Game Review | Heaven's Vault
Game summary: An archaeologist uncovers a lost history in an ancient space Nebula. (Steam)
I'll start off by saying that Heaven's Vault is definitely not a game I can see having a particularly wide range of appeal, but it definitely scratched the itch of wanting a more thoughtful, puzzling narrative experience from a game. That the 'puzzles' were trying to make sense of symbols as part of a fictional language created specifically for the game only made me like it even more.
While I'm not fluent in languages other than English, I can at least make myself understood in two others while knowing bits and pieces of a few more, and learning the rules of these languages also helped improve my understanding of how the English language worked. Couple this with also doing a couple of courses in Linguistics back in my University days should help point out just why I like this game so much.
Trying to piece together the symbols was highly enjoyable for me and I could easily play a game where that's all you do if the system was implemented as well as in Heaven's Vault. Even if you do have an interest in languages, this game makes you think about how words are used and understood on an unconscious level by most of us every day and having to apply that thinking to symbols you find.
Part of deciphering the symbols is finding common shapes that appear, possibly implying a common or related meaning between the two. That's simple enough on its own, but you'll have to take into account not just those commonalities, but where these symbols were found; the context of why they are where they appear; and the culture behind these locations and objects.
The game has a long timeline for objects and symbols to be placed against, letting you know that - in addition to all of the above - you have to take into account when these symbols were written too. Heaven's Vault really does show in depth just how much goes into understanding a language and how much that understanding can inform you about the people who created it.
Thankfully, the game is also pretty great at letting you know when you've got a word, phrase or sentence correct, so you're not left wondering if everything you're done is wrong. It can be especially satisfying going back to fragments you couldn't translate before with newer knowledge and suddenly being able to complete them perfectly, which then opens up new paths for the story to travel down.
And it should be noted that the story is non-linear, which is pretty impressive for the most part - I'll get into the problems caused by this in a bit. The order in which I completed translations or followed clues to various locations may be completely different to others, and I'm still not sure I found every location I could've seeing as there was a certain set of symbols for which I never found translations.
The main positive about this is that Heaven's Vault really does make you feel like you're discovering this history thanks to your own skills at uncovering and understanding the various locations and objects you come across - and not just following a set path that has to be followed to learn more. It really is up to you how the story unfolds, more so than many other narrative-driven games.
This does mean that there isn't much depth to the main character of Aliya Elasra though, with a set backstory that you can uncover a little more about as you go, but otherwise she feels very much like a blank slate. In this instance, it's not actually too much of an issue because you share the same motivations about wanting to uncover the truth of the past that you'll most likely still form a connection with her as an avatar of yourself in the game.
The biggest downside to the non-linear structure of the story is that the ending is severely underwhelming - at least, it was to me. For others who didn't learn as much as I did before making it to the final location, some of what they learn might be a revelation, but I like to go into enough detail to have a good idea as to what's going on, so was pretty confident about what I'd find, even if Aliya and her robot weren't quite as clued in.
As a result, it's difficult to hold against the game as some players might be amazed at some of the reveals, but I can't help view it as a negative - it didn't spoil the game at all, but it did mean that my final memory of Heaven's Vault was of disappointment that there wasn't something bigger to learn for me at that point.
It also doesn't help that the game just... ends. Again, it might be different for people who make different choices, as there are multiple endings to the game, but the one I chose was certainly anti-climactic. I made my choice and that was it - no special animation or anything particular grand, only one last bit of dialogue and then the credits rolled.
Despite this, I don't want to hold the ending against the game and don't want to finish this review on a negative, so I'll just repeat the fact that I loved, loved, loved the massive majority of this game. The only other downside for me was how long it could take to travel between various locations, but each one was varied enough to never become repetitive and there was always something new to learn.
That learning aspect is perhaps the biggest plus point for me, with this game forcing me to think in a way that few (if any) other games have ever done. Rather than simple logic puzzles or the like, you genuinely have to engage with the material and give it due respect and consideration to get as much out of it as I did.
I don't know if I'll ever play Heaven's Vault again as so much of the enjoyment came from figuring things out that I now know the answer too (and because of my stupidly-large backlog), but it certainly made an impression on me and I already know that I will be much more demanding of story-driven games from this point on. Forcing players to not just think, but also understand, should be what more games are like.
Heaven's Vault is a game that really got its claws into me with the world it created and the history you explore, especially trying to decipher markings and build an understanding of a forgotten language - one created especially for this game! It had that magic feeling of just wanting to keep playing and discover one more clue or missing detail, but the ending doesn't quite match the journey.