Heaven’s Vault review | Mind your language

80 Days developer Inkle return with an adventure that really speaks our language. Here’s our review of Heaven’s Vault…


As a linguist, I know language can be a frustrating thing. It’s frequently imprecise, changes constantly, and learning one can be a lifelong process. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Nowadays, when learning a language, we have access to a tonne of resources and can, for the most part, easily make contact with native speakers.

Archaeologist Aliya Elasra isn’t quite so lucky.

A prolific university researcher, Aliya travels across the galaxy in search of Janniqii Renba, a fellow archaeologist. All she has to go by is a talisman with a mysterious inscription, and Renba’s last known whereabouts. The talisman belonged to her civilisation’s last Emperor, whom Aliya has been looking into for a while already. It’s her (albeit limited) knowledge of their language that makes her the best candidate for working out what exactly Renba was onto before he disappeared. Soon Aliya finds out that Renba was looking to uncover the truth behind a long-standing societal belief regarding the relationship between humans and robots, to which a ruin called the Heaven’s Vault may hold the key. To help with her investigation, Aliya’s university bestows her with a robot she names Six. This is asking me to suspend heavy disbelief, seeing as most researchers and their students share one copy of one book among the whole team, but hey.

To follow their trail of ancient breadcrumbs, Aliya and Six travel in a flying ship across the streams of their home expanse of the Nebula. Since the Nebula actually flows like a river, it makes sense that this spaceship is a gently creaking sailboat, complete with sails you have to fold and expand in order to steer. Moving the ship is fiddly; failing to catch a current can cause you to completely lose momentum, and the arrows representing Six’s directions are often difficult to see. If you miss a turn, the game resets to a point just prior to the turn you missed on the intergalactic motorway. But we’re going to ignore all of that, because…

The real fun begins once you arrive on a planet. Deciphering a language from scratch is one of the game’s core aspects, and luckily you get to dive in straight away. There’s ancient writing everywhere – walls, doors, old items. Whenever you’re meant to translate something, Aliya will first ponder whether you’re looking at an entire sentence or a sentence fragment. There’s no clear way to tell where one word ends and another begins, so in the beginning, you’ll collect single words until you can build a sentence.

This approach is just like reading Chinese or Japanese – languages in which a single character has meaning that may change in combination with other characters. If the sentence contains any words you’ve previously deciphered, they’ll come up as options. Words that look similar to something you haven’t translated yet are displayed in a procedurally generated list for context – for example, it’s fair to assume the word ‘empress’ looks similar to the word for ‘emperor’.

And that’s another element central to the experience: translations are up to your own interpretation. Sometimes Aliyah will say that something definitely looks wrong and replace a prior translation with another possible solution, but come across a word often enough and she will grow confident in her translation. Revising a translation never feels like failure – the notion that you learn from your mistakes has never been more true than in Heaven’s Vault. Each new interpretation opens up fresh avenues of understanding, and besides that, it’s just really fun to collect words, see your vocabulary grow and become able to put longer and longer sentences together.

Language is, of course, a means of communication, first and foremost. Nothing you find has been left specifically for your benefit, but thanks to the power of language, Aliyah is able to piece together stories of those long dead, thus forming a connection with them. At one point she comes across a house in which the writing, however sparse, allows her to understand how its inhabitants might have lived – it’s these glimpses, these puzzle pieces of people’s lives and societies, that give such depth to Heaven’s Vault.

Heaven’s Vault takes place both in the ruins of old and the world of the living; as such, talking to other people is another vital aspect of the game. Clues gathered at sites can tell you where to go next, but often it’s highly encouraged to talk your findings over with the people you meet around the Nebula, be it colleagues, old friends, or even strangers who take an interest in your work. Depending on what you let them know, new avenues can open up.

Talking also lets you learn a lot more about the social structure of Vault’s diverse world, which is marked by a deep class divide just like ours. The villages and cities you visit all have a distinct look; the planet of Elboreth, for example, highlights the contrast between its wealthy district, with high sandstone walls, and the precariously stacked-together shacks of the slum. There’s history to soak in even in the ‘modern’ regions of the game.

Negatives are few and picky. The 3D landscapes pose a nice contrast to the 2D character design, but moving around could be smoother – the fact that character models have two frames and are only visible to the knee while moving gives them an eerie effect, and sometimes the camera makes discoveries difficult.

But these are minor complaints when you look at Vault’s sheer scale; its whole timeline is filled with events both past and present, and wealth of language fragments so big you will want to keep building your vocabulary beyond a single playthrough into the New Game Plus mode. Aliyah and Six can talk about anything and everything, if you choose to, and with everything discovered, you build the picture of a living, breathing world – one you just want to see more of.


Heaven’s Vault features one more form of language – its lovely music, with an emphasis on strings and piano, punctuates each new discovery and moment of reminiscence. It’s just one other part that makes up this wonderful whole.


It’s all talk, which is exactly what you want – intricately built worlds and systems to put language to use in and discover copious secrets with.


Genre: Adventure
Format: PC (tested)/PS4
Developer: Inkle
Publisher: Inkle
Price: £19.99
Release: Out now

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