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.

keyart-logo
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.

elboreth-feet-4k
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.

minecarts-4k
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.

translate-goddess-4k
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.

nebula-4k
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.

arch-4k
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.

Advertisements

REVIEW – Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

My review of what I consider to be, well and truly, a masterpiece.

I’ll preface this by clarifying I’ve only played through once; a semi-lethal run without much exploration, ignoring all but two contracts. It still took me fourteen hours. (This factors in the eleventy-billion times one particular insta-kill enemy sent me to oblivion, but more on that later).  As with the previous titles in the series however, the way Dishonored: Death of the Outsider is played is entirely down to the individual, so my play time isn’t saying much.

Being a tremendous fan of Dishonored, I’ll swallow anything related to it I can get. The Knife of Dunwall in particular stuck out as a true highlight, Dishonored at its peak. I’m not alone in thinking that Daud felt far more fleshed-out than Corvo as a protagonist, although this may partly be down the gravelly tones of Daud’s voice actor Michael Madsen. For this reason I was itching to see Daud reappear as more than just a passing mention, and my prayers were answered. My first-class seat on the hype train was booked from the moment this game was announced.

Snapshot - 6
Billie reuintes with Daud

Although the old assassin does play a role in Death of the Outsider, players instead step into the boots of his one-time apprentice and second-in-command, Billie Lurk. Tasked with one last contract from her old mentor, Billie sets out to find a way to enter the Void and eliminate the Outsider himself. In true Dishonored fashion there is a choice in how this is achieved, although I took the lethal route.

Death of the Outsider plays virtually identically to the previous games. Billie has a small arsenal of physical weapons and supernatural powers at her disposal, although in this instance she is not branded with the Outsider’s Mark. Instead he takes her right arm and eye, replacing them with what amounts to pieces of the Void, allowing her powers to draw energy from the Void itself and for her energy meter to replenish itself fully over time. This dispenses with the requirement of collecting mana potions, leaving Billie with mostly unlimited use of her powers.

Being that the game is only an expansion, Billie’s skill set is more limited than Daud’s for example. There is no upgrade tree for her active or passive abilities, nor can she purchase new powers by collecting runes. The powers she does have, however, are unique to her character whilst remaining comfortingly familiar.

Billie’s Displace power is something of a cross between Blink and Emily’s Shadow Reach from Dishonored 2. As well as allowing her to cross wide gaps or climb to higher places, it also allows her to transport herself to the exact same spot occupied by another person: it transports her into that person and they explode from the inside out (this does cause Billie damage). This is termed Displace Interpenetration and is undeniably the coolest ability in the game.

Snapshot - 5
Billie’s Displace power, with her ‘marker’ in place

She also has Foresight, the ability to project herself in spirit. Much like Dark Vision, it gives her the ability to mark enemies to view their movements/lines of sight through walls and identify bonecharms, useable items and important objects in the environment. The caveat with this power is that it drains her energy incredibly quickly, and she can’t stray too far from her physical body, making it sometimes impossible to scope out a heavily-guarded location from afar.

Semblance is her third and final power, although I only used this twice. Similar to Possession it allows her take the form of an unaware (human) NPC, although in this instance she is simply mimicking their outward appearance rather than using them as a meat suit (I found out the hard way impersonating a guard with this power does not trick Arc Pylons). It is a useful tool if you want to simply walk through a guard outpost, or if you’re trying for a ghost run and find yourself facing numerous enemies without much chance of picking them off one-by-one or navigating around them from above.

Snapshot - 10
An Envisioned Cultist marked with Foresight, showing line of sight, patrol path and patrol end

One difference is the inability to upgrade Billie’s existing powers or purchase new ones. This omission is logical, seeing as Billie’s powers do not stem from the Outsider’s Mark and therefore runes would be of no use to her. Certain bonecharms can be found that do affect her supernatural abilities, such as extending the reach of her Foresight and increasing the number of enemies she can tag. Some of the passive powers from previous games can also be obtained as bonecharms, such as Agility.

As well as Billie’s unique powers, the game also introduces the original Clockwork Sentinels, featured heavily in the trailer for the second game, which were included due to them being a fan favourite. These Clockworks, whilst being decidedly more sinister in appearance thanks to their grinning faces, have the advantage that they do not, I repeat NOT, have the ability to see out of the back of their head.  (As someone who hates the Clockworks in Dishonored 2 with the passion of a thousand suns for that very reason, I thank you Harvey).

The game itself spans five missions, starting with Billie’s rescue of and reunion with Daud and culminating in her facing the Outsider. Set in the gritty underbelly of Karnaca, players can find familiarity in not just getting their asses kicked by the game’s difficulty but also exploring the nooks and crannies, looting items for coin and of course listening to the same handful of NPC voice lines. Players will recognise the Royal Conservatory from Dishonored 2, which makes a reappearance as the setting of the fourth story mission. Karnaca is as visually striking and atmospheric as it was in Dishonored 2, the buildings much more dilapidated but still strangely pleasant. The atmosphere of a world awash with dangerous secrecy is palpable, especially in the final mission where an already creepy abandoned mine becomes a horrific eldritch world filled with crazed cultists and the aforementioned insta-kill enemies, the Envisioned, creatures that are remnants of the original cult responsible for creating the Outsider (by sacrificing an innocent teenage boy).

In addition to the main campaign objectives, Billie can also pick up a number of contracts from the black markets. These are optional side quests that pay a handsome amount of coin, or sometimes a bonecharm. Some contracts are simple, some need specific requirements to have been met. They vary from theft to multiple assassinations, and inject some true variety into a formula that can sometimes feel a bit monotonous.

The biggest difference, one that has been met with a mixed response, is the lack of a chaos system and with it the lack of the core message of the previous games: any decision, however big or small, affects the world around you and those in it. Ultimately, Billie killing civilians or sparing the Overseers bears no effect; there are no extra swarms of hungry rats or bloodflies, nor are the sewers crawling with Weepers. Ultimately, the impact of whether Billie is an unseen phantom, a blood-soaked psychopath or somewhere in between ends with the player’s own decision of how to play. I will say not having to worry about a chaos level made it far more comfortable for me to hack, slash and shoot my way through the game in places where I would’ve thought carefully about leaving everyone unharmed.

Snapshot - 7
Nice little Prey Easter egg in the bank’s archives

Much like the previous games, the true strength lies in the holy trifecta: terrifically complex story, brilliantly written characters and astounding voice performances. The raw emotion audible in Billie’s voice after Daud’s death is heartbreaking. The relationship between master and apprentice is an example of unconditional trust: even after her betrayal in The Knife of Dunwall, Daud knows he can still count on Billie. The fatherly affection he feels for her is obvious in the diary entry he writes at the beginning of mission three, and his final audiograph in mission four. I’m not ashamed to admit listening to it made me cry.

Billie is driven by her loyalty to Daud and the will to complete his dying wish, but is also conflicted thanks to her own guilt at the life she led before. If you choose to kill the Outsider, there’s a tiredness within Billie as she resigns herself to being ‘just a murderer’, conceding that killers never change despite being given the chance. It’s this gem of writing and voice acting that means the ending, a simple action rather than an action-heavy brawl with a deity, was a fitting climax to the tale. This is all interwoven with Daniel Licht’s emotive soundtrack. Sometimes eerie and sinister, always somewhat bleak, each note of the ambient music ripples through the tense atmosphere of the game and provides a perfect backdrop to the game.

There’s a strange, hollow feeling that grips me as I write this. It’s the feeling one experiences at the end of an era, when the stories of beloved characters have come to their conclusion and been laid to rest. The entire series was a true masterpiece, an obvious labour of love packed with detail, and for this reason I think Death of the Outsider is a truly fitting swan song that is likely to stay with me for a long, long while.