Genre:   Adventure

Developer & Publisher:    Genesis Works

Released:  September 2009

PC Requirements:   Windows XP / Vista, 128 MB RAM, 5 GB disk space, DVD-ROM






by Becky


You start this game as a NASA astronaut named Joshua. You are in a small shuttlecraft maneuvering through an asteroid field. A control panel inside the craft serves as a main menu – clicking on “New Game” brings a blinding light and then a flashback to a scene in a cemetery. Upon awakening you find yourself on Paradise Island, an exotic garden ringed by sand with ocean waters plummeting down into an abyss. Here you greet Axis, your grandmother who now looks (presumably) far different from when you knew her twenty years earlier.

Grandma Axis wholeheartedly wants two things: to help you through a series of pattern/mechanical puzzles at the gates of heaven, and to briefly revisit Christian lessons she once taught you. Why these things are so urgent is never explained (though the ending contains an implied answer). No information is ever offered about the character you are playing, and you don’t learn much about Axis either – the focus is all on completing the tasks you are given.

Religion and Games

I’ve purchased religion-based games before, including Adventures in Odyssey, the Veggie Tales games, and children’s games based on Bible stories (Daniel in the Lion’s Den, for example).

Unlike the games I’ve just mentioned, though, Heaven is a game for adults, not children. It’s desperately tricky, combining Christianity with contemporary art, storytelling and gameplay in a synthesis that can be appreciated by believers and nonbelievers alike.

Games ought to be able to address deeper issues. But most gamers don’t expect a game to preach to them. And even gamers who welcome a bit of doctrine or the strategic mention of scripture in their games will have varying opinions as to what is appropriate. You have to admire developers who are willing to walk this particular minefield and give adventure gamers something spiritual and out of the common way.

A Bright, Shiny Place

The graphics in Heaven are dazzling -- literally. Most of the surfaces are reflective, and as much attention is given to detail in the reflections as to the rest of the structures. Saturated color is everywhere, sometimes augmented by tiny points of light. So many mirror-like surfaces shine that the objects made of carved gray stone become rock-solid focal points.

The viewpoint is from a first person perspective, with 360 degree panning and point-and-click movement. On my widescreen monitor, the graphics were ever so slightly blurry – but only when I looked at a specific object closely.

It’s surprisingly easy to get lost in Heaven. This is partly due to its elaborate detail and attention-grabbing effects like lens flare and sparkling showers of light. Also, within each separate location, architectural elements are symmetrical or repeated: multiple alcoves, arches, spires, carvings, gardens, and pools. The Golden Streets location, for example, contains six control stations, six sets of double-tiered statue rings, and several crystal bridges that must be raised. If (like me) you are "blessed" with a bad sense of direction, this can be perplexing unless you consciously keep track of where you're going.

At first I just wandered around these structures, gawking at them. The background music augments the sense of awe with orchestral and choral melodies. Late in the game, a rendition of “Amazing Grace” fills the air. Ambient sounds are mostly those of mechanical devices as you go about solving the puzzles.

Cut scenes show the results of puzzle completion triumphs, and some of these are magnificent. I especially enjoyed the winged beasts and the end sequence spectacular.

Axis Will Be Your Guide

So Heaven is a series of gorgeous environments and cut scenes that alone are nearly worth the price of entry (which, at $34.99, is pricey for an Independent game). Character animation, including facial animation and lip sync during dialogs, is very good. But “character” is exactly where the game’s drawbacks set in.

Heaven has a childlike sensibility because Axis, even though she looks nothing like an overprotective grandmother, acts like one. She tells you that you’re going the wrong way. She nudges you to look more closely at things. She lets you know each time you’ve failed. Her tone is that of a kind, very patient teacher. Axis can transport instantly all over heaven, and when she isn’t doing that, her voice is present in your head.

Let’s face it -- sublimely perfect characters tend to be off-putting. (I suspect this is why people still read Dante’s Inferno, but fewer read Paradiso.) I think the developers were right to make Axis look different than the traditional image of a saint. She may be pious, but at least she isn’t dull. Providing more story background -- particularly Axis’ story before her death -- would have aided this game significantly. Seeing her struggle in the past with doubts or failures would have made her much more appealing. With no way for the player to become acquainted with Axis as a person, her omnipresence becomes a frustrating annoyance.

At one point, Axis quotes scripture describing an image of Holy Jerusalem, which clearly influenced the developers when they were creating the environments in the game. I thought this was effective and fit the tone of the game better than her short sermons, which seemed a bit contrived.

Can You Puzzle Your Way Past the Pearly Gate?

Heaven contains puzzles for which you will observe patterns, take notes, pay attention to symbols and colors and (at least in my case) read a few verses from the Book of Genesis. If you’ve played Sentinel: Descendants in Time, you will have a general idea of the type of puzzles found here, though Sentinel’s puzzles are more difficult.

In Heaven, the second location, The Golden Streets, plays like a tutorial -- and a rather long one at that. A pattern to the rings across from the control stations on the Golden Streets may exist, but if it’s there, I couldn’t discern it. The only way I could complete the challenge was to keep clicking until Axis said: “That’s better.” Problematically, the long Golden Streets tutorial makes up a significant portion of the game, leaving only four puzzles to wrestle with on your own.

The remaining multi-stepped mechanical puzzles are more difficult (and more satisfying) if you shift your view up slightly in order to eliminate the compass at the bottom of your screen. This compass doesn’t function like an ordinary compass. Instead it works as a hint feature, pointing you toward the next place you need to go to continue with the puzzle. So if, for example, the challenge is to access “switches” in a certain pattern, the compass will show you where to go, even if you haven’t figured out the pattern. To complete the puzzles on your own, you’ll also need to ignore Axis’ hints that you are going the wrong way. The compass and Axis’ verbal directions permit you to complete the puzzles quickly, but you will probably not fully comprehend the logic behind them.

Doing the puzzles on your own involves a bit of trial and error -- for instance, figuring out, in a ring of Hebrew letters, where to start the sequence. There is some back-and-forthing involved in the remaining puzzles as you observe your surroundings and gather clues. You’ll need to orient yourself frequently to work in the right place among similar-appearing structures. And sometimes you’ll still need Axis – not for hints, but to operate machinery for you.

I’ve never before had to “fight” a hint system to make a game sufficiently challenging. I can’t help thinking that Heaven was originally designed as a challenging puzzle game, and that the compass and Axis’ hints were added to aid gamers who aren’t experienced adventure gamers. The ability to adjust difficulty levels is important in a game aimed at a wide range of players, including those new to gaming or to the genre. In this case, however, the result is rather clumsy for those who would like to take on the challenge without the direction and hints.

It took me about seven hours to journey through Heaven. Late in the game there’s a flyover which was lovely and helped orient me – I wish I could have done this earlier in the game, and seen more of the place from the air. Instead of the compass, I would have preferred a map to help analyze where the locations are in relation to one other.

Back Down to Earth

The game autosaves, unfortunately, so you can’t go back to a previous point in the game unless you start all over again using another name.

Occasionally the cursor seemed a bit sluggish, and the exit hotspot near the spinning alphabet rings was surprisingly difficult to locate. Sound volume sometimes varied. No problems with installation and no glitches.

Options at the bottom of the initial screen allow you to select the setting for a widescreen monitor, and to disable some of the effects if you are playing the game on an older computer.

After enjoying the ending Axis worked so hard to bring about, I went back to the autosave and tried to lose the game to see if there was a second ending. I couldn’t find one, but there is one strange hotspot on a rock on Paradise Island whose purpose I never discovered. Perhaps, if I could return there, I’d find a hidden passage leading away into darkness.

Quick List for Heaven

An intriguing effort to envision Biblical descriptions of heaven in the context of an adventure game. Gorgeous environments with breathtaking, opulent vistas. Dramatic cut scenes. A barebones story. You assume the role of an astronaut who has to prove himself at the entrance to heaven through patient mechanical puzzle solving. Your guide is shapely, statuesque, and ubiquitous. You can sometimes click through the dialogs. You can’t click through the Christian doctrine.

First person perspective, 360 degree panning, point-and-click movement. Pattern based, multi-stepped challenges involving colors, letters, images and musical tones. No mazes, but you can easily get lost in the environments unless you use the compass function, which also reduces the difficulty level. No sliding tile puzzles; a couple of very easy timed challenges. The hardest puzzle involves musical statues that are played in a specific sequence.

No glitches or problems with installation. About seven hours of gameplay, which is short, considering the $34.99 price tag.

Aimed at Christian gamers, adventurers who enjoy lustrous graphics, and anyone who has ever imagined what heaven might be like.

Final Grade: B-

Heaven is an Independent production of Genesis Works and can be purchased at the game’s website here.

My Computer Specs:

Windows XP Professional
Pentium 2.80 GHz
2.00 GB RAM
Direct X 9.0c
512 MB NVIDIA GeForce 7800 GTX
SB X-Fi Audio

September, 2009

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