer remembered or documented, is truly fascinating. I love how you get to see more and more areas that clearly have different functions and cultures, as it creates a solid form of world-building through you uncovering the past. It is easy to see early on what this leads up to, but it all plays out believably thanks to the clues relating to the bigger picture in strong and diverse ways.
However, I wish the game took a bigger focus on exploring the past and fleshing it out even more, as everything else in the current world can go from underwhelming to simply bad storytelling. Although, it should be stated that this is in no fault to Aliya. Coming originally from the slum and being raised at the university, she has a snarky and straightforward personality, but still shows respect for knowledge, making her into a strong and interesting protagonist. Unfortunately, the others do her no favour. Her companion in the form of the robot Six for example, is worthless and adds nothing to make anything more intriguing in their conversations. It is just a robot stating the obvious and could have easily been replaced with a notebook.
This poor character setup also goes for the rest of the cast, and it is a shame that they could not have been stronger or just removed overall. They might sound like decent concepts, such as the bartender in your hometown treating you to drinks, a tradesman with a silver tongue, and a record keeper severely into your discoveries. However, no one becomes memorable because the game does nothing to make them more interesting than just their one trait. Sadly, it all gets worse when Heaven’s Vault throws in elements to make them more intriguing with no context or arc.
There are some strange twists and turns that truly comes out of nowhere. Most of these feel implemented just to make something happen with no consequences, and they truly alienate me. The worst part of it all, is how people are almost shaming Aliya for looking into the past, despite needing her help to decipher knowledge lost to time. For a university vast in artefacts, ruins, and literature, this makes no sense to me. Some might argue that this ties into the idea of reincarnation, but if that was the case, why be selective of knowledge? Every knowledge comes from time spent studying and experiments that has been documented. Even those at the university themselves reference to old scriptures, aka: historical elements important to them!
This aspect of the story constantly bothered me, and it became to the point where I never cared about making optional remarks or questions in the end, as they generally boiled down to my own observations either way. These could also be quickly repeated, which made ignoring them even more of a valid option. At the very least, it was interesting to explore the environments and see how this current society functioned, but even this is limited to only a few elements. The only thing I truly remembered from one of the settlements I visited, was one worker market and the slum outside of the city, as nothing else had any impact.
This town known as Eleboreth and your university Iox, are going to be the areas where you will be spending most of your time at, and since the interactions with the people there are not interesting at all, the overall journey gets tiresome. There are fascinating areas to witness, but it becomes easy early on to see their functions, and your robotic companion does little to make your journey any more interesting. I think it would have been much better to explore lost areas with no one else to interact with, as it might have been able to flesh out more the world that once was and Aliya herself. As it is now, it is as exciting as reading an unfinished page on Wikipedia.
Story Score: 3/10
Words from the past and apart
In what can best be described as a point-and-click, you control Aliya where you explore different areas in order to interact with varied objects and people for furthering the story. However, there are no puzzles truly involved, but rather item management in case you have some on you. You see, there is a heavy focus on choices in this game, not unlike Inkle’s other titles. How you respond to characters, choose to act, and whether you keep an item for later use or trade them for others, will determine what pathways you take. This is a nice way to make the journey feel more personal and provide alternate routes depending on what you did.
Unfortunately, some trades are time consuming or even neglected if you have done a lot of them, making this aspect feel shallowly implemented. In the end, I only did this when I was fast travelling between locations and had to stop at these places in order to get closer to other ones. I also simply feel that some questions were needlessly padded out with long expositions that did nothing to further the adventure or give me hints on what to do next. You cannot even fast forward through them, and have to use a slider for deciding their speed, making you forced to deal with too quick texts or drawn out ones. This issue is so bizarre to me in a game with tons of dialogue in it.
This is where we come to the biggest gripe I have about this game and why it is 17-20 hours long: everything moves at a snail’s pace. The worst example is how you have to travel to each location by your ship in sky-rivers, and it is no more complicated than moving left and right to catch the right pathways. You can boost, but it rarely helps and only certain rivers make you go faster. You cannot even crash your ship, making this concept contain no tension or interesting mechanics. I absolutely droned every time I had to sail, and found myself fast travelling whenever I could to minimise this entire aspect of the game.
I would not have minded this too much, if I could explore at my own will and travel on unseen rivers. However, some areas are locked off unless you find the right information to visit new locations, and this confuses me. If I cannot explore new places without proper knowledge, why even have the mentioned travel mechanic? Either provide the players the freedom to explore or let them just select areas from a normal map screen. The sailing adds nothing to the game as it is now. This is especially daunting, when you will get huge and unexplored areas that you cannot search through until you have enough info, even when there are only rivers to travel on!
However, this tedium of traversing even extends to the areas you visit. There is no run button, and your character moves at a tedious pace, making just walking to another location painfully slow. You actually have to physically move in the 3D areas instead of pointing and clicking, and with how much you will be revisiting Eleboreth and Iox, I wish some aspects could have be streamlined. Even the pointing and clicking have problems, as you have to be aligned in the right area in order to click your way through openings or interact with the environments, which can be finicky and irritating.
This can even be problematic for whenever you can provide optional questions or remarks, as they remove all interactable elements on the screen. Because of how this only offered trivial insights, I never wanted to do this in case I missed an important discovery. There are not even that many elements to interact with in each location, so why not then create areas with fixed camera angles to give a better view and quicker access to areas and objects? This could have easily made the general exploration smooth and inviting.
I absolutely hate when a game is so slow to the point of feeling like a strange form of padding, and it does not help when ideas have no effect and are completely forgettable, such as the regenerative stamina meter that is just there. Luckily, Heaven’s Vault has one thing that I always found fantastic about it: how you deciphered ancient language. Every word gets a couple of possible solutions for what they might mean and combining them to see the outcome of a sentence, is interesting and makes for solid brainteasers. As you continue, the game will determine if your choices are correct or not, giving you some leniency in your approach and provide more theories to your discoveries, which will help furthering your journey onward.
This can get somewhat ridiculous though, as there are incredible amounts of places with ancient inscriptions on them. I can get why writings are found inside books, on ritual knives, and on the top of doors, but on a fire poker, a flag, and even one being inscribed by modern people really stretches this concept. It is still fascinating to uncover more words and sentences, and the artefacts can be traded in for other info or contain one minor function. Even if their uses are limited, this is one aspect I hope will be revisited in a better project.
Sadly, for a game that lasted as long as it did, I was rarely intrigued and often found myself disinterested when I had to wait in order to hear what my next destination would be or go far stretches in order to find one item. I always had to have something on to keep me focused, be it a podcast, the TV or a friend to talk to, otherwise I procrastinated and found myself doing anything else. It should not be this uninteresting being an archaeologist, especially with the game’s wonderful ideas.
Gameplay Score: 2.5/10
The problem of mixing styles
I am sorry, but this truly does not look good. The 3D environmental models have poor textures, shallow technical strengths, and clashes with the 2D figurines. While I also find them visually uninteresting due to their few frames of what might be animations, I can at least say that the characters’ designs are solid. They are expressive and with the focus on utilising few and strong colours, their style actually seem like a design-choice. Sadly, they lack any personality, with even the robot having parts of it cut off. Having people walking around, also damages the game’s atmosphere due to their lacklustre animations, and I was always puzzled at why their colouring were unfinished.
If I can say anything nice about this world, it is that I do admire its take on its setting. It is a unique approach that is done well with clearly implemented areas to make each one distinct and have a clear function, such as the farms upwards a hill or temples telling old tales through the visuals alone. Even as much as I dislike the sailing, the look of the rivers floating in the sky is mesmerising and creative, making the feeling of surfing towards unknown planets exhilarating. Unfortunately, even they suffer from lack of variety and becomes dull. At least there is a cute nod to Sorcery!.
Laurence Chapman is a staple at Inkle and his music truly shines in this instalment yet again. There is a heavy focus on string instruments with a piano added inn, giving the soundtrack a sophisticated tone to it with a strong form of echo, signifying the vast world in front of you. Every song conveys a clear emotion and contain varied notes to make each melody special. However, there are a lot of silent moments that never truly adds to the settings, making me wish the music was more present. There are some monologues spoken by Aliya, voiced by Gem Carmella, and these are solid and provides our protagonist with a clear and dark tone, even if her talent is barely used.
Presentation Score: 4/10
Retreading a familiar loop
As mentioned earlier in this review, there are different choices you can take in order to see varied parts of this journey, including multiple endings. However, it takes such a long time with one playthrough, it is severely hard to recommend a second one. That is, had it not been for one interesting feature. After beating the game once, it changes certain elements to reflect the concept of reincarnation in a fascinating way. While I will keep spoilers to a minimum, I truly love this idea of a new game plus! It is just a shame you have to slog through an uninteresting journey filled with moments where you will end up begging Aliya to at least lightly jog. I truly think the extras are fantastic, but with how long this game is, I cannot fully recommend tackling this.
Extra Score: 5/10
This is incredibly frustrating, as there are some brilliant elements executed strongly in this instalment. The music is superb, deciphering the forgotten language is exciting, and the knowledge you gather can be intriguing. However, all of this is hard to appreciate due to the slow journey, the useless boat segments, awkward controls, and generally uninteresting present world and characters. Even if replaying this game leads to an unique setup, I cannot see myself going through this title ever again. I have old history books, archival documents to uphold, and Return of Obra Dinn if I want a better take on such an experience.