I’ve always had a special place in my heart for solid exploration games, the kind that have stunning visuals, captivating environments, and speechless protagonists. The kind that live on in your memory like a dream; the kind that show rather than tell. Bonus points for the ones that can incorporate some neat puzzle mechanics to enhance the gameplay. Games like Abzu, Journey, Rime, and Ico come to mind.
Tokyo-based studio Friend or Foe has recently tried their hand at making their own memorable gem in their latest adventure game, Vane. While Vane’s visuals make it seem like it could stand rub shoulders with the likes of Journey and other such titles, the actual gameplay conveys quite the opposite.
Hype Before the Storm
Vane begins with a relatively strong opening. You start by controlling a person who is holding on tightly to a gold object as they try to find shelter during a vicious storm. As the storm rips apart the sheet metal that lines the path ahead, the person fumbles their way toward a lit doorway in the distance, a ray of hope in a seemingly desperate situation.
The environment is comprised of frenetic geometry that quivers and vibrates in its frailty, which becomes a much more prevalent feature in the chapters ahead. Just as you reach the steps leading to your destination, an ominous cloaked figure with a pointed mask squawks a horn-like sound in your direction, causing you to topple down the steps, along with any chance for salvation.
Birds of a Feather
After being swallowed by a violent, dark cloud of nothing (where’s Falcor when you need him?), the next scene in Vane presents an entirely different scenario. Players now take control of an iridescent black bird who is perched upon a lone tree in a vast, expansive desert. With nowhere to go but forward, the player is let loose to learn a new set of controls while exploring what appears to be an open landscape full of potential. Unfortunately, this is where the disappointments begin.
It took mere minutes for me to encounter the first of several frustrating gameplay mechanics in Vane. Simply put, the bird controls are subpar at best. While the actual act of flying isn’t terribly arduous, landing on specific objects is certainly more cumbersome than it should be. Perching on a perch-able object only requires holding a single button. However, the angle at which you need to approach your landing target requires dreadful precision, often requiring you to circle back around several times just to get your trajectory right. This becomes increasing frustrating, as the only way to make progress beyond the desert is by continuously perching on multiple windsocks until you’ve gathered a sufficient number of bird friends to trigger the next event.
A Pain in the Vane
After you’ve finished meandering about the desert to gather enough birds to topple a large vane, the desert begins to morph and will open up a narrow passage to some expansive caverns that feature various puzzles made of dilapidated machinery. What few puzzles there are in the game never really deliver that satisfying sense of accomplishment to motivate you for what lies ahead. Most of the puzzles generally feel uninspired and clumsily put together.
Controlling the main character in child form is equally frustrating. One way or another, the player stumbles upon a pile of glitter that for whatever reason allows you to transform into the form of a child. Being in child form presents its own challenges, as you are now subject to tripping over the game’s frenetic geometry. This oftentimes leads to the protagonist fumbling off ledges or even getting irrevocably stuck on objects. Since Vane doesn’t have a proper save system, these sorts of glitches can only be resolved by restarting the game and playing again from where the game auto-saves at the beginning of the scene, of which there are only four throughout the entire game.
Glitches and geometry hiccups are by no means rare, either. In my play through, I got stuck several times and even fell through a seemingly solid staircase due to a random glitch. There’s no fall damage, as falling from high distances usually just causes you to transform and take flight as a bird again. However, it also means you will likely have to retrace your steps to transform back into a child, as most puzzles require being in child form to complete.
The worst part for me was having the game fail to load an entire section of the world just before the end of one of the chapters. I had arduously rolled a gold ball through crumbling geometry for longer than I would have liked, just to encounter this major glitch that caused my progress to grind to a halt. Of course, I didn’t immediately recognize it as a glitch, so I flew around for another few minutes trying to find a solution before deciding to replay the section over again. The second time was the charm, as the world fully loaded in and I was able to conclude the scene, but at that point I had already been so soured by the graphical bug that I was just relieved to be finished with the section.
Dazed and Confused
Most of the environments in Vane are excessively large and spread out, so it takes the child protagonist a gruelingly long time to trek from one place to the next on foot, with little to discover along the way besides maybe another technical hiccup. Vane doesn’t do a lot of hand-holding, which generally is seen as a positive feature in these types of games. However, Vane’s overall lack of direction leads to an unpleasant sense of confusion and even a bit of disdain for the task at hand, which is surely counter to what the developers intended.
And there lies the crux of Vane’s pitfalls. The developers tried so hard to make a game that is all about exploration and freedom, that they seemingly forgot to add anything truly worth discovering to promote said exploration. The lack of direction and purpose combined with the poor controls and imminent glitches impede progress and end up discouraging exploration, as you will likely become too frustrated or unmotivated to continue poking around any further.
There is one thing that Vane has going for it, and that’s its soundtrack. Ominous synth music accompanies you along your journey, creating a moody atmosphere for each scene and scenario. Unfortunately, even great background music isn’t enough to compensate for the game’s numerous other shortcomings.
Despite its deceptively intriguing prologue, Vane quickly goes from a journey of discovery to a laborious chore, mainly due to the abundance of technical issues and a lack of a decent save system. The game is relatively short–maybe four or five hours, sans glitches–but some parts can feel unnecessarily long when you’re meandering about with little sense of purpose or direction. The puzzles are lackluster, and whatever abstract narrative the game is trying to convey never really comes together at the end. Vane honestly feels like it could have used some extra care or attention to detail. You should probably steer clear of this one. Fly, you fools!
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 retail copy provided by the publisher. Vane released on January 15, 2019 for PlayStation 4.
- Decent synthwave soundtrack
- Some pretty visuals here and there
- Loads of glitches and bugs
- Tedious, annoying gameplay mechanics
- Clunky controls
- Bland puzzles
- No save system
- Nothing truly interesting to discover
- Lack of direction; unclear goals