Archaeology may not have the most accurate representation in the media. Most people only know about this study of human history through swashbuckling heroes like Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series. Realistically, the job is far less glamorous; there's no Nazi-face-melting or hanging from trains off the side of cliffs. It's about uncovering an ancient civilization, decoding a forgotten language, and discovering how the past connects to the future. At least, that's the archaeology of Heaven's Vault.
It's refreshing to see a game focused on the recovery of history, rather than the battles that can occur in various sacred tombs and temples. Heaven's Vault has an immediately simplistic art style that compliments its laid-back, almost removed style of gameplay. It's not a game that is meant to be rushed, traveling from objective to objective. Like a true archaeologist, the player must retrace their steps, rethink their translations, and reexamine their outlook on their world.
Heaven's Vault is combines 2-D and 3-D art to create a sort of graphic-novel feel to its open-world. The perspective of the camera is far back, almost as if the player is living out memories or simply watching the present unfold. With that in mind, the characters don't fully "move" through the space, their legs fading out when they walk; when they collide with others, they phase right through them. This stylistic choice could be due to an indie budget, but perhaps it's something more: a sort of disconnect from reality, a meta-commentary on the awareness that this is simply a story being told, and the characters are just pieces of something much bigger.
The player controls Aliya Elasra, a woman with the classic archaeological get-up and attitude. She's brash, independent, and has a thing against robots. She's from The Nebula, an ancient network of moons, loosely connected by a series of winding "rivers" of oxygen and nitrogen. Tasked with the mission to find her former teacher's missing friend, she's accompanied by Six, a robot that looks like a cross between a Mars' rover and a holographic crash-test dummy. They're an interesting pair, and on their journey make for a lot of conversations.
Unfortunately, the dialogue isn't particularly inspired and matches the overall slow pace of the game. The player can optionally talk to their companion, interrupting the silence with a Question or a Reply, but more often than not the conversations don't really lead anywhere or add anything. It's hard to say what ends up being important to discuss or not, but the choices involved in the branching narrative feel mostly hollow and unnecessary.
Heaven's Vault isn't just talking to your robot and other folks you encounter. The crux of the game is discovery, so while a lot of that is done through dialogue, there's also much to be learned from translating ancient hieroglyphs. Players have a limited knowledge of the symbols that grow as they uncover new inscriptions and travel to other sites. The game doesn't inform the player if their guess is right or not - there's a bit of trial and error after discovering something new to parse if a previous guess might have led you astray. Translating new phrases and confirming that a word is correct is Heaven's Vault most active and engaging element; if only the rest of the story could be told in brief cutscenes or narration, allowing players to skip to the meat of the story.
Players can also view their translations at any time and go back to them, making inferences based on new discoveries. In the same wonderfully-designed menu, they can also view their complete history: that of Aliya and of the entire civilization dating centuries prior. Viewing character biographies and relationships isn't incredibly helpful but it's a fitting touch on a game that is so focused on how the past can relate to the future and our place in it.
To get from location to location across the vast network of moons, players use Aliya's airship, the Nightingale. This begins a mandatory sort of mini-game, where they must navigate the ship across a speedy raceway, making sure to take the right turns and avoid rocks. It's a lot easier than it sounds though; the game makes it impossible to take damage from hitting objects, arrows point the player towards the objectives, and the press of a button can reset the ship before a missed turn. This navigating is mostly an exercise in tediousness as it takes way too long to get from dig site to dig site. It could be fun (and even tranquil) but after the first few trips, fast travel would be a welcome respite.
That's Heaven's Vault issue in totality. With its beautiful piano and violin score and occasionally arresting visuals, it is a game meant to be a meditative experience. Players should relish in slowly uncovering new facts about an ancient peoples and sharing this information with their friends, new and old. But even as trimmed as the game is, with small "open-world" locations and limited movement, it still seems like too much polish was placed around a core element that is enjoyable in its simplicity. Decoding languages and examining artifacts are split up by long conversations, walking at a snail's pace, and airship travel. It's too much of a slog to recommend to anyone, save for history buffs and future Indiana Joneses.
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Heaven's Vault is out now on Windows and PS4 with planned iOS and Mac release in the future. Screen Rant was provided with a Steam key for the purposes of this review.