I feel like I’ve been focused lately, in addition to basics like the story or the gameplay, is how it feels to play a game, the experiences it instills in a player, sometimes even just random secondary connections to other things my mind draws. Like, Ikenfell was a fun fantasy RPG, but also a diorama, an intricately-constructed place and a complex portrayal of the residents. Chicory was an advanced coloring book, asking you to express yourself creatively in response to the story it was telling, but also a conversation about artistic creation. Monster Prom was a user-generated sitcom, somehow both comforting and unexpected. So the question then is: what is Heaven’s Vault? The obvious answer is something like a puzzle box, but that almost feels like it sells the game short; there’s so much more going on here, almost like a mini-history lesson or research session. And perhaps more interestingly for a video game (at least mechanically), for the main puzzle box comparison, it’s specifically a word puzzle that’s guarding the treasure within.
So let’s take it from the top: Heaven’s Vault is a game from developers Inkle Studios. Story-wise, it very fittingly combines the past and the present, as a game about doing archaeology across a federation of planets out in some galaxy far, far away (possibly also a long time ago, but we’ll get into that shortly). You play as Eliya Alasra, a historian at the University of Iox who is sent out by a shady administrator to search for a colleague who recently went missing while researching historical sites. The absentee researcher believed he found evidence of some sort of past disaster that could be returning to the Nebula soon, but also didn’t fill in the administration on what exactly he was doing or finding. All you have to go off of is original destination and his out-of-the-loop, former robotic assistant, Six.
It’s a great cold set-up, almost like a noir detective story crossed with an Indiana Jones film and set in space, one that immediately gives you narrative hooks and mysteries and strong characters to latch onto without giving away too much. And the ensuing game provides a lush backstory for both the characters and the world. The writers at Inkle have done a great job digging into all of it, and since the game is very open-ended and player-directed, you very likely will miss some of their hard work on your first playthrough; I certainly did. Thankfully, Heaven’s Vault allows you to carry through all your translation work into repeat playthroughs, and even gives you more complex and detailed writings to translate. You can get a pretty wide range of story beats depending on what all you know, what you can decipher, where you go, who you talk to, and whose trust you earn.
So that’s what we’re dealing with story-wise, but what about the gameplay? It’s an adventure game*, but it makes some key changes from the classics of the genre. First, the worlds in it are traversable, 3D-spaces, rather than 2D screens. You walk around these worlds talking to other people and looking for items, specifically archaeological artifacts.