You probably think this game is about you
Video games have really changed as a storytelling medium. What was once a casual dash from left-to-right, dropping baddies and collecting shiny objects, opened up into new realms of drama, narrative, and even philosophical messages. Of course, that doesn’t make these games immediately any better than the goofy platformers and shmups of gaming’s formative years, but it has been amazing to see the many different ways gaming has been adapted by talented designers to tell all manner of dark, abstract, and inquisitive tales.
Into a busy market of chin-stroking titles such as The Missing, Gris, and Gone Home comes Vane, a new PS4 adventure from Tokyo outfit Friend or Foe. Vane, like its brethren, eschews typical action gameplay to present a mood-piece adventure, not dissimilar from the work done by Team ICO. Vane wants to put freedom back in the hands of the player, letting them engage in a strange, mystical journey – without hand-holding – and with player-led discovery being the ultimate prize.
Developer: Friend or Foe
Publisher: Friend or Foe
Released: January 15, 2019
After pressing Start, Vane immediately sets itself up with an impressive opening. Thrown into a violent electrical storm, players control a helpless hooded figure as they make their way across an isolated metallic landscape, which is being torn asunder by wind and lightning. After being turned away from shelter, this poor figure is swallowed up by the darkness, while a powerful electronic theme – very similar to Vangelis’ Blade Runner work – pulsates in the background.
The scene then changes to a wide-open desert, with the player in control of a large raven. Leaving its perch, the bird soars into the skies above the desolate atmosphere and, for a brief moment, it feels like you might be in for something very special. Unfortunately, scant minutes after this striking opening, it all comes tumbling down very quickly indeed.
Vane has so many issues, conceptually and technically, that’s it hard to know where to begin. As you learn quickly into this desert sequence, Vane‘s “discover everything yourself” mentality is taken to the ultimate degree, resulting in moments of genuine confusion as to direction, task, or intent. I hate the way games “breadcrumb trail” players at every turn today, but Vane can see you traveling in one direction for minutes, while having zero clue if you’re going the right way, doing the right thing, or what you should be doing instead.
In an attempt to allow player freedom, Vane can be a monotonous exercise in guesswork and time-wasting, which isn’t fun, merely frustrating. Games like Gris and Journey are famous for their liberating approach to path-finding, but both those titles are masterfully designed to naturally guide the player to their intended destination. Vane just plants you in huge open areas and says “Hope you know what you’re doing.”
Once you get a grip on the tasks expected of you, the player is then challenged by an unruly camera that won’t relax. In the desert sequence, for example, the image (needlessly presented in letterbox format) won’t stay at rest, randomly zooming in and out like an audience member fidgeting in their seat to find the best position. Camera woes persist once we reach the main section of Vane, which sees the raven become a child in order to traverse a glum system of caves and towers. I understand the game clearly attempts to echo the celebrated work of Team ICO (a designer of which, Rui Guerreiro, was on board in Vane‘s early days), but you can achieve that without replicating their notoriously awful camera woes.
Once our hero is back on terra firma, Vane then becomes a series of standard lever-pulling, boulder-pushing, button-pressing puzzle sequences, the most obvious of video game tropes that immediately breaks the immersion of Vane‘s weird universe. The player character moves at a glacial pace, resulting in all actions taking an age. You can spend four minutes walking in the wrong direction, only to have to spend another four minutes returning to try elsewhere. When the result of this meandering traversal is just a lever to be pulled, or another switch to be perched upon, it ill rewards the time and effort spent.
For the entire four- to five-hour duration of Vane, slow-paced exploration and ball-rolling puzzles only lead to more of the same. Once you reach the climatic tower climb, representing the game’s delightfully abstract conclusion, none of it holds interest anymore. For a game so unique-looking, so intense and so mystical, Vane is surprisingly pedestrian in its core gameplay and thoroughly dull in execution.
Even if you have the patience for its snail-pace, Vane is littered with technical issues, aside from a heavily-stuttering frame-rate and the aforementioned camera problems. Not once, but twice I got stuck in the scenery, forcing me to quit. This revealed Vane‘s final coffin-nail, a terrible save system, which only checkpoints the start of each of the game’s five acts. This scenery glitch had cost me 20-25 minutes of progress. The second time this happened, only reviewer duty prevented me from hitting the uninstall button. At $25, I think there’s better and cheaper titles on offer within the genre of bizarre adventure.
Vane has a very strong opening, some unique visual ideas, and an atmospheric electronica soundtrack. Unfortunately, all of this is quickly muted by aimless and frustrating gameplay. Though Vane‘s abstract approach to storytelling is genuinely liberating, the player remains caged with simplistic gameplay tropes, immersion-breaking technical problems, boring puzzles, and a terrible save system. Point your wings in another direction.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]