The first few minutes I spent with Heaven’s Vault had me doing a lot of head-scratching. Not because I couldn’t decipher the puzzles, but because the location had a sense of the uncanny to it. Here was a world largely grounded in reality, yet everything was slightly off. The people all looked down to earth, but the clothes they wore had a slightly plain and sterile vibe, as if these were the wardrobe choices of civilians on a planet newly discovered by the Starship Enterprise. My surroundings were described as a university, and while it certainly fit the bill, I couldn’t quite place the whereabouts. It seemed like a cross between the Middle East and North Africa with a little South Pacific thrown in.
The characters kept talking about concepts that were familiar, even integral to our understanding of history and culture. They were talking about empires and emperors, religion and civilisation, archaeology and linguistics. But the places they were talking about, I had never heard of, and a Google search did nothing to satisfy my curiosity. I thought they must be real but they sounded curiously alien.
Initially, I thought this might be some sort of steampunk alternate history version of earth, one with more advanced technology. After all, the first character I was introduced to happened to be a portable Xerox machine with a holographic human face that insisted it was a robot. Also, it seemed that this was a community where cultures were allowed more room to freely mingle with one another without the shadow of colonialism darkening every interaction. Eventually, my questions were answered but it wasn’t instantaneous. Instead of explaining away all the mystery, Heaven’s Vault feels free to pose questions and have you ponder them for yourself.
It was only when I hopped aboard the game’s primary transport method – a curious Jules Verne-esque amphibious aircraft named the Nightingale – that I realised we were in a fantasy world the likes of which I had never quite experienced before. We set sail not on a sea or a river but on a series of channels connecting a cluster of moons. What do these moons orbit? Do they orbit anything? I have no idea, this is but another enigma that the game leaves to your curiosity to discover. In any case, it’s called the Nebula and it’s one of the most unique and intriguing game worlds I’ve ever seen.
Our player character, Aliya, is a studier of history. What makes this remarkable is that the major religion of this world denies the existence of history altogether. Time is a never-ending loop and everything that has ever happened is happening all at once. It’s a difficult concept to wrap your head around but then again, so are the ideas presented in most evangelical churches. Aliya has been called to meet with Professor Myari, the matriarch of Aliya’s University and the one who took Aliya away from a life of poverty on her homeworld, Elboreth. One of their colleagues, Renba a professor in the study of robotics, is missing and Myari wants to know not only where he is, but what he was doing when he went missing. Depending on the way you respond to her instructions, Aliya is either happy to help or deeply suspicious of the professor’s motives.
The dialogue is presented in the manner of modern adventure games. You’ve got three suggestions, each either following a different line of enquiry or conveying a different mood. Some of the more interesting dialogue options available to Aliya have her expressing great anger, distrust and disdain for authority. It’s one of the most compelling aspects of her character as the motivation for this hostility isn’t clear. Is she angry because she was taken from her home? Because she was chosen for a position of privilege, alienating her from all her friends? Does she feel that her own people are weak for being the subjects of oppression? Does she feel that her profession as an architect is more about ransacking ancient cultures than learning about them? Is it all of the above or is the source of her anger entirely up to the player?
Conversations are possible throughout the world and you can easily miss them if you aren’t careful. Playing this preview multiple times, I found conversations that I missed first time around. It gives the game a sense that you are not the only agent of change in this world but that it is a living, breathing environment, with characters beholden to their own schedule, not yours. And while it wasn’t apparent in this demo, the game will be an open-world experience, developing at the pace you choose, which branches you uncover are dependent on your own personal path through the game according to the choices you made.
As you discover new moons and the freshly uncovered ruins on them, you slowly begin to fill the game’s ever-expanding historical timeline. The timeline stretches from the dawn of civilisation to the present moment. Aliya’s personal history – from where she was born, to her first kiss, to the moment she was given the mission to go and find Renba – is listed side by side with the creation of the empire and its fall. It’s wonderfully ominous and has an enthralling sense of foreshadowing to it, as if it’s knowingly hinting that the goal of the game will be to connect Aliya’s past to the past of her people. All of the different subjects are categorised to the individuals, places and races they’re appropriate to, meaning that finding the relevant information to your inquiries isn’t as daunting a task as this epic timeline may make it first appear.
But the most exciting thing you can discover on each new moon you visit isn’t ruins, or the artefacts, or even new characters and fresh conversations. It’s the inscriptions. Aliya’s other challenge in order make sense of history is to figure out the dead language the people of the past used to document their lives. Each new word you uncover comes with a choice of Aliya’s best guesses as to what that word might be as well as references to similar words you’ve worked on in the past. Not only are you forced to continue without knowing for sure if you’ve gotten the answer right, but I wouldn’t put it past the developers to not necessarily give you the right guess to choose from in the first place. And if you aren’t careful your poor choices might set you down the wrong path entirely and lead you on a wild goose chase. It’s this uncertainty and lack of handholding that makes piecing this puzzle together by far and away Heaven’s Vault’s most satisfying activity.
Heaven’s Vault is the most intriguing game I’ve played since Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn, and with twice as much promise. Inkle Studios have created a lush 3D world that proves you don’t need billion count polygon models to create breath-taking landscapes populated by believable humans. The potential of this game to talk frankly about history and our uses and abuses of it, how we’ve both used it to expand our knowledge and increase our influence, makes it one of the most exciting properties of 2019.
Heaven’s Vault is available on April 16th, 2019, for Steam and PS4.