It’s debatable whether Friend and Foe Games made the right call with Vane when choosing to set it in a large open-world setting and then removing all barriers between the player and gameworld, such as navigation markers, objective indicators, and even tutorials about basic mechanics. Yes, it results in having some unparalleled freedom to explore and figure things out, but it does so at the cost of far too many gameplay conceits that are vital to enjoying the environmental puzzles and cryptic narrative this beautiful adventure attempts to tell.
After a brief linear introductory stage in which you control a person running through a growing storm, desperately seeking shelter – which doesn’t seem to tie into the rest of the story in any way I can make sense of – the game proper begins, this time surprisingly and without explanation casting players in the role of a bird, perched on a barren tree overlooking an expansive stretch of desolate wasteland. Through simple button presses to flap its wings, you take to the skies to venture out into this wide-open area at your leisure.
The feeling of being literally free as a bird only thrills for a short time, however. While I could soar, swoop, and glide wherever I wanted (although approaching the edge of the map would see me flying into a sandstorm and restart back on the tree), the question of “What do I do now?” soon reared its head, an occurrence that would become much too common in the hours that followed. There isn’t much of note to see while cruising the currents, much less to actually do.
The exceptions are flocks of other birds that can be spied gathering from a distance, congregating around various windsocks dotting the landscape. Approaching the windsocks displays a button prompt – one of the few times over the course of the entire game this happens. With nothing else to do here, it can be safely assumed that visiting these windsocks, which causes the birds to flee and amass together at the titular weather vane atop a large central tower, is the objective early on, though the game neither confirms nor denies whether this is so.
When enough birds land on the vane at the top of the tower, they will cause it to topple over from too much weight, spilling an odd golden substance amid some ruins on the desert below. Flying near or landing in this substance causes a wholly unexpected and unexplained transformation to occur, changing you from a bird to a young child.
From here the end of the first chapter is only moments away, once you have found a way into the nearby ruins nestled at the bottom of a canyon in your human form. Except it’s entirely possible to completely miss the entrance, as I did on my first several attempts, and get stuck walking back and forth along the canyon, with no way to climb the sheer walls. Plunging oneself off the edge of a cliff transforms the child back into a bird (there’s nothing directing you to do this, and it will likely happen the first time coincidentally or out of sheer desperation), but resuming an aimless flight through the level really just removes you further and further from your intended destination.
The decision to offer no discernible plot or other objective that would point players in the right direction, as well as provide zero feedback about whether the actions you’re performing are leading to any progress, is a baffling one that begins to sap any enjoyment of flying and will likely frustrate some players to the point of quitting the game. Up to this point, I was simply doing things because there were no other options, which in and of itself is a pretty underwhelming statement.
Clearing the first stage took me no less than four attempts, for no other reason than that I had no clue what I was meant to be doing, and when I first played the game, quitting out when I grew tired of aimlessly flying to and fro caused all my progress to reset each time I came back. It turns out there is a save system, though there are no options to save from within the game menu and no automatic save before ending the session. The only way to record progress is via a checkpoint function that originally activated after each of the game’s handful of chapters, though fortunately since launch Vane has been updated with mid-chapter saves to lessen that initial frustration.
The rest of Vane isn’t nearly as obtuse as its beginning, partly due to narrowing the scope of the environments at least a little. There are still no explicit objectives, but by then it’s clear that the real goal is to simply move on, which feels a little better telegraphed thanks to visible tasks to accomplish along the way, such as freeing birds trapped within cages, or realigning a track so that a cart can travel along it to its end. These obstacles present themselves in a much more natural way, and it’s clear what it takes to get beyond them. Once past the frustrating first chapter, I was able to complete the remainder of the game in one extended sitting, all told taking somewhere between 3-5 hours.
What doesn’t get any more coherent, sadly, is the narrative. As the game progresses, you will find other children who travel with you, as well as several large adult-like figures in concealing masks who seem to be opposed to the children, perhaps imprisoning them against their will. Yet nothing falls into place, with no major reveal to clear things up, even up to and including the ending. It’s the kind of story that seems intentionally left open to interpretation, perhaps serving as a large-scale metaphor, but there is so little to put anything into context that any meaning attached to it may simply exist in the developer’s minds.
Even the transformation from bird to child – presumably something that is meant to have some hidden significance – is never explained. On top of that, it doesn’t even feel much like a special ability you have been given, as it can only happen at a handful of locations where you are able to interact with the gold substance, while the transformation back into a bird occurs anytime you fall more than a few feet, which feels like an aggravating punishment for every small misstep during the platforming segments. Sluggish jumping controls while in human form make this more of a curse than a useful feature, as it repeatedly forces you to backtrack to the last transformation point and then retread the same path back to where you fell. The lack of story actually ceased to be important as I resigned myself to simply forging ahead, wanting to reach the end sooner rather than later.
Since the narrative is so vague, the reason for moving onward is never clear, but move onward you must. The aggravating platforming only makes up a small part of this forward momentum, though the mechanics in other levels aren’t much more enjoyable. One chapter tasks you with pushing a large ball of gold through city ruins even as it changes the immediate environment with its transformative energy, while a violent thunderstorm whips all around and hurls lightning through the sky. Near the game’s end, you’ll ascend a tall tower by scaling randomly-generating inclines and bits of ground. A few navigation puzzles exist in the form of “how do I reach the end of the area?”, and some players will find enjoyment from the sheer act of discovering new fantastical environments, though the exploration is shallow and doesn’t offer any actual fun gameplay in the process.
It is when taking flight to peruse the wide-open vistas or cavernous underground spaces, barren as they may be, that Vane looks its best.There’s a quiet mystery in this emptiness, and the occasional crumbling staircase built into a cliffside or the aging towers still standing here and there suggest that this may be a post-apocalyptic tale of some kind. Each level teases a new potential piece of the backstory – who are the masked and robed figures? – but vague hints do not a story make. Still, the stylized environments are nice, and the bird’s-eye perspective really makes their scope apparent. They’re a bit reminiscent of the grand but desolate spaces found in Team Ico’s games.
On foot, however, it’s a different story. Up close and personal, the textures don’t hold up nearly as well, and there’s an odd pulsing effect seen in most chapters, usually tied to one of the golden objects as it warps the space around it. Though it’s consistent and therefore intentional, the effect doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, causing objects in the environment (or sometimes just jagged parts of them) to jump and shiver around. The first time I saw it, I honestly thought the game’s engine was dangerously close to crashing entirely. A few areas also see architecture spontaneously spring into being, rising up from level ground – a disconcerting surprise that makes it hard to plan movement more than two paces ahead.
The soundscape generally restricts itself to natural ambience and some effects when things get shaky. The quiet expansiveness of wind and birds during early exploration is soothing, giving way to charged silence in the wide, echoey underground spaces, and unsettling noises during the more chaotic storm scenes. Synthesized tunes play during select moments, but are few and far between. Voice-overs are limited to the child calling out to the other children during cooperative moments; the same goes for quorking while in bird form. In all, the audio does a good portion of the heavy lifting in creating the game’s surreal world.
The problem with Vane isn’t that it’s too ambitious for its own good, but rather that it aims its ambitions in directions that don’t work very well for the genre it plonks itself into. The open-world design, while visually pleasing and momentarily enthralling, cuts short its own storytelling potential, a problem further exacerbated by the extreme hands-off approach to guiding its players. Rather than deriving interest and challenge from puzzle-solving, frustration is born from puzzling out gameplay mechanics and objectives, and the narrative that should tie everything together is instead nothing but a giant question mark. In the end, Vane topples under the weight of these shortcomings, much like its titular namesake does during the game’s early stages.
Vane manages to successfully present an intriguingly surreal world, but its aimless story and execution keep players from deriving much satisfaction from visiting it.