A bleak adventure that stumbles around in the dark
Vane opens with a hooded character running through a lightning storm to a strange tower. Synth-y music screams through thudding bass and the ground shakes as if the lightning is somehow causing an earthquake. It’s visceral, terrifying, and easily the high point of the game. Then it all pretty much goes downhill from there.
The first offering from newcomer studio, Friend & Foe Games, Vane is a game where you play as both a bird and a human child, puzzling your way through a gloomy and barren world. However, the title quickly loses steam as you progress, with clunky controls, unintuitive design, and murky aesthetic that make for an unappealing mess of an experience.
It’s hard to reflect on the story of arty games like this, where the events are so ambiguous. Vane feels more like a series of mood pieces than anything resembling a coherent narrative. Sometimes that’s alright, as games like Gris or Journey use their surroundings to convey impressions and emotions, rather than spelling anything out through dialogue. But it means that said games are doubling-down on mechanics, level design, and art to do the heavy lifting. The story becomes less about an obvious series of events and more about a suggested blend of thematic elements meant to engage players’ curiosity. The problem is that Vane is really bad at providing enough of these elements or combining them effectively to create that intrigue.
A large part of this is due to pacing. Vane’s aesthetic has a calm and lackadaisical feel to it, with overly-long moments where you’re simply running around the world - but still, the game feels rushed with little time for players to take in the events. The pauses come at all the wrong times and the action is jarring when it occurs. Within minutes the player character has already turned from their bird form to their human form and discovered an ancient temple and released a bunch of friends. None of this feels earned because it comes at the player so quickly. And the further on the game goes, the more lifeless these motifs become.
The title is largely built around changing back and forth between a human child and a bird, each form having its own actions that can be used to manipulate the environment. As a bird, you’re largely flying around, perching on top of the environment and using your call to summon other birds. In your human form, you can push and pull objects, carry items, open doors, and call out to other human children.
You begin the game in your bird form, flying through the air and heading... well, the game isn’t big on telling you that. It’s not big on telling you much. This is the kind of game design that is always balanced on the edge of a knife because it’s hoping that through subtle suggestion and visual cues, it can communicate the rules of the world and what you can do in it. But Vane isn’t trying very hard; it gives suggestions in loading screens, it points the camera in general directions, and sometimes will even give you nudge through a cutscene - but largely it wants you to experiment and discover.
That would be a good notion if moving and exploring wasn’t such a chore. The controls are so sloppy, it takes a few attempts to figure out what actions are even available to you. Many times, while in my bird form, I would fly to a ledge and hit the landing button over and over to see if I could land there. This doesn’t mean just rapidly tapping the button, this means maneuvering in for a landing, slowing down, realizing I overshot it, lowering the bird, hitting the button harder, then maybe not so hard, flying up a bit higher, trying again. Did it take? Is the animation starting? No? Okay, let’s circle around and begin the whole process anew. Then, maybe on the second or third try, suddenly it works, but nothing actually happens and you’re off to find a new perch.
The ambiguity of the level design doesn’t help either. Again, Vane employs a lot of large, somewhat-open levels, inviting the player to poke around and explore. Usually, the game directs you through the use of light. The design is so bleak that you can usually tell where to go because you can see a little fire lit or a reflection of metal in the sun. The drawback to having the majority of the game being so underlit is that it makes navigation a real chore. As mentioned before, it can help you find your final destination in the distance since you’ll almost always want to go wherever you see light, but when you’re trying to navigate a route forward, it becomes tricky because you can’t see what you’re doing. I fell off the sides of cliffs, rolled items off the sides of cliffs, and lost my way simply because I couldn’t discern where the floor ends and the abyss begins. Also, there is little visual indication to the items you can interact with. Sometimes it’s easy to spot a lever, but some doors resemble the gray lifeless environment around them so much that I didn’t even realize I could open them.
These issues with the controls and visuals all feed back to elements of the story and level design. Because the world is so dark and murky, there’s nothing visually to help intrigue the player - there’s no world building, nothing to latch onto, especially after the opening act. And the poor controls lead to you finding a puzzle, then wondering if maybe you’re in the wrong spot because you can’t do anything - or don’t think you can do anything.
The game has a fair share of varied technical mishaps - and that doesn’t help matters. Even after a patch, I still had issues with frame rate, the camera clipping through walls making it impossible to see, long loading screens, cumbersome AI and problems with characters simply falling through the environment. I had to play through a large section of the game multiple times because of bugs, repeating the same puzzles over and over. But while the bugs are bad, the environmental issues that cause the camera and player character to behave erratically are the worst. The game already doesn’t play well, but when you find your character clipping through the floors or the screen goes black because the camera is behind a wall, it makes it all the more trying to wander the world and see what you can find.
The very elements that are most needed in a game like Vane are the ones that constantly betray it. The visuals and aesthetic are so important but the murky and barren art fails to draw in the player. The controls are crucial for the player to get feedback from the world, but it’s feedback that can’t be trusted since the controls are so sloppy. Vane is hoping that it can keep you hooked with a few smart puzzles and cool gameplay ideas as you turn back and forth between child and bird. There are bits of clever design, but the rest of the experience is so flawed that the game almost instantly falls apart under scrutiny.
Every now and again, I could see what Vane was meant to be. The bass-y soundtrack would kick in and a nice vista or two would catch my eye, and I would see the potential. But all too often and all too quickly, the game reverted back to a slog, in a dreary world with frustrating gameplay. If you’re looking for a solid opening sequence, Vane has got you covered, but anything beyond those initial minutes is in rough shape.