One of the finest things about the independent scene is that it gives more unique ideas, mechanics, and features the opportunity to thrive. Heaven’s Vault, from developer inkle Studios, takes advantage of that freedom with an experience that turns back the clocks and places the emphasis on language and archaeology. It’s a far cry from the project that put the studio on the map – the smartphone and PC centric 80 Days – but should that matter when its concept already appears to have hit a home run?
Indeed, the game is at its absolute best when you are given the chance to engage with what sets it apart from anything else. The Cambridge-based developer has created its very own language, based on shapes, flicks, and hieroglyphics. A large part of the experience is based around coming to understand its words, meanings, and phrases, which works in unison with a story of discovery and rescue. Taking place in the Nebula, a series of moons connected by passageways, you assume the role of an archaeologist named Aliya. Content uncovering ancient objects in her spare time, she is thrust out of her comfort zone when handed the task of tracking down a missing roboticist. Proceedings quickly increase in scope however, as the search for the lost university student brings to light major discoveries and talk of a lost age.
It’s a decent narrative with a promise that offers enough intrigue to spur you through to the conclusion, but so much of its early game is going to feel like busy work. Visiting a variety of locations about the Nebula only leads to minor findings that don’t feel like they were worth the time or effort, meaning it takes a good couple of hours before something captivating occurs. It all comes together for the finale, but you’ll need to put the work in to reach it.
Let’s loop back around to what makes Heaven’s Vault stand out, though. As you explore the moons of the Nebula, you’ll come across the inscriptions of another language. Initially, you’ll have no idea what any of it means – constrained to making educated guesses based on context and location. However, in unison with the librarian at the university and through your own verdicts, you’ll start to gather a grasp of what certain words or phrases mean. Remarks and idioms are presented to you generally in clumps of two to four words, and thanks to previous encounters some of those will be filled in for you. The words that you don’t know offer up a selection of potential correct answers for you to choose from, allowing you to form a coherent phrase or sentence.
Solving the riddles is a ton of fun, but depth can be found when you start to cross-reference. You can return to any puzzle at any point through the menu accessed via the touchpad, and here you’ll be able to fill in words should you receive confirmation of your suspicions. It’s at this point where the scope of the title begins to expand because the events of the game can change depending on your inferences. The experience is a complete pleasure to interact with when you’re solving multiple phrases in a short space of time once a breakthrough happens, opening up your understanding of the language even further.
Unfortunately, though, anything outside of cracking open puzzles feels rather undercooked. You’ll explore numerous environments throughout the Nebula, interacting with characters as you come and go, and asking questions of your robot companion. It’s all very one-note, as if a large stretch of development time was spent perfecting the linguistic mechanics while everything else lagged behind. The majority of conversations lack voice work, but that doesn’t take away from the diverse cast of characters you’ll come across. If only we could actually hear most of them speak.
As such, the game’s general loop of gameplay is a mixture of highs and lows. You’ll be delighted to find a scripture to solve every once in a while, but the time it takes to actually get to them is hardly full of enjoyable sequences. You’ll come across a handful of extravagant set-pieces, but the act of piecing together the archaic language is most definitely the diamond in the rough.
While the game can hardly be considered bad in any sense, it does have one particularly egregious aspect. In order to reach each and every location across the Nebula, you’ll need to set foot on its pathways through space. Using your ship named the Nightingale, you’ll float across its rivers by holding the L2 and R2 buttons for direction and letting the current take you – and it has to be one of the most tedious and boring acts of navigation we’ve come across for quite some time. Despite its magical visuals, every route looks exactly the same while directions often point you along a path that actually increases your journey time. It’s a neat novelty the first time you set sail, but subsequent trips prove to be ludicrously tedious and incredibly dull.
The setbacks don’t stop there, though, because the experience suffers from serious technical shortcomings on the PS4 Pro. A couple of pre-release patches helped to somewhat mitigate these issues, but we had to put up with consistent framerate drops, stutters that paused gameplay for a second, a camera that would get stuck in geometry during conversation, and a glitch that left us unable to land on a moon upon reaching the moment where the title is supposed to fade to black and land your ship. It’s a disappointing state of affairs that hampered the limited amount of enjoyment we were having once we came across an inscription to decipher.
Heaven’s Vault will satisfy budding archaeologists and linguistic fanatics in fits and starts, but the overall experience that brings those mechanics together leaves a lot to be desired. Alongside technical frustrations and tedious movement between locations, this is hardly a game we can recommend with any sort of confidence.