Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: Friend & Foe
Review Date: 1/26/19
"Vane" is a beautiful, but broken game that feels like a cross between "Journey" (2012) and "Inside" (2016) with a touch of "Bound" (2016) thrown in. You start the game as a child who's desperately trying to escape a raging storm, only to be knocked unconscious by a mysterious looming figure as you make your way to safety. The next thing you know, you're a bird in a vast desert that's dotted with ruins of an ancient civilization. As you gracefully fly around and take in the sights, you'll occasionally catch a glimpse of something shiny, and since birds love shiny things, the only way to advance the story is to investigate. For whatever reasons, piles of shiny gold flakes will turn the bird into a boy, and jumping off of cliffs will turn you back into a bird. Both forms are needed to solve the puzzle elements in the game, and managing what form you're in is also a puzzle element. Eventually, the peaceful desert morphs into something more menacing, and you revisit the storm from the beginning of the game, which presumably happened in the distant past. Or the distant future. It's extremely unclear. Reverting back to your child form, you climb an imposing tower where mysterious beings are performing a strange ritual to try and appease the storm. It's up to you to decide what it all means.
The game is fantastic for about the first hour as you explore the desert and attempt to hone your flying skills, but once the novelty of flying around wears off, the overwhelming ambiguity of everything becomes frustrating. The lack of direction and feedback is suffocating and sucks the fun out of the game. You never know if you're doing the right thing or what you're supposed to do next, which means you'll eventually have to break down and consult a walkthrough guide. I can forgive that aspect of the game as it's the storyteller's prerogative, but there are plenty of other blemishes that impact the gameplay. The camera is fussy, the frame rate stutters, the collision detection is clunky, there are constant clipping and shearing glitches, and your character often gets stuck in the environment, which forces a restart. That wouldn't be too crippling, except that the game only has four checkpoints, which means you'll be playing through the same parts over and over. Granted, if you know what you're doing, you can finish the game in about 90 minutes, but when you first start out, you can spend 4-5 hours just trying to find that first checkpoint. That becomes a serious issue when you're like me and only have small chunks of time to play.
While I really enjoyed the look and feel of the game, the crude polygonal environments were occasionally distracting and unattractive. The lighting is superb and creates a dark and moody atmosphere that becomes more threatening as the game progresses. The music is wonderful, but sparse, and only chimes in at key moments. It's pretty much the only indicator that you're on the right track. The pacing of the game is deliberately and often painfully slow, which may turn off a lot of players. I normally don't mind wandering around at a contemplative and leisurely pace, but even I was beginning to lose my patience after a while. Thanks to the extensive walkthroughs I found online, I was able to finish the game with minimal aggravation, but that also robbed me of the thrill of discovery. The game describes itself as "emotional and unnerving," but I just found it confusing. Much like "Inside," the story makes no sense at all, and I can't even begin to theorize what it's all about. I've yet to see any discussion on the topic, so I don't know what ideas other people have come up with. "Vane" is definitely not a mainstream game, and as a piece of art, it's up to you to draw your own conclusions and decide how to engage it.