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Vane

Vane

Written by Randy Kalista on 1/21/2019 for PS4  
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Vane immediately tears the Band-Aid off the wound. In a scary prologue, you’re a child clutching some kind of golden idol to your chest, running through a storm to end all storms. Lightning strikes all around. Ceiling tiles and floor plates are ripped away in hurricane-force winds. You’re going to die if you don’t get indoors. Then a tall, robed, imposing, bird-masked figure stops you in your tracks and bars your way to safety. The robed figure steps inside and shuts the door. You’re trapped between a storm and an exile. It seems your first impression was correct: you’re indeed going to die out here.

After the storm takes you and destroys you, you appear as...a black bird perched in a rose-budding tree. A calm, bright sky blankets you above, and mute desert sands reach as far as the eye can see. But a storm is coming. So, you do the only thing you can do, and fly.

It’s a bold intro, I’ll tell you what. For a puzzle-adventure game that isn’t going to kill you (or is it?), I felt like I was in constant danger. Making me feel that way is no small feat from Tokyo-based newcomer Friend & Foe.

I immediately had to be okay with the idea of “Well, let’s go this way, I guess?” There’s mild signposting to lead you from destination to destination, but far less than you’d think. Wandering about, I had to accept the journey for what it was, and sometimes the journey led me in circles or up against invisible walls. It was confusing at first, as I hovered on the wind, catching a thermal, unable to fly forward because I’d somehow missed the two-second button prompt telling me to keep flapping.

Vane gets weird. It doesn't match the existential dread of Playdead's Inside, or attain the timelessness of Thatgamecompany’s Journey. But Vane feels like it aspires to those two worlds. One where there’s a destination, though you don’t know why you’re pressing towards it. One where there’s a journey, though you don’t know if you’re here to save a life or to end it.

The world looks entirely drawn up from some science-fantasy artist’s polygonal nightmares. Human-sized bird cages hang like chandeliers inside of caverns that swallow everything whole. Children bound along narrow passageways and disappear around corners. Birds swarm in and out of the dark like harbingers of the apocalypse. I’m telling you, with just a little camera shake and edges pointy enough to impale yourself on, the weather-wracked world of Vane is incredible.

But, as is frequently the norm with cinematic worlds trying to meld with open worlds, the camera is often your biggest adversary. You try to look around but the camera rudely snaps back into the director’s eye for the scene. Sometimes it’s helpful. Sometimes it’s stifling. Occasionally the camera can be an unreliable narrator, locking you into a particular angle, then letting you fall off a short cliff that you couldn’t see as a child, or fly up against the tangible darkness as a bird. That’s sometimes (not always) part of the plan. But moving around is what this game is all about. Fiery speeds as a bird, or kicking up dust as a child. Both sometimes feel like they weigh a ton. I felt my thumbs pushing hard into the analog sticks of the gamepad, just to get the tyke or the black bird to move a little faster.

To emphasize the binary movement between being a bird and a child, it seems that neither does well what the other does best. The child is slow but stronger—at least stronger than a bird. The bird is weak but faster, much faster than molasses child here. At no time was I completely sure, as a bird or a child, if I was here to save or condemn this world. Your guess, at first, is as good as mine.

When it comes to progression, you’ll complete well-disguised block-sliding puzzles and, generally, fitting tab A into slot B. Gather together scattered flocks of birds, then hit the switch. Or: gather together scattered groups of children, then hit the other switch. None of it is done ad nauseum, though. The only time it gets exhausting is when some puzzle element glitches out and you have to restart the level and do it again. And again. Those glitches are there. Vane could’ve used a bit more play testing. If you follow a linear path to solve each puzzle (something that's possible on a subsequent playthrough) it’s pretty smooth sailing. But if you go off the rails—which is a very real possibility that doesn’t require any amount of hacking or cheats—then you’ll stumble into situations where this puzzle won’t solve, or that door won’t open, or the next story beat won’t trigger. There are four major acts to Vane, and the third act is a mess. I almost gave up and stopped playing Vane right then and there.

Within the puzzles themselves, the bird signifies movement and community, flying at camera-shaking speeds and calling other black birds into a flock. The child signifies gravity and articulation, always crawling over the Rubik’s Cube geography and strong-arming things open. The bird’s trill is a call to action, beckoning a murder of crows to your aid. While the child’s grunt is a yawp of accomplishment, and one that also unlocks the power to build.

The bipedal parts of the world—the human part, though I doubt that’s an accurate term—are filled with long staircases cut sharply out of the stone. Stairs leading every which way, and stairs leading nowhere, like some gamified Winchester Mystery House. As if the humans are always trying to reach upwards into the sky, but can only do it by climbing, not flying. The only things the humans make that are in the air are cages suspended by chains, always fighting that age old enemy, gravity. Could Vane be a retelling of the Bible's Tower of Babel? Where all of mankind, speaking one language and acting of one accord, came together to build a tower to reach the heavens without the consent of God? I tend to think so. And just like the Tower of Babel, the people's intent in Vane seems just as doomed.

The greatest challenge for any puzzle-adventure game is one of controls and pacing. I mean, as a developer, how do you solve the problem of keeping a directorial eye to events happening on the screen, but to do it in an open-world setting? As a developer, I need you to see this very specific thing. As a player, I need to be able to look in every direction. And when it comes to the environmental puzzles aspect, how do you, say, measure the pacing of putting together a jigsaw puzzle? You can’t. When you, the player, are snapping out solutions and everything is moving forward, the pacing in Vane feels great. But when you, the player, can’t figure out where to go next, then the pacing sucks. So, the pacing is what you make of it.

Vane’s world is built from an art-first perspective. The concept artists seemingly took lead, and the level designers turned that art into navigable space. Other polygon-heavy art-styled games, such as the roam-around fighting game Absolver or the Dark Souls-like Ashen, threw in the occasional long-draw distance. But Vane draws the eye deeper into the scene than either of those titles. I haven’t seen paintbrushes take this broad of strokes since Journey.

The flying feels dangerous. It’s not like other games where you’re a bird and the flight model is all smooth sailing. Vane makes flight feel rough and rugged—and most of the time that’s on purpose. The bird feels like it’s reentering the atmosphere when it soars. And when the bird dives, it’s like it’s trying to tear its own feathers out.

The space between saved games, is a disaster. There’s no manual saving, and it only autosaves once the beginning of a scene. There are four scenes. There’s a lot of gameplay you lose if you don’t complete all the puzzles in an entire scene and then immediately turn off the game. On a second or third playthrough—something you’ll want to do for a post-credits change in perspective—then heading straight for the exit is much faster. But on your first playthrough, the developers withholding game saves is a near-sighted decision.

The soundtrack is pitch perfect. If electrocuted metal plates and bending steel and sinking ships and tinnitus were all part of the composer’s musical vision, then bravo. Because it made the child feel vulnerable and courageous, and it made the bird feel smart and fight worthy. The soundscape gave me a synth-heavy bruising, and I mean that in the best way possible.

All of Vane crackles with a life and intensity I’ve rarely felt in games. The artistry and imagination made me poke my head around every corner. The end-of-the-world vibe drove me forward in ways I couldn’t stop. But on a technical level, Vane is straining at the seams, barely holding itself together. But if you play beyond the glitches, puzzle-adventure fans will find a wonderfully dangerous and uninviting world that has to be seen.

Vane exists in an enormously stressed and jagged world of puzzle-platforming. Simply moving around feels rough and unfinished, and that's not always on purpose. If only Friend & Foe had more time to incubate its creation.

Rating: 6.5 Below Average

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, or open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982 and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.

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