Heaven’s Vault – Nintendo Switch
Developed By: inkle
Published By: inkle
Category: Narrative Adventure, Point and Click Adventure
Release Date: January 28, 2021
inkle’s latest narrative adventure Heaven’s Vault is set in a futuristic world and yet deals with common issues which society struggles with today. Black Panther showed us an idealist view of a futuristic fictional African nation Wakanda, a wealthy utopia and technological powerhouse due to its rich source of fictional metal Vibranium. It showed us a what-if scenario known as Afrofuturism which many hadn’t seen before. Heaven’s Vault has its own take on Arabfuturism with a futuristic world set in the Nebula, with inhabitants spread across a web of populated moons.
Accept that the Nebula, in a similar way to Star Wars, shows us a drabber future where many of the issues of today remain such as poverty, slavery and racial discrimination. The inhabitants of Elboreth and Maersi greet you with hostility once they find out you’re from Iox, with not even the admission that you were born on Elboreth enough to sway their initial prejudice.
You are an archaeologist named Aliya Elasra who has been summoned back to Iox University by your old Professor who requests you to find someone who has gone missing. You’re accompanied diligently by your robot companion Six who is like the lovechild of C-3PO and R2-D2, administering helpful insight while not being afraid to tell you what they really think. Throughout your adventure Six will provide near constant conversation as you’re walking and exploring if you choose to engage. It’s a nice way to provide more background to certain areas you’re in, to certain characters and to other story threads without asking you to stop gameplay to read exposition.
In Heaven’s Vault conversation flows at quite a speed and you’re given different responses to choose from to keep the conversation flowing, but your response can also take conversations in certain directions which may uncover more information. It can be quite addictive speaking with characters to unwrap new leads as you carry out your investigations.
Speaking to people and your robot companion helps unearth information which is logged in a timeline which you can access at any time. You will also uncover clues by examining objects with inscriptions in a language called Ancient which you cannot speak. Translating the inscriptions is like a mini game where you must construct the translation using words you’ve already translated from your vocabulary with educated guesses filing the rest. It isn’t always apparent what the translated inscription should be so you’re challenged to think about your translations. It can feel repetitive at times as you do repeatedly throughout Heaven’s Vault, but repetition is offset by the satisfaction of adding more words to your vocabulary.
As you find more objects and read more inscriptions you build your vocabulary of words. The more objects you discover, the more inscriptions you read and the more chance you have of expanding your vocabulary. By building up your vocabulary it helps you translate the inscriptions written on these objects and helps you place the origin of each item.
Gathering enough items originating from a certain area will help you discover more locations which may house clues to help you uncover the mysteries you’re trying to solve. When you visit a location you can walk around and explore with points of interest highlighted which you can select in traditional point and click fashion. Environments aren’t entirely free roaming, with some on-rails sections at certain points.
The moons of the Nebula can be travelled between using your spaceship which rides air currents through space. Travelling between moons has a similar feel to Sega classic Skies of Arcadia and Nintendo’s Zelda Skyward Sword. Your ship sails along airstreams with forks you have to navigate. Along the way there are additional optional moons you can discover such as ruins which may have additional artefacts. There are on-rails portions of the air streams which at times pull you along at F-Zero speeds. But you move through many of the air streams at a much slower pace which can make journeys to new locations a little slow and boring as a result due to the lack of interesting things to do on your travels other than steer. To go to certain locations you can choose to warp straight there which helps cut down travel down, particularly if it’s a retread of old ground.
Environments are 3D and filled with beauty, from toasted desert hills to town environments with a gorgeous futuristic take on traditional Middle Eastern architecture to lush green fields filled with grazing livestock on Maersi. These environments are populated with thickly outlined hand drawn 2D characters in a similar look to the Paper Mario series. There are a small number of frames for each character which makes movements look at times in slow motion, yet when walking characters look like they are gliding which is a little strange. But the 2D and 3D visuals work well and combine to lend a graphic novel look.
The music is some of the most emotive and atmospheric music heard in a long time (full soundtrack composed by Laurence Chapman can be found on Spotify). There is so much beauty to be heard from stringed instruments to the strokes on a piano which sets the tone excellently in the moment you’re in, evoking feelings from intrigue to melancholy. There is some voice acting for your protagonist who narrates certain moments as she retells the story.
Heaven’s Vault keeps narrative at the core of everything and for the most part is flexible enough to fit whichever path you take. The Nebula is much like an open world where you can choose which locations to go and when to go to them, although certain locations can’t be reached until a course can be plotted to reach them. Much like Zelda BoTW you can choose to follow the main story thread or choose to go off in a different direction with help from all the information recorded in the timeline if you want it. Additionally when reloading an existing saved game, you are told what has happened up to the last point you played which is a neat little feature which more games should be doing.
Depending on your choices however the ending may feel abrupt, with certain decisions eventually leading you to a point of no return. But Heaven’s Vault is a vast world of places, people and stories with much to see after you reach the credits. Much like inkle’s previous 80 days, you are encouraged to return to the Nebula following completion of the main story. New game ‘plus’ allows you to start a new game with your vocabulary of words in Ancient built up from your playthrough which is a nice way to encourage repeat playthroughs. And much like many Christopher Nolan epics, knowing the ending provides a new perspective when visiting the story anew.
Heaven’s Vault is a wonderfully told tale set in a beautiful open world which pulls you along like the Nebula’s air currents. Exploration and examining artefacts may become slightly repetitive at times but due to the strength of the writing these shortcomings don’t stick in the throat as you delve further into the mystery. This is another narrative tour de force from inkle who again show the power of story and how effective it can be in games.