Playing a new game is similar to learning a new language. Each starting game has its basics: first we learn how to navigate the map, then to attack enemies and to uncover new adventures or details in the world. In languages, we start with the vocabulary, grammar and syntax. In both, we slowly master individual components, getting them together to express complex ideas.
Heaven’s Vault, the latest game from Inkle, challenges its players to master a game and a language at the same time. Within my first hour as an intrepid archaeologist named Aliya Elasra, I’m introduced to its video game-y actions: exploring many far-flung moons and peering into their nooks and crannies for artifacts. I also begin the arduous challenge of deciphering an ancient hieroglyphic language.
The adventure is precise and thoughtful, having a lone seat on most of games that have put me in an archaeologist’s boots. In Heaven’s Vault, I’m not slaughtering enemies with a murderous pickaxe, or hiding in corners aiming with my bow, I’m an actual archaeologist doing my job.
Taking on an archaeologist’s role inside the game and not becoming a blood-soaked treasure hunter, is a refreshing arrogance. But, with all of those comes the reality of the job: the exploration and the analyzing of dusty old tombs and sand-encrypted physical remains.
Language is supported in so many games in a way, but it Heaven’s Vault it’s centered. Language is the main thing, the spine of the story and the mystery itself. Language is the way, the main and the only one to unravel the meaning of the mysterious hieroglyphs. This is maybe the long-lost language of an ancient civilization, these words can be found engraved into most artifacts, on a boulder or onto surfaces in the world: under a chair, on the walls or maybe along the handle of an old dagger — perhaps even one the soles of my boots if I were to get adventurous and take a quick gander.
Before discovering the lines of the words carved on these surfaces, the game gives me a bundle of words to translate the message. Below each hieroglyph there is a slot and I can drag which word I think is the right one to translate the message. Sometimes, Aliya will make comments giving me clues on whether the words I put in the slots make sense or not, to help me solve the inscription. Even if I’ve made a decision, I can still change my mind and carry out multiple rounds of conclusions. In theory, I should gradually begin to recognize how the language functions as I continue to unearth and interpret even more of the game’s trinkets and curiosities.
The game itself shows the maxes and mins, from the ground of the fascinating geography to the history of the cosmos — known as the Nebula of Heaven’s Vault — documented within individual artifacts. This makes me go through some of the most challenging situations of the game’s archaeology.
It may be a struggle sometimes to go through this fictional history, but I want to know more. Where do the coursing rivers come from and why are they connected to the moons? What happened to the earlier emperor on its earliest days of the fictional country, “Iox”?
If you choose to translate those glyphs with colleagues and friends, you’ll find nothing more than more clues. I prefer asking the locals about answers I want to know or at least any other clue. Aliya blends in perfectly with those around her, as the game can be weirdly narrative constructed and sometimes making more complex dialogues. Exchanges take place organically, like when Aliya is in the middle of exploring a long-abandoned ruin, or while taking a stroll in the corridors of the upscale city Iox. Some conversations can be blunt with Aliya, if not a tad jarring at times. Mercifully, I can skip the dialogue and walk away if it’s getting awkward or tiresome.
These conversations are the primary source on the game’s intricate backstory. To understand them and the narrative, paying close attention is a must and to keep my attention to it, they must in turn remain reviving. Hopefully, the studio behind Heaven’s Vault, Inkle understands the value of briefness. Folks don’t ramble needlessly about esoteric topics like the moons, the ancients, and the empire; instead, details are passed along gradually over the course of the game.
What proves to be challenging, however, is connecting with the characters when they feel more akin to mere repositories for information as opposed to distinct personalities with lives of their own. Aside from dispensing insights about the Nebula, most of the cast feels like personalities mass-produced from cast-iron molds: You have the shifty rogue, the heartless opportunist, and the introverted nerd with his nose usually buried in a book.
Memorable characters are a few, but some stand out to give me the excite of the game’s story just as I begin to understand. For example, Oroi the mechanist is particularly memorable. Her interactions with Aliya flash sparks of tension, her lines tinged with an undercurrent of unease and genuine concern for Aliya’s well-being. Another notable companion is Aliya’s robot ally that she crudely named Six, which had been deployed to keep tabs on Aliya. Six is an overly cautious and somewhat condescending android that likes dictating what it can or can’t do, much to Aliya’s (and my) annoyance. And because I can, I have attempted to scrap and sell its parts.
A big part of those conversations can help Aliya decipher some of the hieroglyphs. For instance, Huang, one of Aliya’s friends, is always on hand when she is stuck in a rut, whether confirming some of her interpretations or by giving her more books and artifacts to pore over. However, that doesn’t always mean that they’re always accurate. There will be still more conjectures even after much discussion. The catch is that I won’t get a full proof that my thoughts are correct. This can impact my interpretation of past events, and an ongoing investigation about a missing colleague at large.
But therein lies Heaven’s Vault’s greatest gamble: The work of an archaeologist is work. While the sleuthing is intriguing at first, it gradually gives way to tedium when I’m faced with possibly my 50th inscription to painstakingly figure out. Making this wearier still is the slow pace of the game, which is compounded by how few reasons there are to care about the state of this world. When the activities, characters, and our conversations fail to maintain my interest or even curiosity, any motivation to uncover the answers behind the game’s biggest enigmas soon wanes — be it the plight of Aliya’s missing colleague or the chronicles behind the Nebula’s earliest years.
While I don’t care deeply about the world, I do admire its surface. The world of Heaven’s Vault is a hand-drawn alien landscape, full of breathing environments and quirky character designs. The abundance of detail — from the ancient megaliths looming out of the connecting rivers to the teeming bustle of a marketplace in the midst of a desert — entices me to excavate until I reach its core. Coupled with its enchanting orchestral music, these sounds and visuals work in sync, harmonizing perfectly to magnify the grandiosity of the game’s universe.
Heaven’s Vault does hold great potential; Inkle’s commitment to delivering an alternative (and more realistic) take on video game archaeology, and to encouraging players to decipher and learn a language, is inventive and mentally stimulating. But holistically, the experience is humdrum; there’s little incentive to keep on unpacking its world if I don’t buy into its fiction. And sadly, I do not. For a game that revolves around the beauty of languages, it’s a disappointment that Heaven’s Vault can’t find the right words to express itself.
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