In this month’s Now Playing, I take a much-belated look at Heaven’s Vault: Switch edition from inkle Studios, which was released on January 28, 2021.
Heaven’s Vault is a narrative exploration game set in the Nebula, a region of space filled with waterways interconnecting diverse moons, thus allowing those adventurous enough to acquire a ship to sail the solar system. The player guides intrepid archaeologist Aliya Elasra, a student entrusted with a vital mission to uncover the truth about her missing colleague, by helping her to decipher lost texts, explore the hidden paths of the Nebula, and derive meaning from ancient artifacts.
Over the course of Aliya’s journey, players will translate an ancient language and use their discoveries to piece together a timeline of the Nebula’s history. But they’ll also learn some hidden secrets of Aliya’s own life, secrets which indicate that the past may not be so far removed from the present after all.
In a nutshell: Heaven’s Vault is one of my favorite titles from 2019 and I was thrilled to see it get a Switch port. Unfortunately, the game’s initial launch on the Switch contains some distracting bugs which are not present on the PC version. For optimal immersion, I recommend the PC version. For party play, the Switch on TV should serve you well (editors note: If you’re reading this during the pandemic, remember to party in a responsible, quarantined, and socially distanced way).
I played Heaven’s Vault for the PC shortly after launch in 2019. I delighted in exploring Aliya’s world, where I could while away many happy hours wandering the winding paths of the Nebula, deciphering the script on long lost treasures, arguing with robots about historical events, or just conversing with her various friends, acquaintances, or even the occasional enemy. My tiny laptop screen became a magical portal into a land where the only time that mattered was the historical timeline I was trying to understand.
I was a traveler, wandering with a snarky, self-possessed ship’s captain through space and time trying to solve an archaeological puzzle which eerily reflected Aliya’s own life and the lives of those around her. The game’s visuals, mechanics, audio, and premise combined so delightfully that most of the time I barely remembered I was playing on a computer at all.
At time of printing, the Switch version of the game contains several bugs which are jarring enough to jostle me out of the reveries I expect from this game, including camera bugs, scene hitching/lag, audio issues, UI problems and a fair amount of visual tearing.
Despite these issues, the game holds true to the core of its original vision, and there is a lot here to love. Flying Aliya’s ship feels natural and fun, with controls that map well to the Switch’s input, though it should be noted here that I usually play on a Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, which has larger, heavier trigger buttons than the Joy Con.
The delightful combination of 3D environments and hand-drawn 2D characters looks good on the Switch, and behaves very well in larger, outdoor scenes.
Still, I long for the fully immersive experience I so enjoyed on the PC version. And some of the Switch version’s bugs may be jarring for new players, too.
Some of Aliya’s spoken dialogue lines get lost under unducked sound effects. In small rooms, which this game about exploring buildings, houses, temples, and underground chambers has in abundance, the camera clips into walls and textures, resulting in distracting visual issues and unwanted occlusion. Characters turn away from each other during conversations, sometimes choosing to look at the wall rather than make eye contact.
In the translation menu, text elements sporadically stack on top of one another. Selecting interactable environmental elements using a Switch controller is a finicky, error prone process, requiring exact angles and precision control. When sailing the Nebula, some dialogue lines can get abruptly truncated.
I recommend the PC version of this title with hearty enthusiasm and no reservations. Heaven’s Vault is and will probably always be a game I return to because of how beautiful, ugly, challenging, and real its world is. Every playthrough is different and each time I return I learn something new about Aliya, though I also think I learn more about myself.
I so look forward to a Switch version patch so that I can while away the hours traversing the Nebula in all of its glory, from the comfort of my couch and the immersion potential my TV affords.
The Switch, Nintendo Switch Pro Controller, and the Joy Con are all developed by Nintendo. Heaven’s Vault is a creation of inkle Studios. All screenshots used here are from the Switch version of the game.