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.
The Great Perhaps Review — Perhaps Not
Warning: The article contains discussion on the subject of suicide. If you or someone you love is struggling, The International Association for Suicide Prevention provides contact information for help across the world.
One common piece of advice for budding comedians is to never ‘punch down’. The target of a joke should be someone of a higher status or privilege than the joke teller, rather than a person within a marginalised group, such as the poor, the disabled, or the mentally ill. While this is not a hard and fast rule to comedy success, with shows like South Park using shocking moments to illuminate larger problems within society, without a deft hand, punching down comes across as cruel or offensive. The Great Perhaps, the first title by developer Caligari Games, makes an off-colour joke about suicide in the first five minutes of the game, setting a confused tone for the rest of its three-hour playtime. While this puzzle platformer shows some potential with solid puzzle design and great art direction, its terrible writing taints the entire experience.
The initial foot-in-the-mouth moment happens in the game’s animated prologue. Kosmos is an astronaut in a space station orbiting the earth. During a typical day, his communications with Earth are suddenly cut off, and he sees black smoke spreading across the globe. The station automatically puts him into cryogenic sleep, with instructions to wake him when returning to the surface is safe. Upon awakening, he discovers that over 100 years have passed. Kosmos is in despair, realising that everyone he ever knew or loved is dead, including his wife and children. He asks the ship’s A.I., L9, to vent all the oxygen in the ship, ending his life. She refuses, saying that the task is illogical. He asks again. She tells him to ‘nut up’ and to go explore the Earth. Kosmos reacts in astonishment, not at her cruel words, but at the fact she has developed a sense of humour. Magically cured of his suicidal ideation by her sassy insults, the pair decide to go explore the Earth and see if anyone survived the apocalypse.
Those whose lives have not been touched by suicide may find difficulty understanding why this moment is so offensive. This ‘nut up’ attitude stems from this belief that those suffering are not trying hard enough to get better—that one can just think themselves happy. Men especially suffer due to social pressure on them to not express their feelings, resulting in a suicide rate three times higher than women. Telling a suicidal person to ‘nut up’ would make them more likely to go through with their plans, not laugh. Real treatment takes a lot of hard work with support from both loved ones and mental health professionals.
This monumental lack of understanding permeates the game, although thankfully not as egregiously as the initial example. The flat intonation of Kosmos’s narration initially seems inspired, a man who has stepped back from the precipice of self harm but is still deeply troubled. However, the content of the writing actually shows that he is really cured, despite the monotony of his voice. About half an hour into the journey, he and L9 encounter a man about to jump off a roof, upset that no one likes his writing. He invites Kosmos to jump with him, but Kosmos proclaims he has ‘better things to do’. A callous attitude for a man who, within the last day or so, was in the same position. He manages to help the man by showing that his book will be successful in the future, handily sidestepping any real understanding of how to defuse such a situation. One does not need to be an expert on mental illness to write about the subject, but a modicum of research, understanding, or respect would have gone a long way. The Great Perhaps seems uncertain if it wants to be mysterious or funny. One moment, Kosmos will be lamenting the downfall of humanity; the next, he is riding an ostrich. L9 switches between making jokes and acting like a cold machine. The game is disjointed and lacks the emotional weight to support the story it is trying to tell.
The gameplay of The Great Perhaps fares better than the writing. A two-dimensional sidescroller with light puzzling, akin to Inside or Limbo, the game’s unique hook is the lantern Kosmos finds that lets him briefly travel back in time. The lantern button can be pressed for a glimpse of the past world, then held down to travel into the past for 20 seconds. For the most part, this mechanic works well, using the lantern to get around locked doors, bring objects between the past and the present, travel down a metro tunnel without getting hit by a train, or eaten by mutant rats. However, in some instances, the mechanic can be fiddly. The transition between worlds is fairly slow, so for sections where one has to swap to avoid a danger, the sluggish transition is frustrating. L9 will warn the player of a danger, but she usually warns too late for the player to perform the switch and save themselves. If this shifting function was on a toggle, rather than button press to turn the lantern on then press and hold down the button again to switch worlds, a lot of frustration could be mitigated. The time in the past would also benefit from being a bit longer. Throughout the campaign, several pipe dream-type puzzles appear in the past world, with the player needing to rotate tiles to form a continuous line from point A to point B. Getting kicked out of the puzzle every 20 seconds because of the time change was annoying.
Kosmos has some finicky movement, which is not a problem during the standard object puzzles, but is an issue in the handful of chase sequences dotted through the game. One section is set in a tight apartment building that requires him to push a cart, climb on it, jump to a ladder, jump across the gap, throw rocks to knock down the next ladder, scramble up, and run up two sets of stairs before reaching freedom. An already tricky sequence is made worse by Kosmos constantly getting stuck on objects. The enemy is close behind him for the whole sequence, so the sequence has little room for error. A bit more space between Kosmos and the monster would allow for collision-based delays.
Along with an autosave, The Great Perhaps has a chapter-based system as well. This system can be helpful if the player finds themselves in a soft-lock situation, which happened once during the review playthrough. In one section of the game, Kosmos needs to prevent a bank robbery in the past. A vital object—a large stick of dynamite—managed to phase through the floor and out of existence, making progress impossible. The autosave occurred after the dynamite escaped the confines of the world, so the only option was to load from a chapter. Thankfully, this chapter system was in place, otherwise the whole game would have needed to be started over. Perhaps a ‘reset screen’ option in the pause menu could be a helpful addition to prevent this problem in the future.
The world of The Great Perhaps has a pretty, cartoon aesthetic, with the transition between the past and the present showing a stark difference in how the place has aged. Lots of menacing creatures have emerged since the fall of mankind, with two-headed rats, giant mole-like beasts, an enormous octopus, and a creepy shadowy humanoid all doing their best to bring Kosmos down. Music is similarly well crafted, with a particular highlight being the escape sequence in a collapsing underground city. Kosmos has to assemble a giant robot to escape, and with each piece he completes, the music increases in tempo and adds more instruments to the mix. On the planet’s surface, the music invokes a sad, lonely atmosphere, trying to insert the emotion this game sorely needs.
So much potential is wasted in The Great Perhaps. Puzzle design is solid throughout, but hampered with finicky controls. Art direction is outstanding, but the story that the game is trying to support flounders between ‘funny’ and serious, and is full of clichés. Offensive content notwithstanding, The Great Perhaps is a very run-of-the-mill time travel story delivered in a monotonous tone. Many adjectives could be used to describe this game, but ‘Great’ is certainly not among them.
Reviewed on PC. Also available on Linux and macOS.
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