I went into Heaven’s Vault cautious. Not for any reason I believed to be ill-willed, but rather, simply because Inkle Studios set out to tell a story about the muddiness of history. That is an ambitious task. History is a deep, branching, and twisting thing. Stories evolve as they are passed down, events are remembered differently. Our memory of our own lives is subject to various degrees of fantasy, how fantastical then are the memories of our ancestors? While it is easy to point this out, it is difficult to put together a story with a consistently ambiguous lore. In fact, ambiguous lore is a bit paradoxical for most works of fiction. The backstory is essential in Mass Effect. No one debates whether or not the First Contact war between the humans and Turians happened. Nor are there really any questions about why. Heaven’s Vault tackles this paradox head on and does a surprisingly good job illustrating a world with a history in question.
A lot of the delivery of this rests on the core mechanic Heaven’s Vault is built around: deciphering an ancient and forgotten language. Players take control of Archaeologist Aliya Elasra, an orphan turned scholar, and search the reaches of the Nebula, for ancient scratchings and etchings of a bygone age. Aliya is resourceful, bringing her base knowledge of the linguistic characteristics of this language from the onset. As you progress, that knowledge grows as you discover more and more cast off fragments of a past culture.
This mechanical core, searching for and finding ancient artifacts, inferring what the runes mean, and fact checking with later discoveries, defines the experience for the player. There is something uniquely satisfying to confirming that a collection of lines and segments means “Pilgrim.” Or realizing that segments of the same collection of symbols mean “Home.” It is in this process of discovery that Heaven’s Vault establishes the aforementioned convolution of history.
The player is forced to guess on translations when the symbols aren’t familiar, those guesses form the information you will act on, and then later translative opportunities confirm or contradict those assumptions. When later translations contradict prior guesses, as educated as they may be, you are forced to reconsider your prior assumptions, often times altering the understanding of how events played out. Even altering your understanding of this forgotten culture as a whole.
This process is as refreshing and unique as it is challenging. And it is used to great effect in this title. Tasked with hunting down a missing roboticist named Janniqi Renba, Aliya traipses her way around the Nebula looking for signs of his whereabouts. Assembling pieces of his trail of breadcrumbs quickly reveals that there is much more afoot. A darkness approaches and it is up to you, the player, to what that means, and how Renba has gotten himself tied up in all of this. The ensuing pursuit is fascinating, even thought the payoff may seem a bit too encompassing.
Heaven’s Vault is worthy of a great deal of praise for its execution of its premise, absolutely. It is important to point out that the execution is perfect in every aspect. Few games ever are. This title opens Slowly, with a capital S. I get that every story needs to open with some kind of expository, I just feel that in this case, a lot of the initial dialogue could have been delivered using alternative means. The game leans heavily on a travel system between destinations that allows for a good amount of disembodied dialogue.
In fact, that system would benefit from a little more content. Sailing the rivers of this universe that bind the Nebula is at first stunning. The environments and vistas are impressive, and the score is impressive, but after 5-10 hours of playing the game, the slow speed of travel and the lack of an easy fast travel system makes these moments drag a bit. Early in my playthrough I was in the cabin of my ship and I was able to tell my robotic companion Six that I wanted to rest. Six navigated the Nightingale to our next destination. Had this system been more readily available I would have absolutely used it more.
Interestingly, despite Heaven’s Vaults amazing structure around learning a language, the game’s writing sometimes falters in its ambitions. It is hard to tell if these shortcomings are the result of the game’s thematic ambition, or if they are the result of the story accelerating a bit faster than these individual threads allow. A lot of the characters in Heaven’s Vault have a promising set up while the bulk of their existence never write lives up to that anticipation. While I wouldn’t venture to call these characters themselves thin, the writing often leaves a bit to be desired.
Further, the description of the game totes a flexible narrative. When this assertion is weighed in light of the didactic nature of deciphering a language, the different directions that the story can lead are clear. When you look to the choices the player is able to make, both in conversation and story progression, few of the choices you are able to make seem to make a lasting impact in the overarching narrative.
After visiting a the site of a crashed ship and abandoned hiding place, Aliya is given a message from a mysterious being that immediately casts doubt on the motives of Aliya’s adoptive mother and boss. Enough doubt, in-fact, that I avoided giving her the relic I had found the entire game and there was really nothing that came of it. Sure, she asked me to deliver the artifact upon learning of my finding it, but not taking it to her seemed to have no real impact on how our relationship played out. On the other hand, a small side story concerning two laborers, one wounded and the other abandoned, I felt I had far more in charge of the events that played out.
In the end, Heaven’s Vault is is a complex and interesting narrative with a genuinely unique core and excellent world building. The score is majestic and mysterious, a great accomplishment for composer Laurence Chapman. Truly, the score saved a lot of those moments where the sailing dragged the momentum down a bit. It doesn’t deliver on everything it sets out to do, but for all of its ambition, the amount of time I was drawn in by just the discovery of the language and world it was creating was really satisfying. The many locations you travel between are diverse and beautiful, the characters, while sometimes shallow, are genuinely interesting, and the plot is entertaining and thorough. There is a lot in here for people who love digging into and solving mystery.