REVIEW – Heaven’s Vault

A deep and thought-provoking story wrapped up in a beautiful and unique art-style, with the added bonus of an entire lost language to decipher.

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Source: inkle

Fun fact about both of us: we love words. Surprising I know, coming from people who write words on the internet for a not-living, but it was one of the things we bonded over very early on (that and our mutual hatred of the uncivilised barbarians who put the milk in before the boiling water when they make tea). Language, whether it’s spoken or signed, is arguably the most important thing in the universe. It’s a method of communication, of self-expression and, more relevantly to this review, a way of unlocking the lives of past civilisations.

It’s no surprise that we were instantly drawn to Heaven’s Vault. A game almost entirely driven by narrative? Check. Gorgeous art-style? Check. Entire hieroglyphic lost language to translate ourselves? Check.

OK, that last point is a very niche thing to be excited about, but for a chick who’s multilingual and the nephew of an Egyptologist it was always going to be irresistible. Deciphering the glyphs is a pleasant challenge and by now I’ve managed to decipher a fair chunk of the language, although I don’t think either of us is quite ready to take a crack at untranslated hieroglyphs in some unopened Pharaoh’s tomb. Give it a week.

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Source: inkle

Players assume the role of archaeologist Aliya Elasra, a feisty and stubborn young woman with an unquenchable thirst for history, and wanderlust to match. Skipper of her own ship, the Nightingale, she’s joined by robot Six as they’re sent out into the Nebula to search for a missing roboticist. Aliya and Six soon find themselves delving into something more than a simple disappearance as they traverse the Nebula, discovering long-lost historical sites, numerous inscribed artefacts and uncovering a millennia-old mystery.

An orphan rescued from the slums of slave moon Elboreth, Aliya is the kind of woman we would love to be friends with. She’s intelligent, independent, incredibly driven and, depending on your dialogue choices, sarcastic as hell. Now resident at the University of Iox, Aliya is also an outsider, somewhat shamed for her pursuit of the past instead of the present and general disdain for technology.

Funnily enough, despite being a robot Six is the ideal companion for her. It’s hard to refer to Six as an ‘it’ because he’s bursting with so much personality it would be cruel to refer to him as an object. With a dry wit to rival Aliya’s own Six follows her as they explore ruins together, making snarky comments about her recklessness whilst also being vocal about his concern for her safety. There are many moments where it’s easy to imagine him, after telling Aliya not to cross a crumbling bridge, sighing and pinching the bridge of his nose in exasperation as she insists on doing it anyway. They’re the quintessential Odd Couple, and the dynamic that develops between them is wonderful and subtly affectionate, even if Aliya wouldn’t admit it.

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Source: inkle

Gameplay is refreshingly simple. As a point-and-click adventure it is definitely optimal to play on PC with a mouse, but the PS4 controls work perfectly fine. Aliya’s movement is measured rather than slow, with Six rolling along behind her on his own accord. Interactive points, such as objects, are indicated by a distinctive, easily identifiable marker. Aliya and Six can converse by following the onscreen prompts: she can ask questions or respond to Six’s input, with a questioning response or a statement. Some prompts are tied to certain discoveries, dialogue choices or translations, giving even more incentive to thoroughly explore every nook and cranny. What’s more, these prompts don’t remain on the screen indefinitely, so important questions can go unasked and knowledge not gathered.

The camera can be a bit annoying to deal with, as it can be difficult to get it at the right angle to display the interaction prompt. Additionally, sometimes the camera can get stuck behind objects or at strange angles, as if it doesn’t quite know where it wants to settle; this happens almost exclusively when interacting with characters, more so when they move around the area. Where it’s at its most annoying is during the sailing segments, when the camera fixes entirely in place regardless of position when approaching junctions. More on that later.

The true shining gem of this game is in the translation. Players are eased in gently at first, with a simple two-word phrase to decipher. Each word has three possible translations and any of these can be selected: just because the sentence makes sense, doesn’t mean it’s correct. As the game progresses Aliya will start identifying correctly translated words and add them to her dictionary. Inscriptions can be simple phrases of only a few words or long strings of words run together, and are found on tiny objects and huge buildings alike.

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Source: inkle

There’s an indescribable joy in studying those phrases, scrutinising the glyphs to identify the patterns, and the satisfaction in getting a translation right is palpable. It gives the game a definite sense of tangibility, like we really are right there with her, blowing the cobwebs off long-forgotten cultures and uncovering a slice of history.

And what a history it is. Aliya is an inhabitant of the Nebula, a vast and ancient area of space connected by ‘rivers’ that flow between its moons, rocks and ruins. Various artefacts Aliya collects allow her to hunt for undiscovered sites down previously uncharted paths. It’s a gorgeous, colourful landscape we would love to explore ourselves, and we’re a bit jealous that Aliya has her magnificent ship to do just that. However, this is where the game’s big flaw lies: sailing.

Controlling the Nightingale is simple. R2 and L2 control side-to-side motion by raising either the right or left sail, and X to ‘sweep’ or boost. Arrows on the ‘water’ mark which turnoffs to take when necessary, with Six sometimes also clarifying which direction to go. However, with the arrows blending in a little too well with the river we often found ourselves overshooting a junction, and even though the game gives the option to reset, it became an annoyance very fast. Furthermore, the tricky camera I mentioned before can leave players with no ability to see where they’re going or even aim for the turning in the first place.

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Source: inkle

With Aliya spending a lot of time out on the ‘water’ sailing is a painful necessity. The closest to fast travel the game gets is Aliya taking a rest in her hammock: Six will then suggest a location or two for him to navigate the ship to. Otherwise, sailing is completely manual. For Tim, these sections became simply monotonous; not even the gorgeous visuals and dreamy music was enough to distract him. For me it was less monotonous, more hair-pulling frustration as I missed turning after turning (I’d say me being visually-impaired is the main contributing factor to this though).

 

Sailing is also where the game’s rigidity comes in. Aliya can apparently only sail to where the game wants her to. Deviation from a plotted course is possible, although it’s impossible to set down anywhere but the plotted course’s endpoint. This restriction feels somewhat at odds with Aliya’s adventurous spirit, especially as players can halt their journey to investigate ruins and shipwrecks floating here and there. I suppose much of this frustration is down to being spoiled by games allowing players to jump aboard their vessel and make for the open seas on a whim. Having a definite destination for the journey isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it would be nice to just point the Nightingale downriver and see where the current takes us.

It’s a pity that sailing is such a pain because, as mentioned, the Nebula is beautiful. In fact, the entire game is beautiful. Each moon, each historical ruin is distinct, with a pleasant balance between simplicity and detail. Locations never feel crowded, whether it’s with people or objects, and thus navigation around smaller areas such as a market is far easier. The gorgeous 2D hand-drawn characters give us the feel of a graphic novel come to life, and is best viewed in motion where it can be done the justice it deserves. Plus, Six is adorable. A robot he may be but he has some of the best facial expressions I’ve ever seen.

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Source: inkle

Honestly, there’s so much to this game that I could go on for another seventy years. Incidentally, this is how long I estimate it’ll take to complete the story to 100%. The narrative is the equivalent of a miner chipping at the end of a tunnel, only to break through and discover himself in a massive gem-filled cavern, with tunnels and layers as far as the eye can see. Every single decision and dialogue choice affects the way the story progresses and that delivers an experience that feels entirely personal.

Whilst Heaven’s Vault may not be perfect, the levels of love and passion that’ve gone into this project cannot be ignored. To create an entire language for the purpose of a videogame is no mean feat at all, and the team at inkle should be damn proud of the achievement (see the developer session about it from Rezzed here). In an industry full of so many clones and sequels it’s refreshing to come across a game that pushes the boundaries of what the medium can offer. This is a deep, rich experience packed with lore and superbly written characters, and for that we really hope this game gets the acclaim it truly does deserve.

Heaven’s Vault is out today on Steam and PlayStation 4.

EGX Rezzed 2019 – Highlights

Trying to pick just a few of the amazing games we played at this year’s Rezzed show was difficult, but we managed to narrow it down in the end!

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Very few things in life can be approached with sky-high expectations and have them be met, every time. Rezzed is one of the few exceptions, with wonderful content always bursting from every corner. The show floor this year was stunning, and overflowing with choice. Narrowing our experience down into a list of eight was always going to be tricky, and we wish we could just put ‘ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING, OMG’ as the main body of this post, but we’re all about Proper Journalism here. So, keeping in mind that we couldn’t give the fudge stand its own entry as it wasn’t a game, here are our top picks from Rezzed 2019.

  1. Close to the Sun

Set in an alternate-history timeline, one in which Nikola Tesla pioneered electricity and its technology, Close to the Sun takes place aboard the Helios. The jewel in Tesla’s crown, a shining monument to scientific progress, this colossal ship is home to the world’s best and brightest scientific minds immersing themselves in their ungoverned research.

Arriving aboard the giant vessel in search of your sister, you are quick to discover that something has gone horribly wrong. Darkened and deserted, the rooms and corridors of the ship are blood-splattered. You quickly discover that it’s going to take all of your wits, and your ability to sprint, to escape the ship with your life. It’s tight and tense, with impeccable sound design and a gobsmacking sense of scale. This game is a must for horror fans.

  1. Eastward

Both of us were pinning a lot of hope on this game, and we’re happy to report that it more than lived up to our expectations. A truly beautiful pixel-art RPG, with gameplay deeply reminiscent of old-school Zelda, Eastward left us wowed with its utterly gorgeous visuals and music. The devil is in the fine and characterful details, from the cat snoozing on one of the roofs in town, to protanonist John’s habits of stuffing his hands into his pockets.

However secretive developer Pixpil may have been about this project, it’s clear that this is a creation with a lot of love behind it. The world is deeply colourful and beautifully crafted, populated by strange monsters and strange people alike. We’re definitely going to be hanging on for every reveal and announcement in eager anticipation for its release.

  1. Heaven’s Vault

This entry will be brief, because we’ve been lucky enough to secure a couple of review copies ahead of the game’s release on April 16th.

I will say that I have had the pleasure of watching this game grow from the demo first debuted at Rezzed 2018, to the finished title I have currently downloaded to my PS4. It’s like watching a bud grow into a dazzling blossom, and we’re excited to share our review of this title in due course. Suffice it to say that’s it’s as beautiful as it is unique, with its blend of 2D and 3D visuals, carefully measured pace and intriguing plot.

  1. The Breakfast Club!

We always knew this game was going to be insane, but it definitely exceeded our expectations of just how insane.

I described The Breakfast Club as the ‘Dark Souls of breakfast simulators’ and I was 100% on the money. The goals are simple: make buttered toast or grill some burgers and hot dogs. Achieving those goals, however, are not, although this game has the advantage of allowing you to blame everyone else for your failures, so there’s that. I don’t think either of us had ever really considered the complexities of sausage physics before now, but I think we mastered it considering we won the level and won a tiny frying pan. Packed full of puns and pure silliness, this game is an absolute delight for fans of zany couch co-op fun.

  1. Terrorbane: 100% Bug Free

We do love a bit of satire and meta-humour, and Terrorbane delivers that in spades in this delightfully tongue-in-cheek love letter to games development, and the medium in general. Packed full of references and shout-outs, this game is equal parts bonkers, charming and hilarious.

As a playtester tackling a game built by the world’s ‘best’ developer, you have to navigate through his broken mess of an RPG in order to pick out the errors that are absolutely Not His Fault. These include anything from cows making a noise closer to electrical interference than a moo, to a crate of pears joining your party (although it did prove itself in battle, so you go pear crate!). Some bugs are just funny, others can be exploited to complete puzzles. If the short demo has us cracking up as much as it did then we cannot wait for what the rest of the game has in store for us!

  1. The Meridian Line

You know your game is freaking awesome when you require people to press an actual ‘doors open/close’ button from the London Underground to start your demo, after providing them with a ‘ticket’ to ride (well, we thought it was cool so SHUT UP). 

The Meridian Line is the urbex thriller on the Not Tube that we didn’t know we needed. Set well after operational hours on an underground automated transport network, you’ve broken in to search for your missing brother. The atmosphere is oppressive, an expertly-crafted combination of comforting familiarity and growing unease. The focus here is on tension, and the impeccable sound design delivers this in spades, helping you understand that you are certainly not alone down there. Prepare to be plunged into darkness, to pick locks and hack computers, and contend with the network itself as you unravel the secrets the silent tunnels are hiding.

  1. RAD

Tim’s description of DoubleFine’s RAD was something along the lines of ‘Diablo meets Fallout, but neon’, which is an apt summary. Choosing one of a roster of characters wielding various weapons, players traverse the irradiated wastes of the procedurally generated Fallow, encountering and slaughtering hosts of strange monsters in a bid to revive the land. Grass and flowers spring up beneath the player-character’s feet as they breathe new life into the barren wasteland – this also acted as a useful breadcrumb trail when navigating a dungeon, as it turned out.

Our favourite moments came when we found we could use the exposure to radiation to our advantage and mutate, which led to one character spawning eggs from their back that hatched into little decoys for instance. It was next to impossible for us to tear ourselves away from the demo, the addictive soundtrack and undeniably fun gameplay gluing us to our seats and leaving us wanting just one more go. I can absolutely see myself booting this up to play, only to realise that I’m still on my sofa in my PJs and several days have passed.

  1. Metamorphosis

Of all the things I never thought I would actively enjoy, playing an insect was definitely very high on that list. And yet, the pure joy I felt from playing Metamorphosis, a game inspired by the Franz Kafka novella of the same name, was so unbridled I fear it’ll mar my view of platformers for the rest of my days!

Players assume the role of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who wakes one morning to discover he’s been transformed into a giant insect overnight and must adjust to his new existence. In-game, this means leaping through beautiful hand-painted environments that range from the straightforward to the more abstract. Being an insect makes the first-person platforming so much more enjoyable than in almost any other game; a bug can crawl up the side of an object, so no more pixel-precision is necessary! With its source material being so famous, and open to huge amounts of interpretation, we are so looking forward to delving into the full game and exploring everything Gregor’s new perspective has to offer.

Mieke’s Honourable Mention: The Collage Atlas

In a world of fast-paced action and blood-and-guts combat, it’s always a joy to come across something serene. It’s my best friend I have to thank for bringing my attention to this game, although it definitely would’ve piqued my interest regardless of her input.

Drawn entirely in pen and ink, The Collage Atlas is an utterly breathtaking trip through a world that looks like it has sprung from the pages of a sketchbook (which, essentially, it has). As the player travels forwards, the world before them gently blooms into existence in a way reminiscent of how memories fade in and out of consciousness. It’s entirely up to the player as to how they discover the narrative and its many branches and secret areas waiting to be unlocked. It’s a game that invokes mindfulness and self-reflection which, in such times of turmoil, can’t be a bad thing can it?

Tim’s Honourable Mention: Pacer

As a huge WipeOut fan, Tim was instantly drawn to this when he first laid eyes on the stand – it did help it was probably the loudest booth in the room. Previously known as Formula Fusion, this is a anti-gravity combat racer that ‘pays homage to the old’ with a contemporary twist.

Exactly what he wants from a current-gen iteration of WipeOut, Tim’s sweaty palms and racing heart at the end of a race is an indication of how good an experience Pacer is. Crafted by a team clearly holding their inspiration in deep reverence, this lightening-paced racer captures the ‘flow-state’ required to ace a track perfectly. Tim found every track he played to be a joy, with the option to customise his ship’s stats and appearance being something he’s personally craved from WipeOut as a franchise. It’s fast, it’s frenetic and despite finding the weapons feeling a little ineffective, Tim loved every second of it, evident by the colossal grin on his face at the end.

Phew! Done! This was an incredibly difficult list to write, not just because we hate excluding anyone, but also because we didn’t play anything unworthy of an entry here. We managed to get through the vast majority of the games we wanted to play, and we weren’t disappointed by a single one. It’s always an incredible experience to walk around the show floor and take in the variety of what’s on offer, which is why Rezzed is hands-down my favourite event. and that’s not just because it’s an excuse to spend all my money on delicious fudge.

Five Games We’re Looking Forward to Playing at Rezzed 2019

Rezzed has arrived once again, and we’re been pondering what we’d most like to play when next week rolls round.

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This time next week, we’ll have reached the halfway point of Rezzed 2019. The indie game event is back at London’s Tobacco Dock from 4-6th April and will once more play host to a show floor packed with delights that we look forward to sampling.

With just under a week to go the list of playable titles is almost complete, with the possibility of a few more announcements between now and then, and it’s shaping up to be a cracking show. Alongside devs debuting their demos for the very first time, we have some old favourites returning to the show: Beyond Blue and Heaven’s Vault are two such gems.

Combing through what’s been announced has excited us greatly for what is to come, and presented us with a tough decision about what to prioritise. With every announcement since this article was first drafted we feel our task getting harder. However, after some discussion we have managed to pare our extensive shortlist down to just five.

  1. Inmost

The first of two entries on this list brought to the show by publisher Chucklefish, Inmost is a game we wanted to play at EGX 2018 but never got round to (which will definitely be the case for about 99% of the Rezzed show floor too). Intriguing, atmospheric, and possessing some of the most innovative use of lighting in a pixel-art game we’ve seen in recent years, we’re already sucked in and desperate to learn more about the game’s universe and story.

  1. Close to the Sun

If Close to the Sun manages to emulate even a fraction of the wonderful atmosphere of Bioshock’s Rapture, then we will be very happy bunnies indeed. Involving a similarly foreboding feel, Close to the Sun also takes place in a self-governed ‘utopia’ created for the cream of the societal crop. Adding a Dead Space-esque twist to things, the place is deserted and filled with dead bodies and dread. Equal parts intriguing and insidious, we know this game will get under our skin in the best way possible.

  1. The Breakfast Club

Sometimes a gamer needs a break from the relentlessly spooky and turn instead to the relentlessly silly as a salve. Having watched the alpha gameplay of The Breakfast Club, Tim and I have agreed that in all honesty, we’re more likely to be crying tears of hysterical laughter than killing each other playing this game. (I certainly make no promises; watch your back Tim…). The likelihood of us beating any of the levels is low because it’s basically the Dark Souls of the Making Breakfast Simulators – Tim is still recovering from his I Am Bread-induced PTSD – but as long as nothing ends up on fire we’ll consider it a success (everything will end up on fire).

  1. Fade to Silence

We’re both huge fans of a good, post-apocalyptic horror experience so it’s no wonder that Fade to Silence pushes all the right buttons. What happened? Why is there an eternal winter? What is the corruption threatening the land? There’s a delightful Horizon: Zero Dawn feel to this, a sense of needing to discover the history of the world, a task made difficult by the overarching need to survive. The question is what will kill us first: the abominations that roam the landscape, or the arctic fury of Mother Nature?

  1. Eastward

If there is anything we’ve come to expect by games developed or published by Chucklefish, it’s the killer combo of gorgeous graphics and a wonderful soundtrack. We’re tipping our hats to Eastward developer Pixpil for giving us both of those things in spades! Eastward is beautiful and mysterious, with a haunting and eerie beauty to the decaying city it is set in, with which we’ve already fallen in love. ‘Escort an important side-character’ seems to have become its own niche genre of late – with The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite leading the pack – so we’re especially interested to see John and Sam’s adventure play out in this captivating world.

We can’t close out this list without a few honourable mentions. We’re definitely looking forward to playing as the adorable Birb in musical platformer Songbird Symphony (for which Tim would book a three day appointment if he could), and Terrorbane looks to be a delightfully self-aware comedic homage to both JRPGs and game development as a whole. And as always, we’re looking forward to catching up with the E-Line Media team and their ambitious project, The Endless Mission.

Most of all though we’re excited to discover the hidden gems that Rezzed has to offer, the games we didn’t think would be our cup of tea and yet become our show highlight. The show floor is a goldmine of passion and potential, and we’re looking forward to sinking our teeth into what’s on offer from a diverse and unique line-up.