Inkle, the developer behind 2014’s superlative 80 Days, is making its debut on console with its next project. Dubbed Heaven’s Vault, it’s a narrative heavy sci-fi adventure set in an explorable 3D world, and having sat down with it for a couple of hours today at GDC I can say that it looks fantastic.
It’s also very different from what Inkle has done before, though you’ll still see the same warmth, inventiveness and character witnessed in 80 Days (and the Sorcery series, which I’ll admit with some shame I haven’t played just yet). Heaven’s Vault, Inkle’s narrative director Jon Ingold admits with a small measure of surprise, “feels like an actual video game”. It’s a game in which you move with the left stick and look around with the right – fairly radical stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree, from a studio whose games have traditionally been so text heavy.
Heaven’s Vault remains a very writerly game, though, an adventure with a literary bent and a narrative that’s effortlessly complex in its underpinnings. You’re Aliya ‘El’ Elasra, an archaeologist who along with her robot assistant Six explores the stars via The Nebula, a stream that flows from one planet to the next, before returning home to share her findings. It’s from The Nebula that you sail forth, free to break from its current and explore the many different worlds it courses through.
At the backbone of your discoveries lies an entire alien language – complete with its own structure and semantics – that you learn along the way. It’s all delightfully clever while being completely frictionless, which seems to be an Inkle staple. As art and code director Joe Humfrey explains, Heaven’s Vault is to linguistics as Guitar Hero is to hammer-tapping your way through an intricate solo. Slowly you build a lexicon that’s coloured by your own interpretation, and there’s no right or wrong way to go about it – like so much else in the game, it’s just about the different journey you’ll be taking.
And if you’ll excuse the wooly cliche, it’s that journey rather than the destination that is so important to Heaven’s Vault. This isn’t an adventure game with myriad different endings where your decisions are explicitly codified but one where your choices are embedded in smaller moments, and thus might feel that little bit more meaningful. Characters you encounter will remember everything you say, and the narrative will have the ability to tie itself in delicious knots as a result.
Heaven’s Vault is kind of exciting, then, with a wit and ingenuity that’s all too rare in the console space. What’s really surprising about it is how well Inkle has acquitted itself with a gamepad – though as they point out, between them Humfrey and Ingold have a fair amount of experience acquired in their time at the likes of Sony and Rare. 2D art is neatly used in a 3D space, with characters flickering through a series of stills as they move in a fashion that’s both elegant and expressive. The intent is to go for a graphic novel style, and to see any still of Heaven’s Vault suggests Inkle’s been successful in that regard. It’s pretty handsome in motion, too.
I hope to bring you a bit more on Heaven’s Vault in the near future, but for now it’s worth knowing that Inkle’s console debut is very much worth taking note of. Its release is a little while off, with next year looking most likely.