Video game review: 'Heaven's Vault': Interesting concept, but it takes a while to grab you
Developed by: Inkle
Published by: Inkle
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4
Learning a language can lead to a profound transformation of how one interacts with the world. But the struggle to acquire a basic proficiency is enough to deter most of us from stretching our linguistic abilities. "Heaven's Vault" is a visual novel that dramatizes the grind and reward that comes from studying a foreign language, where progressing through the game's worlds of robots and spaceships is dependent upon adding to its heroine Aliya Elasra's vocabulary.
Aliya lives in a society that doesn't value history and takes very little interest in anything but its immediate affairs. Most believe that the pattern of life follows a looping path of death and rebirth, and everything that has happened before will happen again. Aliya's work as an archeologist is looked down upon by many of the people around her who think she fritters away her time looking into the past. Considering that we live in an era when humanities departments are shrinking, "Heaven's Vault" plays like an ode to humanistic pursuits.
Aliya's story begins at the University of Iox where she is summoned by Professor Myari to help find a member of the faculty, a roboticist, who has gone missing. The women share a rocky personal history. Myari took Aliya, as a teenager, from a grim orphanage on the moon of Elboreth -- a place known for its poverty and slave market -- and brought her to Iox, the power seat of the known universe. Aliya is not overtly grateful for Myari's intervention in her life. She doesn't feel at home with the prosperous people on Iox and most of the people on Elboreth no longer see her as one of their own.
Protest as she might, Myari assigns Aliya a robot to accompany her on the expedition to learn of the roboticist's whereabouts. Casually derisive, Aliya names the robot Six on account of the previous robots she's had and lost. Though Six calls Aliya "mistress," and is generally deferential, he is not wholly servile. His "ethical core" prevents him from allowing Aliya to undertake hazardous actions that place her in grave jeopardy.
Banter lies at the heart of their Odd-Couple relationship. Aliya's brusque personality is contrasted with Six's ongoing insightful, ironic commentary. I found the pair more endearing as I got deeper into the game, which was a slow burn. "Heaven's Vault" is a celebration of the fact that all things come to an end. It holds archeology up for admiration because it specializes in determining how things ended.
As Aliya follows the trail of the roboticist, she learns that he was trying to prevent the recurrence of a past cataclysmic event. Her knowledge of archeology and talent for learning an ancient script proves essential to uncovering the events that led to the collapse of a previous civilization.
Aliya's journey bears little resemblance to the swashbuckling adventures of Laura Croft, the most famous archaeologist in video games. Aliya's work rarely sees her performing daring physical acts. Mostly, she travels to different places, collects objects, and tries to formulate a timeline based on the inferences that she observes. Many of the artifacts she comes across are inscribed with an ancient hieroglyphic script, which players must do their best to translate by studying the relationships among symbols.
Aliya's friend Huang, a scholar at the University of Iox, serves as a referee for her translations as does her friend Tapi on Elboreth who runs a disreputable business in antiques. Both men assist Aliya with her translations by comparing the lines of text she finds with similar lines from the items in their collections.
Like an agitated student just back from summer vacation, at first I wasn't into the trial and error involved in guessing the meaning of different glyphs. But about a dozen hours in, I found myself looking forward to conversations with Huang and Tapi. Apparently, "Heaven's Vault" boasts an array of branching narrative paths. Alas, I ran into a few hiccups.
Once, while steering Aliya's ship, Six said, "We're going in circles!" Then seconds later, as our destination was coming into sight, "We found it." On another occasion Huang asked me to send Six from the room. Then he relayed to me a bit of information which he had no trouble bringing up a moment later after I exited the room and returned with Six.
Quibbles notwithstanding, I enjoyed "Heaven Vault" after I put in some effort and got over my early fidgets. If I ever decide to study ancient Greek, I'm sure I'll think of it.