Imagine a game with no barriers between you and the world. One that relies entirely on your intuition. A game that encourages players to navigate their own path and make their own discoveries. Shrouded in mystery that aims to have an impact, Vane leaves behind all that is familiar about games and the result is an entirely new experience.
Developed by Friend & Foe Games, Vane is an atmospheric adventure that takes place in an unknown ruined land. It opens on a treacherous storm with whipping winds and bolts of lightning striking everything in its path. A child carrying a gold orb traverses the landscape as it’s ripped apart and comes undone. Backed by a retro-like synth track, the child eventually makes their way to a doorway with a bright light. But a large ominous figure with a pointy nose appears and denies passage, as a powerful wind launches the child into the sky.
Suddenly the dark skies open up to a bright and expansive landscape. A black bird with glistening feathers sits perched on a tree branch with nothing but a vast desert with valleys of sand and ruins before them. Unprompted, players take control of the bird, flying through canyons and high above the desolate terrain. Eventually, a sparkle in the distance catches your eye and you swoop down for a closer look. Landing atop a metal windsock the bird calls out to other nearby birds. Together the flock let out a call and the windsock magically releases a group of lights that soar across the desert to a large structure with a vane atop it, containing a mystical gold glowing orb. Once you gain access to the orb and its unusual gold dust, players can transform from bird to child, setting off a chain of events that will reshape the world.
Over the course of four short chapters a threat looms. Shifting between a bird and child, players will explore an underground cave, a dark city, and foreboding tower. To press forward players must solve a series of puzzles such as locating caged birds and releasing them from their prison and unlocking complex metal mechanisms to gain access to a new area. To get around players can remain in human form and run up staircases or jump off the edge of cliffs and transform into a bird to soar from one area to the next quickly. However, turning back into a child isn’t as easy. The only way to regain your human form is by locating the gold dust to transform back into a bird.
When you’re not flying or running around you’re recruiting the help of other children to roll an enchanted boulder across the landscape. As the boulder rolls around it transforms the environment within its vicinity by erecting towers, creating staircases, and building bridges. A distinct chant around the boulder makes it glow and unleashes a power to change the environment further out from its reach, allowing the player to access areas that would otherwise be blocked off.
When I first saw the trailer for Vane I admittedly had unattainable expectations. It reminded me of Journey and The Last Guardian, two of my all-time favorite indie games. I had such an emotional experience with both titles that I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since. I wanted so much out of Vane but was left feeling underwhelmed, and much of that was due to various bugs and technical issues that I encountered. Often the camera angles left me stuck in walls or the floor. The pace at which the child ran felt slow and clunky, especially with the sense of urgency I felt with the brooding ambient sounds. The boulder I had to use in order to change the landscape took so much effort to maneuver and in some areas got stuck, forcing me to restart entire levels. Which leads me to the game’s Save options; it doesn’t matter where you leave off, the save points only exist at the top of each chapter.
Additionally, the developers specifically created the game without a HUD system, GUI, or hints. You are truly left on your own to uncover the answers to puzzles. While the puzzles themselves were not necessarily difficult, their answers were not always intuitive. There is certainly a market for this style of gameplay, but for me, I felt lost and not in a fun way where I’d discover something exciting despite being off the beaten path. Instead, I found myself in a situation where there was nothing really to unearth outside of the solution. The frustration of trying to move forward resulted in me feeling detached from the world that the developers worked so hard to pull me into.
My favorite part was becoming a bird, flying freely around the desert. Truthfully this was my initial draw to the game. With the openness of the landscape I was able to swoop around in any direction and truly have a birds-eye view of the world. This was the one part in the game where the mechanics felt intuitive and natural. I loved the freedom of stretching my wings, though trying to perch on the windsocks took some skill to land in the first try. Becoming a bird in the cave was necessary to get from one area to the other quickly, but I felt confined, and I suppose that was on purpose. But by chapter three it became less and less necessary to transform, outside of scoring an Achievement. I spent too much time on the ground; I didn’t want to roll a boulder around, I wanted to fly.
One of the things that worked for a game like Journey that is missing from Vane is a powerful score. Without narration the music alone can tell the whole story and evoke emotion in the player. The decision to have minimal scoring to create impact actually left me craving more. In the rare instances that a track would cue I’d immediately be filled with excitement for what was to come, only for the music to cut out soon after. Without music I felt abandoned and disengaged from the character. I can’t help but wonder what a poignant score throughout the game would have done for the story, particularly once you reach the ending of the game. By the time the credits rolled I thought I would feel something…but I was so disconnected throughout that my journey that I was left feeling unsatisfied.
Vane is a game about maintaining balance and order in the world, and discovering your own path to fulfill your destiny. According to a Gamasutra press release, Art Director Rasmus Deguchi is quoted as saying, “With Vane, we wanted to make a game that emphasizes mood and atmosphere over more conventional mechanics…we wanted to make something different. A little more unsettling. A little more surprising. A little more primal.” The developers have certainly achieved creating something special with Vane. While it has left much to be desired in terms of a fulfilling gaming experience it does succeed in challenging our own conventions of gameplay, leaving us with a surreal work of art.
Vane is now available on PS4.
Check out the trailer below: