Inkle has a knack for making narrative games with interesting mechanics, without relying on the usual combat that most games do. Heaven's Vault is another fresh spin on unique a gameplay mechanic.
You play Aliya, an archaeologist tasked with chasing down a colleague who has gone missing. A classic play, indeed. But where Inkle mixes things up is in how it approaches this mystery. Heaven's Vault is a truly open ended game, with various different ways to unravel the story. Indeed, it includes a NG+ where I managed to finish the game the second time without ever visiting one of the main hubs!
This freedom and openness does come with a downside though - it is entirely up to the player to discover the story and put the pieces together. While this can be incredibly rewarding, it can also be confusing for those not following the narrative closely. That said, if you are paying attention, Heaven's Vault has an excellent narrative that really invokes a sense of time and space like few games do.
The key gimmick of Heaven's Vault is the language simulator mechanic. At first, learning a new language seems like a daunting task for what's supposed to be a game. However, Inkle have designed an exceedingly clever system that's both very accessible and rewarding. You're given ample assistance and hints, and the game remembers some of your learned words. There's just the right balance of trial and error encouraged that keeps things fluid with minimal signs of frustration. You'll have to play it to believe it - but by the end of my second playthrough, I truly believed I had learned a new language.
Aside from the language simulator, Heaven's Vault has a few puzzles - nothing too complex, but they do freshen things up. At its core though, Heaven's Vault is very much an exploration game - you go from location to location, find hints which open things up to new locations and people, which you then visit, rinse and repeat. As an exploration game, Heaven's Vault does have its fair share of awe-inspiring locations with ancient stories buried within them, but ends up being a bit repetitive at times. You traverse between these locations on a skiff, and the sailing mechanics do leave a lot to be desired. You can hand over the reins to your companion, which I found myself doing quite often.
Then there's the matter of the second playthrough / NG+. This is one of those games where it's a must - you simply cannot get the full story in one playthrough, and you really need the second playthrough to develop your vocabulary enough to interpret some of the late game phrases. At the same time, even if you do approach things in a totally different way, I don't think a second playthrough is justified for the average gamer. It's a shame, then, that only a few will see the full game in the way it was designed.
Despite some minor flaws, Heaven's Vault is a remarkable game that brings unique new mechanics and experiences to the mix. It's a must play if you are into games that open-ended exploration-driven narrative games, or interested in fresh new mechanics you won't find anywhere else. An absolute must play for anyone interested in linguistics. A NG+ is highly recommended if you enjoy your first playthrough.
(Crossposted from Hive Gaming)