On the face of it, Heaven's Vault sounds like chaos: It's a planet-surfing science-fiction adventure game in which you play as an archaeologist who gets caught up in a doomsday prophecy. But it's a much calmer experience than you might expect--you play as Aliyah, an archaeologist employed by a university on Iox, the wealthiest, most opulent planet within her nebula, to track down Renba, a professor who has disappeared. Throughout the journey, you'll peel away at the complex and ambitious lore of the world and meet the interesting characters who inhabit it, but not without some slow sailing.
You spend much of the game hunting for clues to determine not only Renba's fate, but also the nature of his research and the discoveries he was making in his travels. For most of the game, the exact details of Renba's mission are pleasantly unclear, and major theories the player concocts early on can be proven incorrect by later discoveries. To get to the bottom of things, you'll need to investigate various moons throughout the nebula, some settled, some abandoned. You'll also build and maintain friendships or trade alliances with folks who can provide you with assistance, collect artifacts and clues, and mess around with the game's neat translation mechanic.
Throughout the game, Aliyah will encounter many passages written in "Ancient" script, which require translation to decipher. This will begin as guesswork, but as you progress you'll develop a better understanding of what different glyphs within longer words might represent. There's a two-tiered system in place for translating words: If you encounter an inscription of a full phrase, you can guess any of the words you're not certain of until you have a full, hopefully coherent sentence. If you find what Aliyah will describe as a part of a longer phrase, a list of potential words you've already translated or guessed will appear on the screen, and you must see if the part of text matches up with any of the words you already understand or have guessed at. These partial texts can confirm your definitions--if you've decided that a word means 'water' in a previous translation, for example, and it pops up again as part of a longer phrase, Aliyah might declare that she is either now confident in the translation of that word or believes it's wrong. After a while, you'll build up a much bigger vocabulary of translated words, making it easier to fill in the gaps.
Across the game's somewhat excessive running time, I lost track of what the actual advantage of all this translation was to my progression, as correct translations tend to prompt conversation options rather than key clues for where to go next. But it's still an interesting and exciting mechanic, as so much of the pleasure of Heaven's Vault is about uncovering the lore of the world you're in and the characters who occupy it. You're dropped in largely unaware, and while the game builds an exhaustive timeline of events, stretching right back to ancient times, it's mostly on you to figure out the nuances of the occasionally abstract game world.
Heaven's Vault opens near its own ending--the very first scene tells you where your adventure will end, which is a curious structural choice for a game that is so contingent on player choice. It's meant to indicate, perhaps, that your story is always going to end up the same way, although how you reach that ending will differ dramatically between players.
This seems to be a fair claim, too. During my playthrough, I compared notes with another player to make sure that our choices mattered, and we discovered that our paths diverged completely at several points. Heaven's Vault unfurls in substantially different ways depending on how you play it and which choices you make. You can miss entire characters and plotlines, or experience hugely different relationships with the game's small but well-developed cast of recurring figures. The writing is mostly strong throughout, with dialogue flowing naturally and feeling in line with decisions you've made, and the moment by moment plot of Heaven's Vault genuinely feels like the culmination of your choices. There are some strange issues with character development--at one point a character demanded I come to visit them so that they could tell me about a major discovery and let me in on "certain confidences," only for them to reveal nothing when I visited with them, and a major character stopped trading goods with me for reasons I don't fully understand, substantially slowing down my progress through the game.
When you're bouncing easily between locations, making discoveries and having interesting chats with Aliyah's friends and co-workers--not to mention your robot companion, Six--Heaven's Vault is a pleasure. It's perhaps too easy to lose track of the spine of the plot, but in the first half especially, there's a constant influx of discoveries and revelations that give the game a propulsive hook. But the scope and ambition of Heaven's Vault get the better of it in the back half. It took me 22 hours to finish the game, and it felt like a lot of those last 12 hours was spent on busywork--particularly when it comes to the game's sailing mechanic.
In one of the lore's weirdest elements, traveling across the nebula necessitates that you "sail" the rivers between moons, steering your ship across literal bodies of water that act as pathways between locations. They only flow in one direction, so the only meaningful control you have comes when paths diverge in two directions and you must choose which way to turn. There's little to do out on the waters--you can steer left and right, fold your sails in to go slightly faster, stop to observe any interesting landmarks you pass, and check your map. Sailing isn't particularly exciting, yet it makes up a huge portion of Heaven's Vault.
For the first half of the game, sailing feels like a mildly irritating distraction with moments of beauty, taking up a few minutes at a time. But in the back half, the sailing mechanics come perilously close to ruining the whole experience. The sites you need to visit in order to progress are marked on the map as large areas to explore, and while you can make the search areas smaller by finding more artifacts throughout the game, at some point you're almost definitely going to have to find it by scouring those areas yourself. The layout of the river can become infuriating at this point. When you're traveling to a moon you've been to before and miss a turn, you're given the option to rewind to a point just before the turn; however, when you're searching for an unknown site, no such option exists, and a wrong turn can mean a long, slow course correction as you follow the one-way rivers back to where you just were, potentially eating up to half an hour.
The game has additional pacing issues throughout--Aliyah moves very slowly, and there was a section of the game where I found myself bouncing repeatedly between the game's two main locations, Elboreth and Iox, in the hopes of triggering new dialogue options between characters that would make the search for the next site easier. (Thankfully, you can skip the rigmarole of sailing to these two particular locations by asking Six to do it for you.)
Heaven's Vault can be a fiddly experience--although patches hit during the pre-launch period that cleaned up most major issues, I continued to encounter a lot of camera problems throughout, and at one point, a site that took half an hour of sailing to find failed to load when I reached it. When I eventually sailed back there, it ended up being the least interesting site in the game. While some of these places you're searching for are teeming with plot development, others can feel like a chore.
There's plenty to be charmed by in Heaven's Vault. The art style is pleasant, and the orchestral soundtrack is often beautiful. The writing and lore can occasionally make the game feel like an adaptation of a book that doesn't exist, and it's hard not to get invested in learning more about the game's world. It's just a shame that there's so much tedium to get through as well, and that the experience doesn't always reach the greatness it occasionally shows itself to be capable of. Heaven's Vault excels in creating a well-constructed, branching narrative, but expect long sections of it to feel like a slog.