"Do the rivers unite us, or do they divide us?" I've translated my way through a good chunk of Heaven's Vault, and I keep coming back to that question. I found the relevant statement on an urn, I think, amidst some ruins on the bank of a celestial river. My grasp on the ancient language has lent me confidence about every word, except the most pivotal. It's all a bit profound, innit?
If that's the kind of question YOU want to be plagued by on a nice Sunday in the bath, you should (probably) check out the freshly released free demo.
You're Aliya Elasra, an archaeologist tasked with unravelling your colleague's mysterious disappearance. To do so, you'll need to unravel the past. You hop between moons linked by those rivers, making increasingly educated guesses about the ancient scribbling you find.
The demo skips ahead to the Withering Palace, which I haven't yet visited but did just receive the directions to. The structure of Inkle Studio's game means skipping forward matters in some ways but not others. It's sort of episodic: each ruin you visit has its own story, its own history to unravel. But of course that ties into the broader context of what that civilisation was up to elsewhere, and sometimes you can link stuff back to the mark made by even earlier cultures.
You'll be jumping in without expectations, and approaching new situations that make you question your assumptions is sort of what Heaven's Vault is all about. Heaven's Vault is about a lot of things, though. Pivotal decisions. Robot banter. Annoying rivers.
I'm thinking about when I played a snippet of the game at Rezzed, and it utterly failed to grab my attention. That's in contrast to when I played the game from the beginning, and everything made sense. My translations didn't feel arbitrary, and I knew who I was and what I was doing. The difference is enough to make me say hey, if this all sounds interesting, you should probably just buy it.
Alice Bee says much the same in her Heaven's Vault review, though concludes: "I don’t know if I can recommend this to someone who isn’t a word nerd". I did say those rivers were annoying.
Don't let us tell you what to do though, obvs. The demo is free on Steam.
I want to believe the rivers unite us, but I also believe that's a trap too many historians have fallen down already.