Heaven’s Vault is a game about archaeology in space – and there’s not a single gun in sight.
This is a story about exploration, a measured, thoughtful narrative that takes heroine Aliya and her mechanical companion Six on a journey across the stars in pursuit of a missing roboticist. It was originally released in 2019, making its way to Nintendo Switch just a few days ago. Heaven’s Vault has received quite a lot of critical acclaim in the last two years, and yet, this is my first experience with it – is it at home on Switch?
As a lover of narrative-focused games, it’s easy to see why Heaven’s Vault has received so much attention. The story usually unfolds through dialogue, fostering a sense of mystery that leaves you thinking everyone Aliya talks to knows a little bit more than they’re letting on – which is usually true, to be honest. Beyond that, you’ll be exploring snippets of planets in a visually interesting mix of 2D character models and 3D environments, picking up the next piece of the puzzle and slowly knitting together the overarching plot.
By itself, this doesn’t necessarily make for anything profoundly interesting, but where Heaven’s Vault excels is in the richness of its world. As you play, you build a timeline spanning from modern day all the way back to the beginning of civilisation as history knows it. You can view this any time in a minimal, smooth UI. It’s fascinating to see events populate the timeline, first with little personal snippets about Aliya and the people she knows, and eventually with historical facts, sometimes based on conversations or found items, educated guesses that go a very long way towards crafting a world that feels so much bigger than the environments portray.
Aliya’s story is driven forward by trickles of intrigue and curiosity – a task that at first seems relatively mundane becomes more complex by the second, and every answer you find simply asks five more questions. This is all underpinned by the real star of the show – Heaven’s Vault has created an entire ancient language which must be deciphered in bits and pieces using evidence and guesswork. You find pieces of the language everywhere, and can make guesses at its meaning any time. It takes a little while for this part of the game to gain traction, but it is fascinating.
Initially you’ll be making a string of guesses based on context, and these guesses will go on to inform further translations down the line. Translations reward you with bits and pieces of Heaven’s Vault‘s quietly bubbling background lore, along with information on where to go next. It’s not linear – once you’ve discovered places to visit, you can do in any order. There’s no urgent, artificial corralling towards the next destination – you decide the priorities, and the story feels all the more organic for it.
Sailing between planets can be a welcome break in pace, or a protracted chore depending on how you look at it. It looks beautiful, and the score is appropriately epic, but you’re never in any actual danger. Despite the hazardous look of the river that connects all the planets, you can’t actually fall off the edge or collide with any obstacles. It was great the first couple of times, but quickly started to feel hollow – at one point I saw an option to hand control over to Six, figuring “nah, this’ll be over in a minute, no point.” Two minutes later I was still drifting through space and the option had disappeared, and I knew for sure next time I saw that prompt it was getting smashed.
Playing as Aliya is interesting. The dialogue options allow her to be a callous, self-motivated intellectual or a friendly, helpful scholar. You can, of course, land somewhere in the middle, but I found it quite satisfying to stick to one path. A lot of characters assume Aliya is high and mighty, based on her position at the University of Iox – it was great to be able to undermine that preconceived notion, and really makes it feel like you have agency over which aspect of her personality you’d like to embody. Heaven’s Vault gives you an intricate story in pieces, allowing you to put it back together with whatever motivation you develop.
This is not a game to race through. It is meant for thoughtful wandering, as you tread the path of those who came before. It finds a happy home on Switch, perfectly conducive to playing in short bursts or longer sessions. It’s evident that Inkle have the capacity to create rich, detailed worlds for their stories, and I feel like Heaven’s Vault barely scratches the surface of what The Nebula has to offer. They’re not content to simply offer a branching narrative based on dialogue options – they’ve built an entire universe around their tale, and this is simply one small part of it.