Games with visually evoking looks and minimal narrative hand-holding have a way of speaking to me. Journey, Limbo, and Inside are some of my favorite games of the current decade, all of which are visually impressive and do very little to tell you what is going on. Vane is in, well, the same vein, dropping you into the story without any background information. No opening narratives, text or otherwise, to supplement what begets this journey to begin. As a boy trapped in one of the most vicious storms I have ever seen, you head towards a light that may be the only refuge in your immediate area. As you draw closer, a mysterious figure appears, and prevents your entrance. Stunned and alone, you awake elsewhere. The storm is gone, and so is your human form. Fly free little bird, fly free.
Vane is a short adventure game with a unique twist: you get to play as a bird that can transform into boy (or vice versa, whichever way you want to look at it.) A vast, desert like area is begging to be explored by flight. And that is all you can do, until you reveal how to morph back into a human form. Exploring this initial section will lead you to find other crows, helplessly gathered in various areas until your calls help migrate them to a large metal mass in the rough center of your world. This is the first of the games trials and puzzles that must be solved to advance forward. Without direction, that may seem impossible, but there is a glimmer of hope. No seriously, a literal glimmer. Gleams and light spots in your peripherals help non-aggressively guide you in the right direction, making for a great way to introduce a waypoint of sorts. I like the route of natural discovery this brings, making accomplishments feel more rewarding. Even turning into a child was rewarding the first time. I want to avoid these little details to not give way to spoilers, but it was an awesome experience.
Now gameplay wise, the puzzles are the bulk of it. As a bird, you can interact with other birds to progress a puzzle forward if the right circumstances. It is also the most fun and invigorating way to explore the game. Flight controls can be dodgy at times when paired with poor camera angles, but outside of that it is a light and airy experience, and it feels good to fly. As a child, your gameplay becomes more sluggish and platforming based. There are some environmental interactions to be had, as well as the ability to interact with other children you may come across to rally up for certain puzzles, but it is a lot less fun than the bird point of view. Sadly, in the second half of the game, the bird form takes the back burner, and the game begins to really slow down in terms of fun and exploration. The second half of the game is just a slow but gradual jog to the finish line. It’s a bummer, because the initial opening sequence pulled me in hard, and the flight and openness of the first chapter was promising. But the flame loses oxygen the further you go, and it was only more quickly snuffed out due to technical concerns and some odd design choices.
During my first session with the game, I spent so much time flying about and exploring that I knew I had not technically progressed anything really. I was concerned that my file would not be saved for some reason, so I left the PS4 in a suspended state which saved me the worry. During my next session, I did a quick search about the save system to confirm my suspicions, which were right. For whatever reason, the game only saves after the end of a “chapter”, of which there are four. While the game can be beaten in 3-5 hours, the more explorative type may be pushed off by this notion, which forces a linear time frame on to the player if they want their precious save to be secured. This was worsened by bugs that halted my progress, forcing me to backtrack and start a chapter over. The two major times this happened to me were both during the third act, where an object you have to push got stuck once, and disappeared another time, leaving me helpless to continue. Again, it is a short game so it is easy to run it back and get through it, but chapter 3 is by far the most sluggish in terms of enjoyment, making it really a chore more than anything to repeat. Pair these major issues with a pocketful of minor ones, and you really find yourself in an unpolished situation. Bad camera angles, unresponsive controls, falling through floors, bad animations and more just pile up and really take away from the game elsewhere.
The visual impressiveness holds strong though, and is quite in unison with the sound. The storm segments, as I mentioned, are quite a site to see. They are violent and beautiful all at once, and wholly intimidating if you are backed by a solid surround sound system. The muddled earthy tones speak to the nature of this world, emulating that feeling of looking for the bright side of a bad situation. While there are some genuine texture load issues, most of it is intentional, as the world has a way of rebuilding itself (something that too is woven into the puzzles). This means everything sort of has a fragile, living texture too it. Things are shaded with polygons and erratic colors and are almost never static, having a top layer that always seems to be on the verge of collapsing or expanding. It’s a very cool look and makes for some memorable set pieces when used correctly throughout the game. The sounds bellow with a dark depth, again emulating a variety of emotion. The songs are combination of dreary and synth styles that just fit perfectly for the games framework.
In another life, Vane would be up there in the ranks of PlayDead’s titles and Journey as far as my favorite short adventure titles go, but not in this one. The ending, and story in general, are widely open to interpretation, but I was left unsatisfied in the end. Marred by technical issues, and a pacing that goes backwards in terms of enjoyment, Vane just does not know how to build itself up, becoming a testament of the broken world it tries so hard to create for the player. Strong visuals, sound, and some memorable scenes make for some great talking points, but it is hard to imagine this title standing the test of time without some polishing and reframing.
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purposes of the review.
Final Score: 6/10
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