I always thought I was a bit of a whizz at linguistics, but Heaven’s Vault, the latest title from the developers behind the hit story games 80 Days and Sorcery!, wants to show that there’s more to learning a foreign language than simply knowing the equivalent of “one beer please.” Never ones to shy away from making huge amounts of work for themselves, the team at inkle have created an entirely made-up vocabulary from scratch to be decoded. But rather than feeling like a trip back to school, the game’s eccentric characters and distinctive worlds turn you into a language-obsessed Indiana Jones, decrypting curios, uncovering the secrets of a forgotten empire and, naturally, running into all kinds of trouble along the way.
Playing as feisty archaeologist Aliya Elasra, you navigate across moons and stars, deciphering ancient symbols you find on trinkets you pick up along your journey. Set within a strange alternate universe called the Nebula, where robots and humans co-exist in a mostly peaceful manner, and spaceships ride along rivers of oxygen, hydrogen and ice, you find yourself tasked with hunting down Janniqi Renba, a roboticist who’s gone missing under very suspicious circumstances. You’re joined in your travels by your rational-to-a-point robot companion Six – so-called because Aliya has already broken or done away with five other mechanical mates before the story even begins.
You move about as Aliya using the keyboard (or gamepad), with the mouse working as a free-moving camera. Aliya herself appears as a 2D, almost ethereally translucent figure set amongst rich 3D backgrounds. Hotspots like hidden treasure, people you can speak to, and alleyways you can walk down appear as yellow circles when you draw near, with the first line of dialogue Aliya will utter when they’re clicked hovering permanently above them. If there’s more than one hotspot within close proximity, it can occasionally be a little hard to interact with the one you want, resulting in a bit of frustrating mouse waggling. For the most part, though, it’s a fairly seamless and unique way of making your way through the villages, cities and ancient temples you’ll encounter on your quest.
When you find some loot, it’s likely there’ll be ancient glyphs scrabbled on it somewhere. Translating these can help you learn more about the world around you, and even point you in the right direction. The language inkle has created is completely pictorial and based on Ancient Egyptian and Chinese writing. During this year’s EGX Rezzed conference in London, Laura Dilloway, the Lead Environment Artist of Heaven’s Vault, wonderfully referred to the game as being the “Guitar Hero of languages.” And there’s some definite truth to that, in the sense of allowing you to tackle a very complex process in a simpler, more accessible way.
You’ll start off each translation with a bunch of scribbled glyphs and some suggestions of words underneath that you can try to match to each symbol. At the beginning it’s pretty much a case of random guesswork based on what symbol seems like it might represent one of the words below, or looks like another similar word you might already know. You won’t find out straight away if you’ve gotten everything right – it’s only when the same translations keep popping up that Aliya can make a judgement on whether you made the right call the first time around or whether that word doesn’t make sense anymore. Just like in Guitar Hero when you master a tricky tune, eventually things do start to click into place and you’ll feel like a linguistics pro. The first time Aliya confirms that she thinks your translation is accurate is just as fulfilling as slamming a difficult guitar riff in any of Harmonix’s musical titles.
Translating everything accurately on your first try isn’t essential (or even normally possible), but you can always go back again at any time to the transcriptions menu, which stores everything you’ve tried already for when you have more clues to give them another go. You could technically go through the whole game barely translating anything properly, as correct interpretations don’t further the bigger story as such. Instead, they help explain more of the backstory of the temples and shrines you’ve wandered through and occasionally help you pinpoint the exact location of an ancient site on your map a little quicker. So even if you find yourself hitting a brick wall in your linguistic pursuits, you’ll still be able to enjoy the narrative twists and turns as Aliya and Six venture further into the Nebula – you might just arrive at those twists and turns a different way compared to someone who’s deciphered everything closer to 100%.
The same is true of the way you interact with the various thieves, academics and merchants you bump into as the story progresses. For every conversation you’re given three options of dialogue to choose from, each with its own tone (from sassy to questioning to flirty or something entirely different) and a limited amount of time to select one. It’s hard to know how much these choices truly affect their respective plot strands in any grand way, but it’s fun having to quickly pick dialogue options and hope you’ve chosen wisely. For example, at one point you’ll have to decide whether to go along with or correct a confused villager who mistakes you for someone else. Agreeing with her could yield vital information she wouldn’t provide if you explain you’re not who she thinks you are, but you’ll not gain much approval from your anxious, ethically sound comrade Six, which could raise complications later on. As with previous inkle titles, half the enjoyment of Heaven’s Vault is in taking a risk on saying or doing something outlandish without knowing what the consequences will be.
Aliya and Six travel throughout the Nebula on the Nightingale, your part-boat, part-spaceship mode of transport. One right-click of the mouse propels your ship forward, whilst appropriate keystrokes steer it right or left alongside the atmosphere’s vaporous rivers. Arrows pop up on-screen to guide you on your route, and it soon becomes obvious that you’re not really driving the ship on its course at all, merely there to make it turn the right way now and then whilst the game does all the hard work. Which is perhaps just as well, because as you sail along warped zones of red, green and blue, Aliya and Six share philosophical exchanges about their recent mind-boggling discoveries.
Space travel in Heaven’s Vault is all very well and soothing – the melancholic string score as you drift around really gets into your head – but my goodness the travel time between moons can feel incredibly slow. It doesn’t help that the Nebula’s geography is basically just faceless rocks and empty (if colourful) space, so there isn’t even anything that interesting to look at as you creep towards the more exciting prospect of translating more squiggles. Thankfully, since the game’s launch inkle has released an update that allows you to now fast travel between moons of the Nebula with the simple press of a button. You might miss out on some of Six’s cutting quips, but probably feel a lot less impatient in the process.
Every moon or clump of rock you land on, whether through fast travel or otherwise, provides a uniquely beautiful, fully formed landscape to explore once you’ve touched down. You’ll find yourself hurrying through the dirty slums of Elboreth, wading through the thick rice paddies of Maersi, and struggling to catch your breath on some secret sand-blown desert you’ve chanced upon in between. Along the way you’ll start to pick up on some of the incredible lore that the developers have buried in books, treasure and translations you discover: tales of a banished Emperor, a Holy Empire, and an entire religion of “loopists” who believe that when you die your body must be cast into the river or your soul will never find eternal peace.
The characters that populate these worlds are equally engaging – even bit characters like Elboreth’s shady slave master feel real and memorable. Headstrong and occasionally rather cold, Aliyah and her constantly concerned robot make a great pair of reluctant buddies whose relationship is even more rewarding to explore because you’re the one forming it through your dialogue choices. Aliyah’s dialogue in particular is evocatively written – “I dream these alleyways” or “spreading fear like a great poisonous snake” – but much of the conversation has a reflective, lyrical quality to it, echoing great Greek literature like Homer’s The Odyssesy in a way that inkle does so well.
Apart from the occasional musical swell when you make a startling discovery, the main sounds heard are background noises of birds chirping, pigs grunting and people bustling about their business. Occasionally at important points in the story, you’ll also get some voice-over narration from Aliyah, the only character you hear out loud (everything else appears as written subtitles). She is played with a down-to-earth British twang that works for the most part – strangely given the mystical, otherworldly atmosphere in which the game is set.
For all its quirkiness, Heaven’s Vault doesn’t shy away from going pretty dark and quite frankly becoming outright unsettling at times. There were a few instances, particularly near the end of Aliyah and Six’s adventure, that I was shocked at how quickly things turned sour. As inkle’s biggest game yet in terms of sheer length (at least 12 hours from start to finish if you rush, but more like 20 if you properly search everywhere), it’s perhaps not surprising that the team decided to touch on bigger themes beyond the central plot. From the concept of resurrection to the fragility of memory and what makes us really human, there’s a lot to process.
The developers have tried to help make sense of it all by creating a “Timeline” menu covering historic events you unearth from the world around you, as well as your own actions in the present as Aliyah. You can easily bring up and access this at any point during the game, which updates as you continue through the story and make your choices. Much like navigating the Nightingale, however, I found the feature interesting to use once or twice, but then much preferred to just get on with the actual tale rather than reading about my past actions.
As perhaps is fitting for a game that ponders the art of translation, the pacing of Heaven’s Vault is at times relatively slow, even for traditional point-and-click fare. Scouring moons does start to feel repetitious ten or so hours in, and even the joy of decoding and unlocking new words starts to drag until a couple of plot twists freshen things up again nearer the end. But a bit of lag and other minor issues like imprecise controls aren’t enough to seriously taint this engrossing, enigmatic universe overall. Even when things slow down there’s always another new world to sail off to, a secret treasure trove to uncover, or another narrative strand waiting just around the corner. It’s a brave game that pursues an endeavour as sophisticated as semantics and etymology as its primary gameplay element, but happily inkle have once again created such an absorbing story filled with engaging characters to meet, charm and/or deceive that whatever your language ability, an exciting adventure awaits.