Cambridge-based indie development team Inkle knows a thing or two about storytelling. Starting out in 2011 with an interactive adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the developer went on the create the much awarded Sorcery! and 80 Days, both beautiful blends of classic text with modern interactive fiction. Four years in the making, Heaven’s Vault is the most ambitious project the studio has undertaken yet. Featuring a sprawling sci-fi universe paired with a unique translation mechanic and inimitable writing, Heaven’s Vault is a grand adventure that sweeps the player up and does not let go until the credits roll.
Aliya Elasra is a rough and tumble archaeologist, willing to travel the far reaches of the nebula to find artefacts from ancient civilisations. Working for the University of Iox, she is tasked with finding Janniqi Renba, a robotics professor who has gone missing. He was last seen investigating a dig site—an unusual place for a professor of robotics to be. With the robot Six by her side, Aliya explores the nebula looking for the professor, uncovering a greater mystery with each relic discovered. Why was Janniqi Renba playing at being an archaeologist? What is the Heaven’s Vault the professor was looking for? How will finding it prevent a great darkness coming for the people of the present? The questions pile up as Aliya ventures further into the depths of the nebula’s ancient ruins.
Aliya progresses through her journey by obtaining and trading information. Initially only having access to Iox and the neighbouring moons of Elboreth and Maersi, more locations are added to her map as she finds out about them. Leads to new areas come from many sources: Aliya can identify the rough time period and origin of the artefacts she discovers, narrowing down where a new moon might be located. Translating the ancient language written upon the treasures gives further insight as to their origin. Interacting with other characters also provides hints; a broken-hearted farm woman still waits for Renba to visit her, shifty pawnbroker Tapi will gladly exchange discovered antiques for items of similar value, and the robot Six has many secrets hidden behind its mild-mannered exterior.
Once Aliya obtains a lead on a new location, she travels to other moons via the river, a stream of wind and ice connecting the satellite planets together. The steampunk ship bobs through the dreamy cloudscape like a large mechanical beetle, the twists and turns navigated with the help of Six’s GPS capabilities. The sections play like a simplified racing game, with the player drifting the ship left and right. Rather than a challenge of reflexes, the sailing acts as a chance to regroup and reflect on the events so far. The usually minimal score of Heaven’s Vault kicks into full gear as Aliya sails, emotive cello and piano adding to the mysterious atmosphere of the windy paths. Along the way, smaller ruins can be discovered and raided for artefacts. Resting in the ship’s cabin allows for quick travel between previously visited moons, cutting down the busy work when checking in with different characters.
Conversation flows freely and easily in Heaven’s Vault, with text appearing one line at a time at a highly customisable speed. Aliya can chat with Six at the press of a button as the pair wander around a dusty ruin, commenting on the world around them. Questions can be responded to in a variety of ways, with a more subtle range of expression than the binary good or evil response available in many games. All the little choices are recorded and build upon Aliya’s character, with her relationship with other people shifting depending on how she interacts with them: be rude to the aloof people on the farming colony of Maersi, and they may be less inclined to help out later. Childhood friend Oroi starts off distrustful of the protagonist due to bad blood between them, but, if she is treated well, a friendship may blossom once more. The game autosaves after each decision, adding weight to the choices. Players need not fear getting stuck, as each problem encountered in the game has multiple solutions. An antisocial player will still be able to reach the ending, albeit with fewer friends made along the way.
Between shaking down inhabitants of the nebula for information, Aliya works on her translations of Ancient, a dead hieroglyphic language found written on artefacts and ruins. Translating the language is clever puzzle of recognising related pictographs and meaning deduced from where the inscription was found. Writing upon a goddess statue in the farming village of Maersi can be safely assumed to be a water goddess, given the importance of rain to the crops. A religious cloak can infer the word pilgrim with the related ‘holy’ pictograph. Once a word has been correctly translated a couple of times, it is locked in as accurate, and, likewise, an incorrect translation is amended when a new discovery proves it to be false. The length of discovered phrases steadily increases over the course of the adventure, and carefully toes the line of being challenging without being too frustrating. The process feels much like a modified version of learning a real language, providing the satisfaction of increasing skill without the tedious and difficult aspects.
A sense of history permeates Heaven’s Vault, both thematically and in the way it is presented. Aliya’s personal past events is depicted alongside world events on the detailed timeline, showing how she uses archeology to understand her place in the world. The diverse moon locales are built upon crumbling ruins, a setting of sandstone and tiles rather than sleek metallic futurism. Strangely beautiful hand-drawn 2D sprites contrast with the three-dimensional world to add to the otherworldly presence of the setting. The environment feels lived in, a place that existed before the game begins and will continue to do so long after the story is over.
Aliya’s journey is a sizeable one, with ten hours being enough to reach an ending, but seeing every last optional area easily adds another five hours or so. A new game plus feature carries over all the words learned in the ancient language, allowing the player to zip through a new playthrough whilst making different choices. While this feature is well implemented, an option to return to the story just before the point of no return would have been appreciated and would allow players one last lap around the nebula to find any treasures or translations that might have been missed.
Playing Heaven’s Vault gives the same sense of satisfaction as curling up with a favourite book. With top-notch writing, exotic locales, and a true sense of adventure, Heaven’s Vault is a triumph.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.
SteamWorld Quest Review — Full Steam Ahead
The SteamWorld series has a habit of refusing to be confined to a single genre. The first entry in the series, way back on the Nintendo DSi, was a simple tower-defense game. That title was followed by procedurally generated platformer SteamWorld Dig, and then came strategy action title SteamWorld Heist. Now, developer Image & Form has dived into the turn-based RPG with SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech.
SteamWorld Quest is set in the same universe as the previous SteamWorld games, featuring a cast of steam bots who speak in a rapid, chattering language, helpfully translated for the players by subtitles.
As usual for a SteamWorld title, the first thing to draw the eye is the lovely hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds. The game has a surprising amount of detail in these 2D sprites, and players may find themselves suddenly noticing a detail that previously escaped attention.
The first characters to be introduced are Armilly and Copernica, a wannabe knight and alchemist, respectively. The animation provides great hints towards the character personalities before they even speak, showing Copernica as being quiet and introspective, but with a strong will, while Armilly puts up a brave front to cover deeper insecurities. This depth continues through the game, with subtle character tics betraying plot hints and nods to backstories.
Players pick up new party members as the game progresses, first running into Galleo, a big green bot who acts as party healer. Other characters can also be recruited, adding their own skills in combat to the roster. Only three party members can be active at once, so getting the balance right is important.
Combat itself is handled by a card system. Each character has a deck of no more than eight cards, three of which can be played each turn. By using their entire deck, players utilise effects such as attacks, defensive spells, healing, buffs, debuffs, and so on. Pleasingly, the combat system is complemented by a captivating sense of style, with each card channelling old-fashioned computer punch aesthetics.
The developers are clearly fans of collectable card games, as cards can also be chained together into combos, which provide an extra effect on the completion. This effect is not as easy to achieve as it might sound, however, as some cards require ‘Steam pressure’ to be played. This mechanic brings in an element of deck building and strategy, as players balance building steam pressure with spending it. Therefore, players can spend a significant amount of time agonising over new strategies, trying to decide on an effective build for the limited deck size.
Getting card game elements in a video game wrong is easy, by having the mechanics too complex or unwieldy. SteamWorld Quest avoids the pitfalls experienced by games such as Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories by making the card-based combat relatively simple. New twists and complexities are added gradually, thus giving the player several ways to build a deck to suit individual play style.
Cards can be crafted at the travelling merchant, providing a use for the various materials players pick up on their travels. Cards can also be upgraded to increase their effectiveness, preventing useful early cards from becoming obsolete later. Players can add to their decks by finding cards scattered about the world, along with weapons and accessories to make characters more effective, emphasising the importance of exploration.
SteamWorld Quest is more story-driven than its predecessors, and a lot of time between battles is taken up with talking. The conversations never outstay their welcome, as the plot moves along at a pleasing pace, and the characters are engaging enough to keep the player interested. As players progress, more backstory is uncovered, and some scenes can be surprisingly emotional, with the fluid character animations underscoring the dialogue in a believable way.
The writing uses consistent characterisation that is happy to show the player about the world and the characters instead of spilling everything in a massive information dump. This writing style serves the pacing well. The only real issue is that while the game allows skipping of dialogue, entirely skipping a scene is impossible, so when players are re-exploring an area for hidden secrets, the same scenes keep playing out, even if they have been seen before.
The game has frequent nods towards world-building and backstory, which serves to draw the player in. Progression reveals that the problems in the world of SteamWorld Quest go deeper than invading Dark Lords and evil magic. The first time the player notices that the language the steam bots speak is like a more pleasant version of modem noise, implying that the characters are speaking in binary, is a nice touch. Other geeky references are scattered around, including an equippable book called an Octavo, a sneaky reference to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.
Despite the cartoonish artwork and often light-hearted dialogue, hints at darkness are ever-present in the universe of SteamWorld Quest—something that is underscored by the music, which starts off pleasant and whimsical. However, as players progress into more dangerous areas, the mood of the soundscape also shifts, providing a counterpoint to the action and dialogue while never being obtrusive.
The gameplay flow is easy to get into once the basic controls have been established, though toggling the ‘speed up’ option in the menu is a good idea, as otherwise players need to hold down the right trigger to speed through enemy turns during combat. SteamWorld Quest shines when showing off the amount of depth that it offers in crafting cards, building suitable decks, and deciding on party composition for each area, with each enemy encounter tip-toeing delightfully between the exploitation of strengths and weaknesses. Boss battles, in particular, can be challenging unless chain combos have been mastered, which can itself be tricky if the character decks do not have the right balance.
SteamWorld Quest: The Hand of Gilgamech is a wonderful, fun RPG adventure that has a lot of depth to delve into, secrets to explore, and story to uncover. The game looks beautiful, sounds brilliant, and has a smooth and absorbing gameplay flow. SteamWorld Quest, is surprisingly easy to get completely sucked in to, with the card game elements providing an impressive amount of complexity to the combat. Any RPG fan should give serious consideration to adding the title to their Nintendo Switch library and fans of previous SteamWorld games will find a lot to enjoy in the art and lore, too.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
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