Heaven's Vault

I was midway through my second playthrough when I realized that Heaven’s Vault was an order of magnitude deeper than I thought it was.

If there’s one thing I’d like you to take away from this review, that’s it: there is more to this game than meets the eye. And there is much that meets the eye. There are layers upon layers here, and you will not discover them the first time you play.

On the surface, Heaven’s Vault is a well-polished adventure game using traditional dialogue trees to advance the plot, along with a clever linguistic minigame where you try to translate ancient inscriptions from a language you don’t know, using clues from context and from guesses made on other inscriptions.

I’d rather not give away any of the plot, but the setup is as follows: You, Aliya Elasra, are an archeologist with her own space-sailboat that can coast on nebular clouds. Your mentor at University is worried for a colleague who has gone missing. She provides you with a robot assistant, named Six, and asks you to find him. What you find along the way will change everything.

Travel between worlds is accomplished by a sailing minigame which seems to have no failure state. Both the soundscape and music are diaphanous and relaxing, and some color dialogue occurs along the way; you can also occasionally find wreckage where you may find artifacts with inscriptions to translate. These artifacts may be of use in trade, but their main function is to act as clues to the location of archeologically significant sites for exploration.

At sites, you (and, usually, Six) walk (or roll) around and look for scraps of paper, books, ancient compasses, sextants, drinking vessels, statuettes, swords, tablets, or any number of other ancient items. Most of the items will have inscriptions, which you then try to translate.

I don’t want to give away too much about the translation game, since that’s the true heart of the game, and discovering it for yourself is half the fun. But I can say that this isn’t “real” linguistics; various sequences of symbols you will come to recognize (over time) as having certain connotations. Using some amount of context clues (“The thing I am holding is a musical instrument”) and some amount of common sense about how various symbols connotations might combine, you choose from a small palette of choices as to what this glyph might mean, so the UI is acting as your assistant here. Complicating matters, ancient inscriptions in the game are often a number of words run together without any kind of space or word separator, so deciding where one word ends and another begins is part of the challenge.

I approached Heaven’s Vault like any other adventure game with dialogue trees; a mixture of wanting to find interesting plot threads with having an idea of who my character was and how she would respond. I finished the game in a long weekend and was very satisfied with the story, the writing, and most of the game mechanics (a few of the longer sailing voyages dragged a bit, and felt like padding). Upon finishing, I still hadn’t translated all possible words, and the game offered me a New Game + mode where I kept my linguistic knowledge. Interested in filling out the corners, I restarted the game and figured I would try some of the other dialogue trees, not expected them to have a lot of impact.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

There were a few “side quest” type plot threads that I was convinced would have a different end state while leaving the main plot alone, but overall I was reasonably convinced that I understood the main thrust of the story and the history of the Nebula itself. After zigging instead of zagging through a few dialogue trees - particularly in terms of deciding to visit a few locations out of the most obvious order - I found some of the most central relationships of the game had become nearly unrecognizable. This is a game that rewards replays. It’s almost fractal in nature: the closer you look, the more there is.

My advice to you, Dear Reader, is as follows. First, run, don’t walk, to one of the PS4 or Steam (Windows) stores and buy Heaven’s Vault. You will thank me. (Note to Inkle: this game is a natural for iPad, and it’s frankly madness that you don’t have a port yet. Please seriously consider it.) Second, don’t read any walkthroughs. Don’t read forum discussions about it. Block the name on your social media. Don’t let yourself be spoiled.

Then, start sailing, start translating, and enjoy the journey.

Heaven’s Vault by Inkle Studios. Currently $24.99 retail before discounts, and worth every penny.

Disclosure statement: Inkle Studios graciously provided Tea Leaves with a review copy of the game.