It’s no secret how much I love the adventure genre and exploration games, so it’s therefore no surprise that I jumped at the chance to play Vane after Lewis from Plan of Attack got in touch at the beginning of January. This atmospheric title was finally coming up for release after four long years in development and from the information in my news feed, it seemed like just the sort of thing I’d like to get absorbed in.
Created by a Tokyo-based studio consisting of team-members who had previously worked on some very well-known releases, their website proclaimed: “Vane is an enigmatic and unnerving game that aims to leave an impact. The team at Friend & Foe Games, using experience spanning titles like The Last Guardian and Killzone, made Vane with the conviction that players should find their own path in the world, and explore just to the point of getting lost – and the result is a unique, unforgettable memory.”
At several points within the game it’s clear that someone with a Team Ico background has worked their magic on it. From the wide-open vistas that make your character feel almost insignificant, to the more confined spaces where shadows shift mysteriously, to the sense of isolation that pervades every scene; there are a lot of elements in Vane to remind the player of the emotion of titles such as The Last Guardian. That hook right there should be enough to get gamers with similar tastes drooling.
But for all that promise of a meaningful adventure and an experience which will stay with the player long after the credits have rolled, there’s a word there in the description on Friend & Foe’s website which sums up how I felt during most of the time I spent with their project. In some ways, it succinctly captures my overall opinion of Vane too. This is one of those times when I can’t help but feel disappointed because it’s easy to see just how special this game could have been.
That word I’m talking about? It’s lost.
When Vane concentrates on what it does best, it really shines and its highlight is how brilliantly the artwork and audio come together. Visually it’s something like a cross between Another World’s 3D style and Journey’s vastness, with a touch of Inside’s darkness thrown in for good measure. Even my other-half – who was meant to be playing something else at the time – kept glancing over at my screen and commenting on how good some of the scenes looked.
Near the start of the title players take on the form of a bird who soars above an expansive dessert, its black plumage contrasting perfectly with the pale shades of sand. After getting up some speed by tapping the X-button, you’re able to let go of the controller and watch the world pass beneath you; and it at these moments when the camera swings around automatically to give you a view over the crow’s shoulder. Its feathers ruffle in the wind while the sun reveals their iridescent oil-slick colours and it’s mesmerising to watch.
The discovery of gold dust (which made me want to keep yelling ‘Will you start the fans please!’ at my PlayStation) grants the ability to change from a bird into a child. This, alongside the potential to transform back into your avian body by jumping off of a high ledge, made for a section of puzzles in Vane’s second act that I particularly enjoyed. The mechanic is put to good use here as you switch between your two forms, getting a feel for the strengths and weaknesses of both while trying to figure out a way forward.
Sadly though, for each of those positive elements there’s also a negative. Bugs become more apparent the further you progress and unfortunately some of these can be game-breaking. At one point I found myself falling through a flight of stairs and transforming into a bird as a result; this meant having to go back to earlier in the level for gold dust to change into the child and try again. I gave up once this had happened for the third time and I’d lost 30 minutes of gameplay, choosing to watch a video of the rest of the title instead.
While the bird-into-child-and-back-again works incredibly well in places, it falters in others where it starts to feel more like a hindrance. If the player accidentally falls off a ledge – and this happens more often than you’d expect due to the issue described in the following paragraph – they’ll transform into their avian form and have to backtrack. That it seems more like the game’s fault than the player’s lack of skill and the fact there are no checkpoints within a scene makes for some extremely frustrating moments.
In a similar manner, Vane’s visuals are its high point as well as its lowest as the camera completely lets the game down. It moves around of its own accord, drifting in a direction and disappearing behind walls; and a certain amount of counter-movement is required on the right-joystick almost constantly in order to keep it in place. It’s particularly troublesome in the acts that take place underground where the area is more confined, and it’s easy to become stuck under a ledge as the bird when you can’t see where you’re flying.
That’s not to say it’s much better in the open expanse of the dessert at the start of the title however. The places you’re trying to reach here are far away from each other and so a complete overview of the environment is beneficial for your bearings, but with the camera moving about randomly it’s very easy to confuse your flight path. Instead of the design of the landscape naturally pulling you towards your destination, there’s no assistance apart from the occasional glint in the distance and this can be slightly overwhelming for a new player.
Friend & Foe may have set out to create a project where players can ‘explore just to the point of getting lost’, and they’ve managed to achieve this in some respects. I’m just not entirely sure it succeeds in providing most gamers with the experience they’ll be searching for. Is a video game really fun when it feels as though you’ve managed to find whatever is you’re hunting for through sheer luck alone rather than your intelligence and observation of the scene around you?
Vane seems as though it doesn’t know what it wants to be: a piece of beautiful art, a game that tells a meaningful story through symbolism, or an experience each player interprets for themselves. All I can tell you is that it’s a release which I think is about transformation (although I’m not entirely sure) that has lost itself within bugs and bad camera angles.
Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.