Lesser known fact, I studied ancient history in university (it’s utterly amazing how much we depend on 1 person – Cicero – for the majority of our Roman history). Lesser, lesser known fact, when I was around 10, I went to a science fair with school and took an optional Latin class. I am utterly fascinated by history, and how the mundane becomes extra ordinary. I made a choice that I would stick with IT engineering, rather than ancient history – simply for the quality of life. Ain’t a whole lot of ancient history in Canada!
That pre-amble complete, I’ve had a related fascination with puzzle games. There’s a mystery to them that require examination of clues, extrapolation, hypothesis, and sometimes just some wild guesses that prove futile. At some point, you get a key piece complete and a large part of the puzzle becomes clear. And I mean puzzles with some context – not just an escape the room type thing. Myst really hit a nerve for me. Return of the Obra Dinn is an excellent example as well.
Lo and behold a game comes around that mixes puzzles with archaeology – Heaven’s Vault. You play Aliya, a historian that’s exploring her nebula in search of a specific person. That sets off a grand adventure that blends sci-fi and history to a great effect. All of it predicated on you finding various things that have inscriptions on them. Inscriptions in a dead language that you spend the entirety of the game deciphering. Thankfully there is a logic to this language – the object itself is related to the text. So a sword may be inscribed with something like “may blades cut down foes” or some such.
Collecting these clues serves two purposes. One is to discover new areas, which are accessed from a ship that travels “rivers in space”. The second is to discover history of the nebula, and the various fates over time.
As you progress, your available vocabulary expands, and texts become slightly easier to decode. Conversely, as you progress, you need to learn new words and new contexts for those words. This is most evident when it comes to verbs, their tense, and the adverbs that help describe a situation. The good news is that the sentence structure follows the English language, in the typical adjective-noun-verb-adverb structure. In that sense, you’re always in a framework you understand and you know that only specific pieces can ever fit in a given slot. Effectively, you will deduce the proper meaning rather than outright guess – at least the majority of the time.
The art/sound is excellent. There’s a painterly style used, and a slow methodical approach to exploration. This isn’t a game where you are running full speed. You are presented with large locations, and the darkest corners hide something of value. It’s very atmospheric.
It bears note that this game would be nothing if the story/lore didn’t stand up. I heartily applaud the writers. To build a story that is non-sequential (you can to places in pretty much any order), and dripping with rich lore is a spectacular achievement. To put said story in a game, and have the player empathize and relate to the characters is at another level. And to provide meaningful choices that impact the story’s development is wonderful. If games are truly to be seen as an art form, the level of respect given to stories is important to recognize.
The game aspects are the weakest part. Controls are movement with keyboard and clicks with a mouse. The language/timeline inventory keeps getting updates (miles better now), but the lack of a search/glossary makes it tough sometimes. There are a few puzzles where you feel so close, yet the game decides you are not close enough and moves on. Thankfully after you complete the game you can try again, and each playthrough has a randomized set of artifacts to find. The story beats are the same, but you can make different choices and take different paths. And while the map is quite large, there are mechanical shortcuts to speed up the process when visiting known locations.
The devs have a neat top 10 questions for those that think they have completed the game. I want to explore a few more bits before I give it a go.
Long story short (hah!) this is a Game of the Year candidate.