Vane immediately makes it clear that it’s one of those games. With its minimalist approach to gameplay and its stylish presentation, it easily draws comparisons to emotional indie classics like Journey and Abzu. It’s one of those games that typically evokes two responses from its players: they’ll either think it’s life-changing, or they’ll refuse to call it a game at all.
This stark adventure game aims to provide a unique, freeing experience. Vane has seen plenty of anticipation due to its creators’ pedigree. After all, it was developed by Friend & Foe Games, an independent studio made up of designers who have worked on everything from Killzone to The Last Guardian. But does Vane manage to live up to its developers’ reputation, or are its efforts merely in vain? Let’s take flight and find out.
Vane is available now on PC via Steam for $19.99.
Vane starts with a bang – literally. It begins with a nameless young boy wandering through an otherworldly landscape being torn apart by a violent storm. Seeking to find shelter in a nearby building, he encounters a group of dark and mysterious beings. They throw him out into the eye of the storm, and once the weather clears, the boy finds that he has been transformed into a bird. In this new form, he must explore the world, discover his past, and (presumably) change the world forever.
It makes a strong first impression -- it immediately gives the player a sense of mystery and compels them onward to learn more these strange events. Unfortunately, Vane barely provides much of a story to discover at all beyond that. Like many of its inspirations such as Journey and Hyper Light Drifter, Vane completely forgoes dialogue altogether. This isn’t an issue in its own right – part of what made Vane’s inspirations so remarkable was how they told compelling stories through unorthodox methods.
Vane makes very little attempt at telling any kind of coherent narrative to begin with. Although the games mentioned above used their silence to create a sense of mystery and intrigue, they still conveyed enough concrete information to give players a general sense of the plot. In Vane, every “story beat” is effectively meaningless. The constant silence doesn’t add to the intrigue or make any moment more evocative -- it just makes everything unnecessarily confusing. Things simply happen, with little context or importance. There’s a few moments that are clearly meant to be emotional, but with the game being so oppressively vague, they fall flat.
The environments don’t help maintain interest either. They are generally empty deserts or shadowy dungeons, with few hints as to any events that may have taken place in the past. There are hardly any distinct characters in the game, and those that are present are typically mere blank slates. Again, in other minimalist games, their environments could tell their own stories through their unique designs. In Vane, the environments are large, bland, and devoid of any interest. It’s a beautiful world, but that beauty is skin-deep.
Vane has such an intriguing premise. With a desolate desert world, a boy who can turn into a bird, and the ability to change the world itself, the story could have been fascinating -- had it been handled correctly. Instead, the story squanders this potential with its poor execution. The developers apparently looked at Journey and decided that a lack of dialogue automatically leads to deeper experience, which simply isn’t the case. If there had been only a little more effort at coherent world building, the game could have been truly special.
At its core, Vane is an exploratory puzzle game with adventure elements. It features a simple loop: it drops the player into a large area, presents them with a simple puzzle to solve, and then moves them along to the next puzzle -- rinse and repeat for about three hours. It tries to enliven this formula by consistently introducing new ideas. For instance, one puzzle will task the player with flying to specific points in the desert, while another will require maneuvering through a large maze.
Vane’s intentions are good -- after all, no one likes a stale gameplay experience. However, in doing this, the game comes across as a jack-of-all-trades, but a master of none. Very few of these mechanics feel cohesive; they’re simply a conglomeration of random concepts thrown together with little thought as to whether they complement each other or not. It introduces plenty of ideas, only to throw them away later.
The first hour of the game is an excellent example of this. It presents a massive open world desert environment to fly through and explore, which immediately feels freeing. However, issues start to set in quickly. For one thing, the bird’s flying controls are often finicky at best, with it being difficult to maintain direction or land in precise areas. I spent an embarrassing amount of time simply trying to land on a specific perch, fighting the controls all the while.
That’s not to mention that the camera can be frustrating too. It often zooms in close to the bird during flight, which does present a nice cinematic flare. However, this can also make it impossible to direct the camera towards what you actually want to see. It sacrifices proper gameplay for appealing visuals, which, in my opinion at least, isn’t a fair trade.
The world itself is empty. The desert may be massive, but there is almost nothing of interest within it. There are a few primary objectives that must be reached to continue progress, but they are few and far between, with little to indicate where they might hide. With the desert being so featureless, it is easy to unwittingly fly in circles for a long time.
This is only the first hour of the game. After this point, the boy is able to transform back into a human, and the usefulness of the bird is scrapped almost entirely. The game then becomes a linear puzzle game, feeling completely different from the first portion. It begs the question: why was the flying portion included to begin with, if only to be completely ditched later on?
The bird’s abilities become more of a hindrance rather than a help throughout the game’s second half. After all, these puzzles are designed around the boy, rather than the bird. This is especially frustrating since the boy turns into a bird automatically upon falling from a certain height, but can only turn back into a human at certain predetermined spots. It makes puzzle solving feel much more tiresome than necessary -- if you happen to slip and turn into a bird on your way to solve a puzzle that requires your human form, you’ll have to trudge all the way back to the transformation spot and try again. It gets very old, very quickly.
The problems aren’t limited to the controls. Simply put, the puzzles are excruciating. Not because they’re difficult – far from it, in fact. Most puzzles are incredibly basic and take only a few seconds to figure out. However, the slow nature of the game makes them tedious to finish. It can feel like it takes ages to simply move from one end of a dungeon to the other. Again, the frustrating bird transformation mechanics don’t help with this, either.
Likewise, many of the puzzle rooms are very dark. Just like the featureless desert, the drably dark design of the dungeons can make it easy to run circles around them without noticing the critical hint. The layouts of the dungeons can feel so indistinct that it can be easy to gloss over important details due to one portion of the dungeon looking exactly the same as the rest.
Just like the story, the gameplay had so much potential. It could have made up for the story’s shortcomings by presenting a consistently engaging experience. Unfortunately, the developers seemingly couldn’t decide upon a single central gameplay idea or mechanic, leaving the entire experience feeling unfocused and half-baked.
Graphics and Audio
There is only one objectively good thing about Vane. As a glance at the screenshots and trailers will quickly reveal, Vane is an utterly gorgeous game. From the wide desert vistas to its ethereal dungeons, there’s a variety of scenes that are nothing short of breathtaking. Of course, that’s only when environments don’t blend into one another.
The audio is a bit more of a mixed bag. The music is certainly appropriate, providing a subtle electronic tone to punctuate the game’s important moments. However, the music is hardly remarkable in its own right. When I saw that the game featured an “all-original brooding synth soundtrack,” I’d imagined something like Hyper Light Drifter’s brilliant OST, in which the tracks were atmospheric yet were still interesting in their own rights. What Vane actually provided was a collection of monotone pulsing keyboards and throbbing basslines. These may complement the game’s meditative aspirations, but are far from interesting on their own. In fact, music is entirely absent from the much of the game anyway, with much of the experience playing out in complete silence.
Beyond a few shouts and cries from the main character, there is no voice acting. The little voice work that is present is serviceable, but nothing amazing. It gets annoying over time as well, with the boy always making the exact same cry every time he turns into the bird.
A note should be made regarding the performance. The game first released on PS4 earlier this year, where it was panned for its poor technical performance. With this latest PC edition, these issues seem to have been largely remedied. The visuals are just as spectacular as ever, and they run flawlessly at 1080p.
I only encountered one graphical glitch in my time with it. After poking through the menus and controller settings for a while, the game’s textures and performance became absurdly sluggish and muddy, to the point where it was nearly unplayable. However, it was nothing that a quick restart couldn’t fix. After that point, my technical experience was as good as I could have hoped for. It’s just a shame that the rest of the game doesn’t match that quality.