So, this was almost ready last week but then life barged in and I couldn’t finish it sooner.
It’s not very good (if you have limited time read Alice B’s write-up which is much better balanced, instead), but perhaps I speak a different language from the youth contingent and hopefully some might find some value in it anyway.
Since the bundle has entered its last 24 hours, it’s now or never:
I’m still playing Heaven’s Vault, BTW, but 20 hours in, there is no end in sight. My easy-going play-style might be partly to blame as I have some achievements that are more rare than the one which should unlock with the ending.
Since I haven’t finished it, not even once, I was holding back on expanding my first-first impressions, as there are things that I like about this game, and others that I like less.
In my opinion, it’s a look into a possible future of the traditional adventure game, beyond the familiar point and click format established by Lucasfilm and still widely in use to this day. Although it is such an original setting, and the innovations are so intertwined with the specifics of the story being told, that it’d be interesting to see if anybody else will use this as a model, and in what ways they will be able to adapt it to other stories – Inkle’s next game, Pendragon, which is slated for this Summer, will be a narrative-driven Strategy game, so we might not see anything else like it for a while.
Let’s proceed in order, though. The player character is Aliya, a young-ish archaeologist living in an odd world without a real notion of history. Although she works for the University of Iox, the dominant moon that rules the Nebula with an iron fist, she is not from there, but an orphan who grew up in a slum-like moon called Elboreth, and who was sort of adopted by a Iox university professor, Myari, and we don’t anything about her except what she can remember herself.
The game opens with Myari summoning Alyia, and tasking her with finding another researcher from the same university, Janniqi Renba, who has disappeared suddenly and without trace.
The Nebula is an original, unusual space setting, populated with the remnants of a once powerful, now fallen Empire which has left people isolated, scared, ignorant, undaring.
There is a religion, called The Loop, whose main belief is that history repeats itself, not just figuratively, literally, too. The dominance of the Loop places Aliya in a strange position as an archaeologist, because most don’t believe in history; but, if the Loop is to be believed (and Aliya doesn’t), then she is at the same time researching the past, and the future of the Nebula.
The disappearance of Renba, a roboticist, is the whodunnit which sets the main story in motion. After finding out what’s behind the disappearance, Aliya, escorted a robot who has been assigned to her, and christened Six by her, will be roaming the Nebula in search of the pieces of a mysterious past that’s largely lost.
The robot is partly a sidekick in the style of adventure games, but also part of the puzzle, for all robots are, in Aliya’s present, a relic of the past, unearthed (as they were, literally, buried), and a technology so advanced to be beyond the capabilities and understanding of Aliya’s contemporaries.
The game draws in large part from the traditional adventure game, but in a highly modified fashion, its sensibilities more in line with Telltale games from TWD and on, as well as Oxenfree. It has way more agency than your standard TTG entry, but the world is not structured as a side-scroller as in Oxenfree.
The main loop is composed mainly of three activities:
- Finding and exploring moons in the Nebula, which work much like locations in an ordinary adventure game, however are realized in full 3D, so navigating environment follows the conventional two-stick control model you would find in an open-world game or a third-person RPG, except the locations are separate and their size is more in line with that of an adventure game.
- Traveling from moon to moon on rivers of sorts, aboard a sailboat, which is also a relic.
- Translating words and sentences from the Ancient language, used by the people who established the, now Fallen, Empire of Iox, and built the robots.
Action on moons is mainly exploration and dialog. Conversation with Six is also central to both lunar action and traveling.
So this is more or less when I ran out of time and as you can see, there is a lot of room for improvement.
So going back to what I liked, and what I didn’t: let’s say there are long stretches where Heaven’s Vault finds its stride beautifully and all of the activities, world-building, conversation, lore, travel, mystery, mesh well and work together to provide an immersive experience that has few rivals.
Elsewhere, it slips, the pacing drops, and you start hearing the individual sounds instead of the harmony, the spell does break a little; whenever that happens, you might find yourself staring at the cracks in the wall, which probably stem from this being a project perhaps a little too ambitious, a little too big, for a studio like Inkle.
Altogether, I believe this is something unique, and worth experiencing for those into narrative-driven games, and interested exploring the boundaries of the genre.