What can the past tell us about the future?
Have you ever thought about the fact that there are countless languages that have just been completely lost in the span of human history? Languages that nobody speaks or writes anymore, no room for anybody to learn them and pass them on. It’s an interesting concept to consider, and it’s one of the main aspects that initially drew me into wanting to play Heaven’s Vault, a game that has been on PS4 and PC for almost two years but has finally hit the Switch. This game has a loop that honestly fits perfectly on the system, though there are admittedly a few hangups here and there.
In Heaven’s Vault you take control of a young archaeologist named Aliyah. When a friend of Aliyah’s mentor and adopted mother goes missing, Aliyah is assigned to go out and figure out what has become of him. Joining her on the adventure is a robot that Aliyah names “Six”, a robot who was built long ago and recently unearthed. In the process of investigating this disappearance Aliyah and Six find themselves drawn into a mystery involving the Ioxian Empire, an empire that fell over three hundred years before the game’s events. She also begins the process of deciphering their long lost language, and is even warned by an unlikely source that a great danger might be approaching to threaten the nebula in which they reside, kicking off a very interesting narrative about whether or not the past can tell us more about the future.
The main draw to Heaven’s Vault on a mechanical level is for sure its language deciphering aspect. As you explore the various moons of the nebula you will discover artifacts, structures, and scrolls featuring writings in the hieroglyphic style ancient script. When you discover writings, you will then be tasked with making an educated guess as to what each word means, with the game providing three options per word. In order to make the best guess you can you must take stock of context clues such as what object the writing is on or various symbols the word shares with other words you’ve previously figured out. As you discover more writings Aliyah will be able to figure out if your guesses are right or wrong, and will inform you either way. This aspect of the game is incredibly unique and is honestly by far the most interesting part.
That is not to say the overall narrative isn’t also interesting. The moons and cities of Aliyah’s nebula are well fleshed out and easily distinguished from one another, from the hoity toity Iox to the poverty ridden city of Elboreth, every area has its own distinct personality and points of interest. One issue the narrative does run into is the dialogue, while there are brief moments of voice acting in Heaven’s Vault, most of the dialogue is presented in text only. This is a bit of an issue because conversations can begin out of the blue and there is no sound to accompany them, and this becomes a bit of an issue when paired with the fact that all dialogue automatically moves on without any input from the player meaning that if you were to look away from the screen to look at your phone or your cat for even a brief second, you run the risk of having missed one or two lines of dialogue with no way to look back at what you missed. The speed at which the dialogue advances can be altered to be faster or slower, but I personally found the default speed to be far too fast for me to read every bit.
In order to travel between the moons the player must navigate the “rivers” of the nebula using Aliyah’s ship. This is the weakest part of Heaven’s Vault by far. After plotting a course the ship is controlled by pressing ZL or ZR to control the left and right sails separately. As you sail arrows and dialogue from Six will tell you which way to turn at forks in the river. After a while this mechanic starts to feel a bit mindless and repetitive, and dialogue is a bit hard to read while you’re focused on not missing the turn you need to take, and there are quite a few conversations that occur during these sections. While these sections are very pretty, once you’ve seen one you’ve essentially seen them all. I had at least one occurrence where the game gave me the option to let Six pilot the ship instead, but it never seemed to trigger again and I couldn’t figure out why it had triggered in the first place. While these sections are overall inoffensive and short, they do take a bit away from what is overall a very well put together game.
The other unique feature of Heaven’s Vault is its distinct art direction, putting 2D characters amongst 3D environments. This can be a bit jarring at times, but overall succeeds at giving the game a memorable aesthetic. In terms of technical issues, the only one I ran into was that the game tends to hang every once and awhile, both docked and undocked. It wasn’t frequent enough to ruin the experience, but was frequent enough to be noticeable. The game also features a bit of a branching narrative depending on what kind of personality you feel Aliyah has in terms of responding to the people around her. I was most impressed with this as I am usually a goody-two-shoes in games like this (social anxiety keeps me from being mean even in games), Aliyah’s backstory gave her such a compelling reason for her to be cold to most people around her that it became the route I tended to go, it just made sense.
Overall Heaven’s Vault is a very interesting and unique game that you should consider giving a try, especially if you have any interest in linguistics. While issues with the dialogue and a less than stellar space flight mechanic hold the game back from being truly great, there is enough good here to make it well worth your time. The relationship between Aliyah and Six is realistic and fun to see where it goes, and the environments and world building featured are top notch. If any of this caught your attention that may be a sign that you should be heading out to do some archaeology amongst the stardust.