Heaven’s Vault Switch Review: An Origin Story

Uncover an ancient language and much more in this Switch review of Heaven's Vault - out now.

These past few days have been a gaming quandary on what to play – not because there isn’t anything to play, but just too many games. Heaven’s Vault, from Inkle Studios, is one of them.

To put it in context, I’ve been playing Not Safe For BroadcastHaven, and Nioh 2 Complete Edition, to name a few. From my perspective, that’s the quality available, and time management was clearly an issue.

With Heaven’s Vault, there weren’t any combos, switching between screens on an edit, or sleeping on a wet patch (all game-related). This title was reserved for some ‘quiet time’ while the fam was watching Mulan, followed by Cats – all seemingly on repeat, plus at bedtime too. But it’s not the type to put you to sleep, quite the opposite.

Heaven’s Vault Switch Review

You play Aliya Elasra. She’s the cat’s pyjamas when it comes to archaeology, and she’s been called into the Dean’s office as she needs help. Janniqi Renba, the roboticist has gone missing, and you might be the only person to find them. Assisted by a bomb disposal-like robot you affectionately name Six, you head out into your bizarre-looking ship into the big wide world.

Before this all kicks off, let’s touch in the pace. While I was expecting a slow-paced puzzle, if not point and click adventure, Heaven’s Vault is quite fast-moving in when it comes to interacting, and you have to be reasonably hasty with dialogue responses. Emulating real-life, no doubt.

Heaven's Vault out now on Nintendo Switch
Source: Inkle

There is the option to slow the pace down, and I suggest you do that, so you can ponder your thoughts just a little as what you say has meaning, and quite frankly, that’s one of the most compelling things about this game aside from learning a new language.

It’s Only Words, And Words Are All I Have

There are three options to choose from by pressing the associated button, plus there are a few swift responses while acting, or between points A and B. These dialogue scenes are mostly text-based, but here and there you’ll get a voiceover from Aliya, which I have to say is brilliant.

The actor, Gem Carmella, is so natural. It doesn’t sound like she’s reading it, or putting on a voice or overacting like in many adventures. Videogames are growing in their diversity and status as an art, Heaven’s Vault did get a nod from BAFTA, darlings. But rightly so, the storytelling is brilliant, and I soon forgot where I was.

But the greatest aspect of this game, well, aside from the storytelling, was the linguistic aspect. I mentioned before, I struggle with my native language (keep reading, you’ll spot the errors), but the subject fascinates me. I’ve studied kanji for many years so appreciate pictographs(?) and such, but my first interest was hieroglyphs as a teen. 

Before I start showing off with my knowledge, I won’t. I know nothing. Maybe Ra or Hori? Anyway, the point being is you’re deciphering an ancient language in the game. You can’t look it up, you have to use your intuition, accrued evidence and collectable artefacts, and surmise from the patterns you may have already encountered.

Google Translate

Within the first five minutes, you’re translating two words you’ve never seen before, so to put that in context, you have to pay attention. Don’t worry; you needn’t apply to The Open University before playing the game, just listen and read what is being said, and put two and two together.

Heaven's Vault - Decipher
Decipher this! Source: Inkle

I tend to get bored with the writing style with visual novels, but it’s mostly through being unlucky with titles. Games such as Chicken Police have taught me not to be so hasty in my assessments. Nevertheless, it’s easy to skip a few lines here and there. 

In Heaven’s Vault, I was hanging on to every word (the game has an uncanny ability to say so much in so little words. My complete opposite). When it came to translating the text, I’d be looking at the strokes repeatedly before committing to it. I hadn’t a clue most of the time, but it made me feel like I was the expert here.

Sail Or Skip Away?

The visuals are stunning and locales so engaging. It feels like a proper exploration, discovering and flowing through the chronology of present-day and the past with ease. But Heaven’s Vault isn’t going to be showered in praise throughout.

I wasn’t keen on the animation despite being a minimalist. Minimalism certainly applied to the way Aliya moved; skipping keyframes not because of a glitch or resource-intensive, but through artistic choice. It’s about taste, and it wasn’t for me. It was a bit like stop motion, only let frames and a lot of transparency, perhaps to represent the passing of time?

I didn’t like the travelling sections where you navigate to the next place. This felt like filler as you use the triggers to shift left and right, following the flow. It was in these sections where the penny dropped that the game isn’t set in our dimension. It certainly didn’t ruin the game, but I wished you could skip them as they spoiled the experience. Sorry.

Choices, Choices

Back to the praise, travelling between locations and the animation choice were the only things I didn’t like. Referring back to that comment about playing around bedtime, Heaven’s Vault is a slow burner, but the type you want to relish, like a good drink – sip, don’t gulp.

Heaven's Vault - Sure
Sure, so sure. Heaven’s knockin’ at my door. Source: Inkle

The explorative nature of the game means you can take your time a bit, unlike something like Curious Expedition 2 – you’ll end up dead if you loiter too long. This reflective time made me feel a little more intelligent than I am, and I applaud Inkle for making me feel like I have double my IQ of 22.

What I won’t thank them for are the choices. The multiple options available in the game, both with quips and consequential actions, mean that you will get multiple endings, and being naturally indecisive was hard going. My first ending was a little anti-climatic, but the path that led me there was worth it.

Heaven’s Vault is like a good book in that you want to return to it at a leisurely pace, make yourself comfortable, and spot nuances you missed the first time. I like that there’s no right and wrong way of doing things, and the narrative highlights this, giving you some important choices. I won’t spoil anything, just try the game.

Heaven’s Vault Review Summary

Considering the quality on offer this past week, Heaven’s Vault is a title that I’ll come back for repeat plays. The nature of playing on the Switch, specifically in my case, is playing on the fly. Whether that’s on the sofa or bed, and easily complemented by a stiff drink. Not too much though, you need your analytical chops on.

The score totals a 7.5 out of 10