The Rosetta Bot
HIGH “I know. I felled it.”
LOW Searching the low-flow rivers for locations.
WTF Why can’t Aliya identify the most obvious particle fusions?
If it were critically important to get a message to someone 800 years from now, how would one write it? Languages change and disappear, and systems of writing are equally vulnerable. The meaning of Mayan glyphs may have been forever lost to us thanks to book-burnings carried out by the Spanish, and the Egyptian hieroglyphs would be entirely mysterious had not Ptolemy V’s regime left us a helpful cheat-sheet carved in stone. Without such guides, we are left to guess — and this is the fate of Aliya Elasra (and the player) in Heaven’s Vault, the latest from 80 Days creator inkle.
Heaven’s Vault begins with a mystery, as Aliya is tasked by her mentor to find a missing man. But Aliya is not a cop, she’s an archaeologist, and she lives in a nebula full of small, inhabited moons connected by flowing “rivers” of gas and ice that can be sailed. She and her robot partner (christened “Six” due to Aliya’s habit of breaking automatons) soon discover that the man was on the trail of a greater mystery, tracking an enemy from the past that threatens the entire nebula.
As she takes up this chase herself, Aliya must hunt through ruins for artifacts and decode lines of text in “Ancient”, a language built on agglomerations of glyphs. For instance, there is a glyph meaning “one” and a glyph that indicates “person”. These are concatenated “person-one” to mean “I”. The addition of the glyph for “many” creates a word “person-many-one”, i.e. “we”. By identifying words and understanding the implications of their elemental glyphs, the player (as Aliya) can translate them.
Unfortunately, the logic of translation happens at a remove from the player, who is only allowed to make guesses at a word’s meaning from a list of four options. When a line of text contains unknown words, the player is only given the option to try translating the new words if they can be isolated between words she has already seen. Thus, in one instance, although I could tell that one grouping of glyphs was “of person many one” (our), I was not allowed to attempt translating the phrase because Aliya had not encountered this word or the adjacent one on their own.
This limitation became particularly irritating late in the game where large and complicated new groupings often show up in long strings, essentially rendering many interesting phrases unattemptable. This is only modestly alleviated in the New Game+ mode (where the dictionary carries over) because the length and difficulty of most phrases is also increased in the second go-round. Even when enough new words become available to allow Aliya to translate some of these missing phrases, the interface for revisiting unsolved translations is tedious and there’s no central dictionary for examining known or guessed words.
There’s no real inventory system either, even though Aliya can accumulate a huge number of artifacts by finding them in archaeological sites, trading with shady merchants, or simply receiving them as gifts. She uses these to track down new archaeological sites, and usually trading an artifact from a given location nets her a piece originating from the same place, allowing its position to be narrowed down. An at-a-glance system for examining what she has and what she needs would have been of great use.
Moving between the archaeological sites and her home bases requires Aliya to sail the rivers of the nebula on her ship. The “current” of the river she’s on determines what direction she goes, so all she can control is her speed and what branch she takes when the rivers split. Sailing offers a few interesting vistas (though the camera control is spotty) but is generally a bore. In particular, the final part of tracking down each location involves a process of floating around knotty spirals of almost-still streams, which I did not enjoy on any occasion. Thankfully, a recent update made it possible to hand off the reins to the robot in order to skip most of this stuff.
Once Aliya’s at a site, the hunt is on for artifacts and inscriptions. What order Aliya visits locations has a significant impact on what she finds and learns at each one. Thorough searching and regular visits to Aliya’s allies can dramatically change what she knows at the end of the game, and Heaven’s Vault is perfectly willing to hide some of its best twists so well that it’s possible to miss them entirely.
Heaven’s Vault makes missing its cool bits easier by forbidding the player to revisit most sites, and by making the robot awfully pushy about leaving a moon at the first opportunity. In my first playthrough I accidentally left one moon almost immediately and got shut out of some of the most interesting revelations in the game.
While she’s on a site, Aliya is limited in what she can do. She’s not acrobatic or even fit, and sometimes turns back from narrow gaps or places that are too dark. She also seems to only be able to spot artifacts and carvings at short distance. The resulting meticulous search of each site puts one in mind of genuine archaeological research.
The developers’ graphical focus reinforces the impression that places and things are more important to Aliya than people. The physical locations in Heaven’s Vault are three-dimensional and vibrant, though the palette generally tends too much towards beige. The people, by contrast, are two-dimensional and faded, almost ghostly. Most have nothing to say to Aliya, and her relationships with the people she can converse with, by and large, are strained.
At the end of the game something is revealed about Aliya, and she must make a choice. Unfortunately, neither option held any impact for me. The core mystery of Heaven’s Vault and the puzzles that must be solved to illuminate it are compelling. Yet, like its world and its core character, Heaven’s Vault gets caught up in physical things and forgets the human, rendering its final revelations as cold as the dead moons where Aliya digs up her artifacts. Then again, perhaps it’s fitting for an archaeologist that the story she uncovers is more compelling than her own.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by inkle. It is currently available for PS4 and PC. This copy of the game was provided by the publisher and reviewed on a home-built Windows X PC equipped with an AMD Ryzen 7 processor, 32 GB RAM, and a single GeForce 1080 Ti graphics card. Approximately 60 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed twice.There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated T and contains Suggestive Themes. I also note that the game, at the option of the user, may also contain alcohol use. That said, while many ideas in the game are pretty dark I don’t think anything that actually happens on screen deserves anything harder than an E10.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Only a few lines in the game are voiced over and all of them come with large text white-on-black subtitles. All dialogue is in text. There is no setting to resize these or to alter the appearance of other in-game text and dialogue, although there is a slider to control the rate at which it appears. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. On PC, mouse-and-keyboard or controller may be used but the game feels as if it were designed for the controller. No control diagram is available, but the game employs the standard look/move stick layout. The shoulder buttons control the ship on the rivers. Dialogue choices are made using the face buttons but conventions of button meaning are not always adhered to. In particular, the B/cancel button is a signal of assent in some dialogues.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.