Heaven’s Vault, the archaeological science fiction game from the interactive storytelling masters at inkle, was initially planned for release on iOS. But with no word about it in ages, I decided to play the Nintendo Switch version, the next best thing for me. It’s actually the first game in some time now to get me to dust off my Switch and play more than an hour or two on it. I still wish I could play on my iPad, but I’m enjoying it enough that I think I’ll stick with it to the end, at least once. Since I’m still playing, I’m not ready to write a review, but I wanted to share some early impressions based on the few hours I’ve spent with it so far.
The game has you taking on the role of an archaeologist named Aliya Elasra as she travels the cosmos in search of Janniqi Renba, a missing roboticist. She’s accompanied by her robot sidekick, Six, named such because she lost or sold the previous five. She’s a snarky character and isn’t very nice to Six, who nevertheless tries to keep her out of trouble. She doesn’t trust robots, but still finds them useful at times. Together, you’ll travel to different moons and learn about the history of the Nebula where they live, as well as Aliya’s troubled past. There are many mysteries to unravel, and thankfully all the locations are gorgeous and enjoyable to explore. The dynamic choice-based dialogue also keeps things moving at a steady pace as you learn more about this universe and these characters. Though there’s very minimal voice acting, Gem Carmella’s work helps bring Aliya to life, together with a sweeping soundtrack.
But what truly sets the game apart is its linguistic puzzles. On your travels, you’ll find artifacts and ruins with ancient glyphs carved into them. Starting from just two simple words, you need to translate an entire language, mostly through educated guesswork. When you find an inscription, you’ll guess the meaning of different fragments based off past translations of similar glyphs. Thankfully, you’re not typing in words, but instead choosing from several options for each, with the goal of having a proper sentence in the end. Repeated usage in sentences that make sense in the proper context will solidify a meaning so that Aliya is sure of it and will no longer have to guess. Normally, learning a new language overwhelms me, but the puzzle design makes it pain-free and exciting when I start to really fill in some blanks and get rid of question marks.
Tons of information is also saved in your timeline to revisit at any point, including every inscription you’ve found and translated — or attempted to. If a previous translation isn’t making sense when it comes up again, you can go back and try to find a better meaning for it. You might also have to leave some unsolved and come back to them later when you’ve collected more inscriptions. I really appreciate this approach to puzzles, as it means you don’t have to stare at one until you solve it, but can continue making progress even when you’re temporarily stumped. And it’s that much more exciting when all the pieces fall into place.
On each moon, you’ll walk around, looking for artifacts and chatting with locals. But to get there, you’ll need to sail Aliya’s ship, the Nightingale, through gorgeous space rivers. You can chat with Six while doing so to make the journey more interesting, but you’ll also want to pay attention so you don’t miss any turns you’re meant to take. Thankfully, if you do miss a turn, the game quickly reloads to right before it and lets you fix your mistake. The sailing parts can drag on a bit sometimes, but you are able to skip it for paths you’ve already travelled before, so that helps. Overall, this is probably my least favorite part of the game, but I do appreciate the beauty and the fact that these sections aren’t more punishing.
Because this is a pretty open choice-based game, it’s possible to miss things or mess up in a way that certain paths are locked off from you. I know you’re meant to play multiple times, but it’s very unlikely I’ll do so. Instead, I’m trying to just make peace with the fact that I might not see everything the game has to offer, perhaps not even its best parts. I’m just relaxing with it and enjoying the journey, wherever it takes me. Overall, the experience has been a positive one so far, though I have encountered a few bugs, as well as some lag. The bugs have mostly been overlapping text in a few areas, including the puzzles, and can be annoying. But shutting down the game fixes it, at least until the next time it happens. I do hope it gets fixed, but if not it’s a minor nuisance in an otherwise enjoyable game.
If you have a Switch to play on, I recommend getting Heaven’s Vault, based on what I’ve seen so far. I don’t know that it will come to iOS at this point, so don’t miss out on it if you have a way to play it. There’s something very special here and I can’t wait to get back to it and learn more about Aliya, this ancient language, and what exactly happened to Renba. I’ll be sure to follow up with final thoughts once I finish the game, but at this point it’s easy to recommend to any adventure fans.