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A graphical exploration and archaeology game , June 16, 2022
This game is by Inkle, a studio that has made numerous interactive fiction games. While this game has many non-textual elements, the text is a very important part of the gameplay and the core mechanic is a large textual language puzzle. It took me 16 hours for one playthrough, according to Steam.
The main idea is that you, in an fictional futuristic setting, are an archaeologist exploring an ancient, highly-advanced civilization. They settled a nebula with 'moons' connected by jets of water that are navigable by boat. The main thread throughout the civilizations' history is the use of a language: ancient. This is presented as a series of sigils, usually ran together, that you at first guess and then eventually become certain of (through a mechanic where the game tells you if you got it right after you use it a few times in a row). No spaces are used in most words, making finding where words start and stop the hardest part later on.
I'd like to split up this review a bit into different categories, starting with what was, for me, the weakest part:
3d Navigation and pacing
I bounced off this game at first because of this. One thing that a lot of commercial IF games lean into, especially ones by authors transitioning from indie to AAA-adjacent, is to bulk up the play time, is splitting up stories with long sections of travel. This is done in 80 Days, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies, and here, too. This leads to a lot of very dull moments. 80 days helped make up for it with quick transit animations and making the movement part of the overall puzzle, while in most of these other games it's just dead air.
This game splits up content in two different ways. Large chunks each take place on different worlds, split up by ship travel, which has no hazards and no decision making outside of binary choice points and occasional random treasure. The smaller chunks on each world are split up by 3d motion. This uses invisible hitboxes that don't always line up with what you can see; this is especially apparent in 'open worlds' that look easily navigable but are secretly linear. I found myself frequently running into walls and getting stuck. Amusingly, I realized that the space part and the 3d part were very similar to Kingdom Hearts 1, just without the enemies.
Conversations happen in real-time. Speed is adjustable in the menu, but there is no scroll-back and pausing is difficult. I generally like text games because they can be picked up and put down, minimized, multitasked, and easily played around others without being intrusive. For this game, I had to give complete attention at pretty much all times, and even then I missed quite a bit of dialog looking away to itch a scratch or to answer my kids' questions.
Continuing on my scale of not liking to liking are things that I liked a lot but don't really factor into my rating:
Graphics and audio
I think they did a great job here. Voiceover is really lovely, the music is heartrending and sci-fi feeling. The art looks a lot better than most 3d games, and loads well on my potato laptop. The artists and sound designers really did well.
Character and Plot
This is generally very good, with some slight caveats. Characters are very distinctive and mostly memorable. The protagonist has a rich past interconnected with many corners of the Nebula. The plot contains multiple independent strands circling the big mystery: where did these civilizations come from, why is everyone here, and what's going to happen to them?
Our main character is kind of a jerk. I know subconsciously it can be easy to perceive strong female characters as aggressive when compared to similar male protagonists, but I believe our character has attributes would be jerky for men as well, especially in regards to her interaction with the robot Six. It was actually refreshing in a lot of ways, but I think 'jerk with a heart of gold' interests me more than 'jerk with a heart of jerk'. The strong personality does lend to some fun role-playing through.
The plot threads were very intriguing, including the mysterious workings of your home city, the cryptic machinations of you employer, some kids trying to find their place in the world, etc, as well as your progressive discovery of the ancient world.
I felt like the ending in my playthrough came at a time where I had a lot of loose ends, and not a lot of choice to go back and work on them. And the final reveal, while visually stunning, left quite a bit unresolved as well, especially given how much build up there was. I know that it can be hard to simultaneously give people choice as well as a satisfying plot structure (which is one reason, I speculate, that a lot of Choice of Games with award-winning stories often don't sell as well as those with straightforward power fantasies), but I've seen a few people do a great job of this, such as the 'Truth' ambition in Sunless Skies. That game separates your quests into different categories and has clear victory conditions, so you know if you're going to leave threads unfinished. It also provides a very weighty, powerful, and conclusive finish to the final story. I feel like Sorcery! 4 also had a very satisfying ending. This game, Heaven's Vault, was not bad at all with its ending, better than average for sure, but could have been amazing.
I really enjoy languages. I've studied French, German, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Greek, Latin, Japanese and a little Hebrew, some more than others. So I was definitely up for a challenge here.
As someone who has struggled with many languages, I have to say that the experience in this game is much less like learning an actual language and much more like learning a code alphabet for English. Emily Short, in her review, said "a great deal of Ancient is English in a chiffon-sheer disguise", and I have to agree.
However, this isn't necessarily a negative. Language take forever to learn. I've been studying written Japanese for 3-4 months now and still struggle with basic pronunciation. For the average English-speaking player, learning an actual non-English language would be far too difficult.
So the game simplifies it. 'Ancient' has none of those bizarre ultra-common connector words that can mean so many things (like 'zwar' in German or '就' in Mandarin). Most sentences, especially early ones, follow simple noun-verb-object patterns, with some light prepositions added in later.
Most words are ones that can be easily identified with pictographs. Themes of light, travel, people, fire, water, air, earth, plant and metal dominate the vocabulary. In another distinction between in-game and real-life pictographic languages, there is not a significant 'drift', where everyday words have bizarre derivations based on non-written considerations (like the fact that 'mother' in chinese is woman-horse due to homonyms). Interestingly, the pictograph for 'man' is the same in 'Ancient' and Chinese, although I don't know if that's a coincidence.
Some features are distinctly English, such as the way that past and future tense are conjugated and the use of helper verbs. The game uses symbols that directly derive from modern earth culture, like (Spoiler - click to show)question marks and x's
These features make word-solving easier. Even then, it would be impossible to just begin with a blank slate, make guesses, and hope you're right later. It'd be the worlds' hardest cryptogram and sudoku, a big pile of guesses waiting to collapse. Instead, the game gives you a huge leg up over real-life translators by giving you four options to guess from, 1 of which is always correct. Which every one you pick is indicated by a ? in future uses. Once it's used 3 or 4 times, the game confirms your translation or denies it through your robot or your own intuition. This is probably the main feature that makes the game far easier than learning a real-life language, and it is, in my opinion, what makes it actually fun.
By the end, individual pictographs are all easily identifiable, so the trick is giving you longer sentences with no spaces, so you have to identify words by their structure. The language is very systematic, and I was thrilled to puzzle out some pieces, although some I struggle with, especially (Spoiler - click to show)the difference between a period . and a colon :. It can become very difficult to find the border between words, and you can't figure out new words unless you surround them on both sides with established words. I often had to save longer texts to come back to after I learned more words.
I adored the translation. For me the highlight of the game was finding a huge (Spoiler - click to show)book that never seemed to end. I translated over 20 lines, took a break, delivered it somewhere, and translated more until it made me stop.
As mentioned earlier, the game ended kind of abruptly for me and I had some unresolved translation, but by then I felt like I was going to have to compromise anyway on what I had hoped to achieve in the game. I didn't feel compelled to do another playthrough, but I may try again some day.
Overall, it was worth the money. I got it on sale. It provided me 16 hours of content and could easily go up to 30 or more, with a large chunk of that being just reading/translating. That's much more than most free/indie interactive fiction. I didn't really like the 3d movement aspects at all, and I feel the ending could have had more narrative weight, especially (Spoiler - click to show)talking more about loops, and the repetition aspect. But the plot still pulled me forward the whole game, and for a language puzzle, it was the best I've seen out there, and the dialog, art, and sound were outstanding to me.
For my star rating system, it was polished, descriptive, had good interactivity, I felt emotionally invested, and I will likely play again some day. Just not today.