Heaven’s Vault is a PlayStation 4 exclusive archaeological narrative based adventure game by Inkle which aims to provide a story similar in scale to the Witcher series.
In Heaven’s Vault, you play as Eliya Alasra, an archaeologist who is trying to solve the case of a missing robotocist by exploring a lost vast area of scattered moons known as The Nebula. The Nebula was once home to an ancient civilization of people, and as such there are many inscriptions in their now forgotten language. The main objective is to gather clues from translating the language and learning what you can about the civilization, although it’s not as straightforward as it sounds. When translating inscriptions, players will have to take many educated guesses based on what they already know and after each translation, further instructions are provided based on all on the previous information gathered. It’s even possible to complete the entire game without gaining a true understanding of the language.
Various artifacts can also be found throughout the world. These artifacts are procedurally generated and like translations can infer from everything you have previously learned.
In addition to exploring new areas and uncovering translations and artifacts, players will build relationships with characters throughout the world and those characters will react differently depending on how they’re treated. If treated poorly, the characters will be distant towards you and less likely to help you out, while if treated well they may be willing to give you more information. Additionally, past dialogue can be referenced as a way to remember your history with each character and how you’ve acted towards them previously.
Unlike some higher budget titles, small choices can be just as important as bigger choices and help to create a branching narrative. Due to the more open world nature of the game, areas can be explored in any particular order and as stated previously instructions on where to go next will appear based on what you’ve already learned.
Unlike some other video game archaeologists, Eliya doesn’t have near superhuman abilities, and has an exertion meter which depletes depending on what you do. If you run out of breath, you’re sent back to the ship and may have to find an alternative way to traverse the area or go to another unexplored area first to gather more information.
Heaven’s Vault features a graphic novel like 2D art style which lends itself to more varied characters with more expressive faces, while backgrounds are 3D and feel less restricted than in other games. While this style combined with brief seemingly unfinished animations can be off putting at first, it really lends itself to the subject matter and makes the game truly feel like an interactive graphic novel.
I was impressed by how the small team at Inkle managed to develop an entire fictional ancient language and how they represented the difficult process of translation. The cyclical relationship of how the player’s understanding of the language feeds back into to the narrative provides a distinct and unfamiliar twist which helps make each experience different.
I also thought it was interesting how they wanted to make Eliya feel like a more realistic person with the exertion meter. It seems somewhat out of place in a more visual game, but an interesting addition nonetheless .
Due to its compelling narrative and how it can be changed based on translations, I wouldn’t be surprised if Heaven’s Vault gets nominated for the Excellence in Narrative award for the next IGF Awards.
Heaven’s Vault will release for PlayStation 4 in 2018.