Any of you guys ever play ’80 days’? I didn’t, but I’ve got a friend who insists it’s one of the best games ever made… So you can imagine the intrigue when ‘Heaven’s Vault’, a new title by the same developer, landed on my desk – A story-focused game with a free-form narrative, a sci-fi setting, and it’s all about archaeology? Sign me up!
Aliya Elasra is our protagonist; stoic, intelligent, inquisitive, and a little rough, I’m just going to say right off the bat that she’s one of my favourite protagonists of the last few years, narrowly beating out Sean Diaz from ‘Life is Strange 2’. She’s abrasive, she’s self-serving, and she’s blunt as a brick, but once you’ve warmed to her perspective on life, she’s a fantastic vessel for the world we are about to explore and the plot we’re about to experience. Her design – which draws heavily on Arab features and fashion, including a hijab – sets her apart visually from other characters we’ve seen in video games – and whilst that’s great for diversity’s sake alone – it adds a freshness and an intrigue to her; whilst we experience the world through her perspective, she’s still able to surprise us with her knowledge and attitudes in a way that keeps the game’s calm and meditative pace from stagnating into boredom – She’s accompanied by a robot companion, Six, who acts as a means for Aliya to think out loud about the world and her experiences in it. She feels not like some empty vessel, but as a fully realised part of the world she inhabits, who holds our hand through the alien experiences we’re brought along to see.
The world, by the way, is something I find difficult to describe without ruining the magic. The game is set in a sci-fi world, but instead of being high-tech and modern, the world is old, with buildings made of stone and small rural hut-villages scattered across several small planets, connected by ‘rivers’ through space. From watching the trailers, I was under the impression that this was some near-future setting on planet Earth… But that doesn’t sell the quiet majesty of the setting, which despite being by no means massive and rather segmented (Thanks to the planetary settings), feels like it has a real pulse; without showing us massive crowds or allowing us to talk to dozens of locals, you get the impression that the world is inhabited by very real cultures with a real history. More than any AAA RPG, this quiet dialogue-based game made me feel like I had stepped into a fictional world as real as the one I actually live in.
Then again, that’s probably because the game is all about the adventures of an Archaeologist, someone who’s supposed to be down with the whole ‘ancient history’ thing. That doesn’t mean we’re spending all our time very slowly digging up ruins, nor does it mean we’re Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. Instead, the game is all about making use of Aliya and Six’s knowledge of ancient cultures to progress the plot; a plot that seamlessly drifts from contemplative to horrifying all while maintaining a meditative atmosphere that made me feel calmed contemplative but still hungry to solve the mysteries I was presented with. The main way Aliya’s skills manifest is through her ability to decode and decipher an ancient language through careful analysis of the symbols – Something the game has you achieve by gently nudging you with clues to figure out the meaning of certain glyphs. Over time, you genuinely start to learn to read this invented language in great detail – In fact, this would be a genuinely fantastic way to learn a real language, it’s that effective. While other games may ask you to develop skills in platforming, or knowledge of the cards in a deck, or the ability to strategize, ‘Heaven’s Vault’ instead gently guides you through the experience of slowly piecing together a long-dead culture by deciphering clues from artefacts and glyphs, which in turn lead to discoveries which thrust you through the present-day mysteries of the game’s immediate plot. The Ancient language is, simply put, fantastic puzzle design that feels like a real part of the story, which made me eager to learn more and never made me feel frustrated over a mistake – In fact, there are no immediate penalties for getting a translation wrong. Instead, the game continues as normal and Aliya picks up the mistake later, giving you as many chances as you need to figure them out.
Inkle have developed what that call a ‘narrative engine’, Ink, which allows for a story that genuinely flows depending on your own approach – No matter what order you choose to follow the plot, what manner you choose to talk to people, and what mistakes you make in the puzzles, the game always flows like that was the correct path all along. There’s no need to segment the game into quests and side-quests, keep track of Karma, or any other artificial ‘game’ layer – I have no idea how it works (And I’m a sucker for game design so trust me when I say I tried), but whatever magic it’s pulling behind the scenes works a treat – The dialogue in this game flows perfectly, no matter what. It all feels like a real conversation, each flowing seamlessly into the next scene. The game feels like a movie you can touch, with beautifully written dialogue that scarcely feels cliche or contrived. I believe Aliya is a human more than anything else.
My only gripe in this whole package is the lack of polish in some small areas – For example, the game’s planets are connected by short ‘sailing’ sections. These sections, I can tell, were intended to give the player a break between moments of plot development, as Aliya and Six quietly converse on more philosophical and personal topics that they usually would, set against the backdrop of some actually quite fantastic music. Unfortunately, they aren’t successful, and simply add a needless commute and completely kill the pacing – When I stopped playing, it was during these moments. Universally. Fortunately, they aren’t so long so it’s easy to continue on past and get right into the next scene.
Past that, ‘Heaven’s Vault’ is an absolute joy, celebrating both Science-Fiction and the aesthetics of history simultaneously, employing a gorgeous hand-drawn art style, and backed by some beautifully written music. The plot kept me quietly wanting more with every discovery, adding detail after detail to a meticulously crafted history, unlike anything I’ve seen in the past decade. The game’s insistence on doing everything differently – employing artistic influences from across the globe, providing a lovingly crafted protagonist, and creating its own unique style of gameplay from the ground up – makes ‘Heavens Vault’ a must-play, especially for those who love to explore all the unique things a video game can do, and even moreso for those who love a game unashamed of its own story.
I give Heaven’s Vault a: