Not perfect, but pretty damn good.
Heaven’s Vault certainly has issues, some larger than others. However, developer inkle studios manages to deliver an engaging narrative with likeable characters, making it easy to forgive any shortcomings.
Heaven’s Vault follows archaeologist Aliya Elasra and her robotic partner Six through the Nebula to investigate the whereabouts of missing roboticist, Janniqi Renba. Playing out as a narrative-driven point-and-click puzzler, it almost immediately feels new and different, and piqued my interest from the get-go.
The narrative in Heaven’s Vault really plays off that momentum, leaving the right questions unanswered and adding stakes where they’re warranted. Near the beginning, I found myself asking ‘why?’ quite often. Why am I searching for Renba? Why is this robot joining me on this adventure? Why does Aliya care to help Professor Myari?
The questions pile up, which is great, because inkle does an excellent job of addressing them when they need to. Heaven’s Vault’s writing is very good.
And that’s especially true in its dialogue. The chats between Aliya and Six are incredibly engaging. Occasionally, reading conversations with characters can get a bit stale in games like this, but inkle obviously understands its characters and knows how to inject personality into every line.
But the narrative isn’t even the best part of Heaven’s Vault—it’s the puzzles. The main mechanic lies in deciphering an ancient language, usually acting as clues that guide and push the story forward. Occasionally, you’ll find items with inscriptions of ancient words that can help you in your quest. You’ll have to use past knowledge of solved inscriptions and a bit of educated guessing to solve the puzzles.
It’s a puzzling mechanic that really put me into Aliya’s shoes. Each time I had to solve an ancient phrase, I had to come at it from an archaeologist’s perspective.
Heaven’s Vault does have its pitfalls, though. The overall pacing is an issue. The devs give the player the freedom to tackle tasks in whatever order they’d like, which is a choice that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.
The UI isn’t particularly easy to navigate, and on top of the level of freedom the player is given, it’s hard to know what your options are. I often found myself navigating to planets that probably should have been lower on my priority list because I didn’t understand what my best course of action should have been in the moment. These guessing games took away from the pacing, and it took a few extra unnecessary minutes for me to find my footing and get back on track.
There is also an open-world aspect to Heaven’s Vault that could have been excluded entirely and the game would have been better for it. When you want to travel between planets, you have to hop aboard the Nightingale, Aliya’s ship, and sail the rivers of the Nebula. This becomes tedious and simply isn’t very fun. It feels like filler that could have easily been replaced by a loading screen that brought me to the action faster. Learning about sailing the rivers is an interesting part of the lore of the universe, but it definitely could have been executed in a more interesting, tasteful way.
I have a love/hate relationship with the art style. The character models are fantastic. The hand-drawn, stop-motion movement looks great, and I would have loved to see that applied to the environment too. Instead, the artists decided to place the 2D character models within 3D environments, which probably seemed like a better idea on paper than it did once they executed. It doesn’t look terrible by any means, just a little jarring at times.
I also experienced a few minor bugs in my time with Heaven’s Vault. Often times, lines of dialogue wouldn’t trigger and I’d just have to silently wait for the text to fade off-screen. There were also a few instances in which my screen would go blank and I just had to wait for a different shot to trigger before it was fixed. I never ran into anything major, but these small hiccups took me out of the experience for a split second and reminded me that it was, in fact, a video game.
Heaven’s Vault’s narrative is so good, though, that you don’t think much about the parts that don’t really work. The devs understood that the nature of the game and its identity is rooted less in its gameplay and more in its story. They decided to put more of its eggs in the story basket, which, in the end, pays off.
[Reviewed on PC]