Heaven's Vault

EXPECT TO PAY: $36 AUD ($46 Deluxe edn) 

A word, composed of two distinct glyphs is occupying my attention. One of the glyphs is squat and spiky, the other, a tall line with a dot above it. I had initially thought the first symbol meant ‘harvest’, but now realise that it stands for ‘plant’. The taller glyph, making up the second half of the word, shares similarities with other words to do with height. Considering the option available, I deduce (correctly) that in combination with the glyph for ‘plant’, the word must be ‘tree’.

Heaven’s Vault is one of the most unusual and unique games I’ve played. Game-play revolves heavily around exploration, and puzzle solving. The puzzles being solved, however, are linguistic ones. You see, players take on the role of an archeologist-historian called Aliya as she and her robot companion, Six, attempt to track down a missing academic. Things are definitely more than they seem, however, and what may have been a simple job turns into a voyage of discovery of epic proportions spanning the Nebula: a strange region of space filled with small moons connected by ‘rivers’ – flows of ice and gas which ‘ships’ can ‘sail’.

Scattered throughout this region of space are ruins and relics of a bygone age, inscribed in ‘Ancient’, a language which has been largely lost. By decoding the numerous inscriptions that they will find along the way, players not only build up a picture of the game’s fascinating world and its history, but also zero in on long-lost areas of the Nebula. These puzzles are both quite unusual, and very satisfying. Each time you encounter a string of glyphs, you are given options as to what they may mean. In order to figure it out, players have to draw upon contextual information such as where the glyphs were found and what they were inscribed on, what options make sense given the potential meaning of surrounding words, and any glyphs the player already knows, or thinks they know. It takes several correct translations for a glyph to be marked as definitely meaning what you think it does.

Whether or not you can successfully decipher the message, each new artefact you find helps you zero-in on a new location in the Nebula, and you will need the help. What initially appears to be a very neat and confined series of rivers, gradually turns out to be a huge, sprawling network. Some looping back on themselves, some barely moving, other flowing fast and wild. This gives the game two very distinct parts: one where players investigate the environment, talk to people, uncover relics, translate Ancient glyphs and gradually piece together the history of this strange universe; and another, almost zen-like experience as you guide your ship through the ever-moving waterways between moons. It’s a strange and compelling mix, and you’ll find that whenever you’re starting to tire of slotting together the jigsaw which is the Nebula’s history, the mystery of what happened to the missing academic, or translating increasingly long lines of Ancient, it will be time to jump into your ship and sail to a new moon. The simple nature of navigating the rivers, as well as the frankly stunning artwork allow for some mental ‘down-time’.
For those concerned that the river-journey can descend into a kind of pretty-looking tedium (the type becoming more and more common in games today), worry not. In the first place, any journey to a new location is coupled with a fair amount of interesting dialogue, all of which helps you fill in the picture of this universe and reveal more of the story (something which actually helps with the puzzles). Secondly, if you ever find yourself having to retread ground and there’s no dialogue to keep the journey interesting, you can hand the reigns of your ship over to Six, which will either teleport you directly to your destination, or the nearest point where you once again enter uncharted waters.

A fair word to describe this game would be ‘considered’. It encourages you to take your time, think and explore. This is backed up by masterful design. Every conversation you have adds to your understanding of the game’s world, and nothing feels like filler. Likewise, if an area in the map attracts your attention or looks like it should be important, there is always something there to discover. And while the game does have a slow and contemplative pace, it still manages to create some brilliantly tense and dramatic moments, as well as a few eye-opening revelations. These last are made all the more effective because they result from the player piecing together disparate parts of information, rather than being explicitly stated. Games have been struggling with how to incorporate complex story since their inception, and I can honestly say this is the first game that actually nails it.

All of this is backed up by the visuals and music. The highly original art-style blends 3D environments with 2D characters, and while it seems strange at first, the more you play the game, the more you realise just how well it actually works. Regarding the music, rarely have I heard a game where more care has been taken in making and recording the soundtrack, replete with rich cellos, violins, and sparkling piano solos, which should appeal to anyone who enjoyed Guillermo del Toro’s haunting film, Pan’s Labyrinth.

Once you finish the game, you can start all over again, retaining whatever knowledge of Ancient you acquired on your first play-through. Thanks to the fact that you can alter how Aliya responds in dialogue, the messages inscribed in artefacts changing slightly, and that it is possible to finish the game without exploring everywhere (I still had a large patch of unexplored space on my map when I reached the ending) means that you will be able to enjoy the exploration and mind-stretching task of translation all over again. That, and you will invariably find more information which fleshes out the game-world even further.

While I absolutely love the game, there are a few minor shortcomings to be noted. The first is slightly wonky level-of-detail optimisation. It’s not uncommon for some detail in the 3D landscape to pop into existence, or noticeably change, as the camera comes closer. While this startled me at first and did occasionally bother me, the more I played the less important it seemed. Also, interacting with items in the world is done by locating a hot-spot (a white dot) which, when you get close enough or target it, gives you an option to interact (talk, look at, examine, and so on). These work well for the most part, but occasionally it can be a bit fiddly to target some of them. Lastly, with regard to dialogue, most of the dialogue is done purely in text form, and it is incredibly difficult to convey tone and sentiment with text alone, I did sometimes find myself selecting a particular response only to realise, because of how the other characters reacted, that the tone and implication where quite different from what I assumed. All in all, though, these issues are truly minor.

All things considered, this is perhaps the most fun I’ve had playing a puzzle game since Riven. Cerebral, contemplative, and highly enjoyable, Heaven’s Vault is an engaging masterpiece, clearly made with love. I have absolutely no hesitation whatsoever in recommending this. ■

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