Over the last couple of years, the survival genre seems to have finally calmed down. People have stuck to what they like and it will be hard to get players out of their comfort zone. Can Volcanoids unearth them and accomplish what so many other titles had issues with — keeping them interested?
Basics — Hit it with a wrench
Volcanoids is a first-person survival game currently in early access. The player commandeers a drillship — a giant machine that travels underground and serves as the base. It can be fitted with different modules to suit your needs, be it research, production or defending it against robots that inhabit the island.
Yours isn’t the only drillship within the world — there is a lot of robot machines showing up all over the place. Raiding other ships and grabbing stuff from them is an important part, as it helps with research, upgrading your drillship and completing quests. The questline makes you drill all around the island to figure out what is it exactly that the robots are doing to this volcanic island. Their actions make the volcano erupt periodically, causing more chaos.
The modules on your ship take up energy, so you need to balance the current outtake as having everything on will quickly drain all your power. And upgraded parts take up more space, which in turn means having to add extra sections to your drillship but only if you first upgrade the engine — and this is where the bulk of the gameplay loop comes into play.
Visuals — Digging deep
Volcanoids is steampunk through and through. A lot of the time in-game is spent in and around digging machines — they do feel as well as look giant and powerful. The insides of machines are fairly compact, giving off a submarine vibe with different lights, levers and valves all around.
All of this is happening on (or under) an island with a giant volcano in the middle. The environment of it is quite nice, with greenery everywhere — all getting covered in the ash that spews from the volcano periodically. The volcano also creates pools of lava, making the island seem completely uninhabitable, a great contrast to the green meadows it returns to after some time.
There’s not much to say in the way of sound design as there is no music while playing. All of the sound effects are well placed with birds singing in the background and the giant machines rumbling as they create power from coal. I did find them a bit loud when I turned on the game, but that was quickly fixed by going to the options menu.
The Feel — All alone
While the first hour or two I felt really good about the game, first clearing the tutorial and getting my own drillship then fixing it up and adding modules after that the game seems to lose focus a bit. While quests were available, I almost forgot that they exist and was trying to upgrade my ship without full knowledge of how to get certain items. This is something that the developers are aware of and are trying to make parts of the game clearer through updating the game.
With that loss of focus Volcanoids had become somewhat tedious — I was trying to raid other drillships for parts, but for some reason couldn’t find what I was looking for. Only after checking online resources, I found out that the drillships can be fully destroyed and then the parts I was looking for would be available for scavenging.
However, the giant machines and running from module to module, turning them on and off to achieve proper output made the game enjoyable. Something I really appreciate is the fact that most of the actions on the ship can be done without looking at a menu — the consoles are fully working from the first person perspective, which makes using them so much faster.
Volcanoids isn’t too easy — while playing on the standard difficulty mode I managed to die a few times, be it to robots or the turrets some of the drillships have installed. The combat is quite basic with a few types of guns, grenades and healing. And healing turns out to be necessary as the enemies deal a decent amount of damage without missing.
While playing I kept thinking that this is an experience that requires friends. Similarly to Guns of Icarus, running around a steampunk machine with other people trying to switch things on and off and fix modules being broken seems like the natural step for this game. Thankfully, the devs are already working on it and I think that it will help with balancing some of the tedious stuff out.
While I enjoyed my time with Volcanoids, I was left wanting more — more weapons, more modules and more people I can play with. The base game that already exists will keep a player occupied for at least a couple hours, but until more content gets added they might not have a reason to return after that. Hopefully the multiplayer hits soon, and then a lot more shenanigans will be had.
Volcanoids is currently available on PC and Linux through Steam as an Early Access title.
Archeology is not an easy topic — the main piece of media people seem to remember is the Indiana Jones series and that movie makes the field seem more glorious than it is. But even something so seemingly boring as looking at broken pottery and random words from thousands of years ago can be made interesting — and that’s what Inkle’s Heaven’s Vault tries to achieve.
Basics — Archeology made easy
Heaven’s Vault is an open-world narrative adventure game where you take the role of an archeologist Aliya Elasra as she investigates the Nebula — a network of ancient moons with rich history. Travelling between the various sites on your ship, Nightingale, with a companion robot Six, you discover a multitude of historic artefacts. As you discover the artifacts, you start to uncover the mysterious ancient language present in the game.
The language is the main overarching puzzle of the game — there are dozens of different words you have to find the meaning of to understand the ancient texts. Those texts then allow Aliya to understand the history of the universe and the empires that ran the moons over the centuries.
Heaven’s Vault has a really beautiful art style, one not seen in many games. The environments are beautifully done in 3D — be it lush farming planets or tiny barren moons in the middle of a cyclone. The coloring schemes and architecture for them also give a lot of information about what kind of moon you’re on — the institute planet has blocky buildings, completely different to an overgrown graveyard moon. All of this clearly inspired by middle-eastern architecture.
The offset to all of that is the character art — all of them are hand-drawn and 2D. They are also drawn from different angles, so even if you rotate your camera around they still look in the same direction. This, combined with an effect that leaves graphical echoes of where you were before, gives the whole game a feeling of a story being told by someone, which is well fitting with the historical theme of the game. The mild disappointment I had was lack of diversity — in bigger setpieces you can clearly see repeats of the same characters.
The music and sound design brings even more of the atmosphere to the Nebula. While quiet during land exploration, the music swells up while travelling on the rivers. This, mixed with different types of moons and rocks you’re flying by on the ship feels incredibly grand. The sound effects are mixed in well and never take you away, and the occasional narration from Aliya brings it all together as her story.
Feel — Slow but steady
I am by no means a history buff. But even so, Heaven’s Vault managed to get me interested not only in the story of the main character, but the whole history of the world. New words that Aliya has to decipher show up often enough to keep you interested and the fact that once you use them enough times you get told whether they’re correct replaces gaining skills.
Maybe it is just my love of cyphers, but the language you’re trying to decipher feels really good too. It is clear that love and attention was poured into it, and with time you get a certain amount of understanding on what makes a word mean things. At some point I noticed that all of the verbs have a certain symbol in them. You learn more about the language by trial and error, and sometimes thanks to help from other characters.
The characters play a fairly important role too. While there isn’t a lot of them, every single one is well executed with their own goals, ideas and past. Talking to them doesn’t feel like just checking out all of the topics but it instead it has consequences that can impact the game. I intentionally omitted certain topics because I didn’t trust the person with that information.
Interactions with the environments feel very natural — either reading a carving from a bottom of a broken cart or moving planks to safely go down into a stripmine feels very in line with the character. However, I sometimes found it difficult to pinpoint exactly which object I want to interact with when there’s a few near each other.
Heaven’s Vault is a bit slower than I expected at the beginning — there’s only one travel speed on foot, meaning the exploration can feel a bit tedious, especially if you’re doing a last check if you missed something. Sailing down the rivers feels faster, as the distances between locations can be very long — thankfully a patch with fast travel between places you’ve been to has been added recently.
What Heaven’s Vault gave to me is the ability to slow down — after a particularly intense time where I was stressing it allowed me to just relax and figure out a puzzle. With the beautiful atmosphere around it, if the idea of archaeology seems intriguing you should definitely give it a try.
Heaven’s Vault is available on PC for Steam, as well as on the PS4 store.