REVIEW – AVICII: Invector

Hugely addictive and invigorating, yet tinged with a sadness at the loss that brought this game to fruition.

It’s always a good sign when you have to physically tear yourself away from a game in order to write a review on it. In fact, when I went to play it earlier in order to capture some extra screenshots for this article, I ended up playing for a good hour longer than I intended.

There was a time when the very mention of Avicii (aka Tim Bergling) was enough to make me roll my eyes and groan, thanks to a flatmate loving Levels so much that he played it on a loop for months, at full volume, with only Party Rock Anthem by LMFAO as an occasional reprieve. (I was in the room next door, so I almost went insane). I can’t say that I’ve developed any love for that particular track in the years since, but I am glad that Hey Brother brought me back into the fold.

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The triangular tunnel, this one in the forest world

My Spotify Wrapped for 2019 put Avicii at the number two spot on my list of most-streamed artists this year, and I’m pretty pleased with that. I already listened to him regularly, but playing Invector at EGX back in October had me ditching my usual playlists, and exclusively streaming my favourite tracks on my walks to the supermarket or on quiet afternoons.

I do want to avoid dwelling on the sad side of things, but it’s precisely the infectious feel-good vibes of Bergling’s music that makes the fact that Invector is a posthumous tribute all the more tragic. If there’s one thing this game does, and it does so many things so incredibly well, it’s that it illustrates just what a talent Berling possessed, and that the world is that much darker with him gone.

Dark, the game itself, certainly is not. Invector’s visuals are vivid and varied, with the songs divided into groups of four to five tracks, set in different environments, such as a forest or a valley. Players must clear each song in an environment to progress to the next one, with the final three tracks that take place in the ‘oblivion’ world unlocked upon completion of the game.

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In the city world, during free flight

Gameplay puts a nice spin onto what is a relatively simplistic formula. Instead of the usual ‘press the buttons when prompted as they reach the bottom of the track’ shtick, Invector puts players in the shoes of a spunky young woman piloting a small spacecraft flown over the button prompts, which vary dependent on difficulty level – easy had only L1, X and square, medium and hard introduced circle and triangle respectively. Additionally, players can move the ship side-to-side with the D-pad/thumbstick and – our personal favourite – shake the controller to activate a boost (this can be disabled, in which case L2/R2 can be used).

The difficulty curve is not to be taken lightly, as many of us discovered while playing the demo. I, like most seasoned rhythm game players, decided to jump in on the medium difficulty, because easy tends to be too little of a challenge. Within twenty seconds I had bailed because holy moly is it hard, at least in comparison to many of its peers. Even easy mode presents a meaty challenge, especially towards the end of the game. It really is a game where you have to start at the beginning and work your way up and whilst it can be unforgiving, it’s not unreasonable. Each song must be learned and practiced in order to be perfected, and the satisfaction of achieving a better score or getting a higher perfect streak is a hugely addictive reward.

Every song’s track is split into three sections: a flat track familiar to anyone who’s played Tap Tap Revenge or Guitar Hero, off-track segments where the ship can be flown freely into glowing orbs and a triangular tunnel. This tunnel is where things get funky; the directional prompts cause the ship to move onto the adjacent wall and the whole tunnel to roll with it. At speed, this effect is spectacular (if a little disorientating at times). It’s highly reminiscent of games such as WipeOut.

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Boosting doubles the score multiplier.

The similarity with WipeOut doesn’t end there though. Invector requires the same zen-like level of focus, where some parts of the brain have to be almost switched off entirely in order to not get overwhelmed (which is very easy, especially on the higher difficulties). The track and tunnel twist and turn, there are ‘jumps’ and the ship can crash into obstacles during the free-flight segments. With the boost active, things speed up even more, making some sections hair-raisingly fast.

At the end of each song the player is awarded a grade, in this case between S+ and F, and a percentage completion, with 75% being the minimum requirement to clear a song. Player scores are also ranked on a global leaderboard; I managed to make second place on two songs, so I’ll probably frame those screenshots for posterity. (Can I put that on my CV?)

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Second! (I’ve peaked, it’s all downhill from here)

Invector has something that so many games nowadays don’t: split-screen local multiplayer! Up to four people can cram onto the couch and play; Tim and I played it together and found it worked without any issue, although with both of us used to playing solo with headphones we found it a little trickier than single-player. Unlike single-player there is a ‘beginner’ difficulty which I think is fantastic: it allows players new to the game, or even the genre, to join in right away without being at too much of a disadvantage.

Honestly, we have virtually nothing negative to say about this game, and anything that’s not glowing praise comes down to minor gripes. My own annoyances boil down to slight accessibility issues: there is no ability to increase the opacity of the tunnel’s walls, or turn down the vividness/brightness of the background. This brightness can make it very difficult at times to see what’s coming next or to differentiate between the pink and red pickups (the shades are just a little too close to one another).

AVICII: Invector is not flawless, but its flaws are so minor that it might as well be. OK, some of the sequences seem impossible for anyone without freakishly fast reflexes, but there’s virtually nothing that can’t be achieved with simple diligence. The game is testing in the best possible way. It won’t induce a ragequit but instead spur the player on to try again, just one more time, one more go and you’ll smash that one section you’re struggling with.

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Needless to say, I missed that left turn.

Perhaps there is something to be found there between the lines, something deep and metaphorical about not giving up even when the challenge seems impossible. I choose to believe that’s true, and take that on board as something to bring out on my darkest days. I mean, hey: if I can manage to get 100% on that one song that’s kicking my ass, I can get through this rough patch, right?

Instead of ending on a joke or quip, I’ll end with a plea: if you are struggling with your mental health in any way, then please, please reach out and talk to somebody you trust. The world has lost a beautiful and artistic soul with Tim Bergling, let it not lose another one with yours.

AVICII: Invector is out now on Steam, Xbox One and PlayStation 4, with all royalties being donated to the Tim Bergling Foundation.

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.