REVIEW: Translate a sci-fi language in “Heaven’s Vault”

  • reviewed on PlayStation 4 / rated T / $24.99 / released April 2019
  • FINAL: You should TRY this game. 3 out of 5 stars

In “Heaven’s Vault,” you’ll explore a pocket-sized universe of moons and ruins, but unlike most sci-fi video games, you’re not there to gun down aliens. The goal of “Heaven’s Vault” is to piece together a forgotten language.

As the game begins, archaeologist Aliya Elasra is tasked with locating a missing peer, roboticist Janniqi Renba. You lead Aliya on a journey across the nebula that uncovers not only Janniqi’s tale, but also shines a light on the formative mysteries of their universe.

Along the way, Aliya discovers ancient carvings and inscriptions in a long-forgotten, pictorial language. The central hook of the game is that you must gradually learn to translate these passages. However, this is not a simple case of doping out a one-to-one English alphabet match. You essentially guess your way through entire words, carrying your suppositions forward to see if they make sense in future discoveries.

The game gives you suggestions, so it’s not entirely blind stabbing, and you need to make use of contextual clues. Your guesses are tracked and compared when you next encounter that particular word… at which point Aliya (or her mysterious robot pal, who may know more than it can tell) will decide if the guess is correct or not. If you have correctly identified a word or phrase, then you can start working on associated words as they crop up, operating under the assumption that “empire” will contain similar typographic characters as found in “emperor,” and so on.

It’s one part video game trickery, and another part genuine linguistic excavation. You get to tease sense out of symbols, accounting for sentence fragments, possessives, conjunctions and other parts of speech. You may find yourself recognizing ancient words without needing the game’s help, as you become ever more familiar with the language.

Running alongside this is a branching, open narrative that changes according to your choices. Do you choose to pick up a stowaway and ferry them to another moon? Or do you leave the person there? “Heaven’s Vault” is packed with key decision points that will change how Aliya’s story progresses.

Even in basic conversation choices, you can find ways to direct the narrative. Whether your Aliya is accommodating or bristly or apathetic can influence how the other characters interact with her, potentially changing her options. Although “Heaven’s Vault” stretches out over hours of play time, it’s worth it to play the game again just to see what other paths you can follow.

That variably-unfolding story is the true strength of “Heaven’s Vault.” There’s a genuine science fiction novel in this game, broken up and sprinkled across modern conversations and archeological finds. Why do the people of Elboreth and Maersi hate those of Iox? What happened to the Emperor? Where did the robots come from? The game unspools its tale in a moody, contemplative vibe that fans of heady, cosmos-gazing sci-fi will appreciate.

However, despite the enjoyable mystery of playing detective with a dead language, “Heaven’s Vault” suffers from a weird clunkiness that threatens your immersion. Laudably, the game uses hand-drawn 2D art for the game’s cast, but that art never meshes with the 3D-constructed environments. It feels like a problem that the game attempts, but fails, to solve. The disconnect is so rough that when characters walk, their lower legs and feet actually disappear.

That quirk – and the odd effect where Aliya leaves a double image behind whenever she stands still – are so obvious that they have to be intentional stylistic choices (however awkward it looks.) Unfortunately, it is compounded by glitches that do not seem intentional, like overlapping text and occasional goofy camera positions where a speaking character will be hidden behind a wall. Then there’s the worst-possible-Mario-Kart-track that the game uses to fly you from location to location. From a technical perspective, “Heaven’s Vault” misses its mark.

But it is easy to set that video game jankiness aside, because the reason for playing “Heaven’s Vault” is to unravel a deep story and piece together a forgotten language. “Heaven’s Vault” nails these elements, letting you navigate through social politics, religion, humanity and history like a classic science fiction novel.

“Heaven’s Vault” is available for PlayStation 4 and PC. This review is based on product supplied by the developer. Images courtesy inkle.

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