A black-winged bird soars over desert sands. It’s a lovely visual that’s captivated me since developer Friend & Foe revealed Vane back in 2014. Now the game is out on PlayStation 4, and the desert flight is one of the few redeeming sequences in an otherwise short and clumsy adventure.
Style has never been Vane’s problem. Our first post about the game harped on its visuals—specifically the sand battering the game’s young protagonist as they trudged through the desert. “That’s Some Gorgeous Video Game Sand” was the headline of the post. It talked about how the indie studio behind the game included folks who’d worked on The Last Guardian with Team Ico. We called it gorgeous again last year, when Ethan Gach reported on troubles that caused the game to be delayed and the entire opening act to be reworked.
Vane is, for the most part, gorgeous. That fact has not changed during development. Those scenes from 2014, with the game’s human protagonist running through the desert? Those are gone. A lot of what happens in the game’s 2016 trailer didn’t make it into the game released this week for PlayStation 4. But the stuff that did make it into the final game is quite pretty, if a bit sparse.
Vane opens with a woman clutching what seems to be her child to her chest. She wanders across a ruined landscape as lightning crashes and great metal sheets are torn up and carried away by the wind. After a long, leisurely walk across this ruined hellscape, the woman arrives at a structure that’s managed to withstand the storm, but her request for refuge is denied. The storm winds close in, and mother and child are swept into the sky. The screen goes dark.
Now we’re a bird in the desert.
Why this happens is a mystery that’s never explained. Vane is a game of few words, leaving it up to the player to both interpret this strange event and figure out where to go and what to do. A canyon cut into the sandy waste leads the player to their first objective. A twinkling flash in the distance guides them to a perch. Icons flashing on the screen teach the player how to land on that perch and call out to fellow birds to join them. The weight of the combined fowl causes a windsock to catch the breeze, leading the flock to their next destination. The player flies from objective to objective, gathering more birds to their flock until there are enough to crash the area’s large weather vane to the ground. It shatters, unleashing a glimmering golden material that has a transformative effect on the player’s feathered avatar.
Suddenly the bird is a child, stumbling across the desert sands, ready to pull levers, push items and engage in other activities birds can’t do. Should the child fall from a great height, they transform back into a bird and take to the sky. When the bird gets close to that strange golden material, they morph into a child once more. What a brilliant gameplay mechanic. A brilliant, woefully underused gameplay mechanic.
Once the ability to transform is unlocked, the action shifts from the open sands to a large cavern. As a bird, the player must gather fellow avians in order to activate a switch, opening a new path. Littered about the cavern is that glimmering golden substance that transforms bird to child. In child form the player can open knocked over bird cages, helping the flock grow. It’s a clever bit of back and forth that had me riveted for the entirety of the 30 minutes it lasted.
I thought the child/bird transformation mechanic was the main focus of Vane, so when the third chapter (of four) rolled around, I was surprised to find it abandoned. Instead of calling birds and forming a flock, I was recruiting fellow children to help me push a glowing orb that transformed the scenery as it rolled. Bird form, so helpful in the caverns previous, was now only used for scouting and saving me should I fall off a high ledge. What a pity.
The entire second half of the game is mostly walking and light platforming. This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for Vane’s clunky movement controls. In the tradition of games like Ico and The Last Guardian, moving this game’s human protagonist is a clumsy affair. The child stumbles slowly, as if reluctant to move. Sometimes they climb. Other times they get stuck on the scenery.
Vane’s final chapter is particularly painful. The goal is to ascend a tall tower as the game’s impressive-looking transforming scenery warps stairs and platforms in and out of existence. Every couple of steps I found myself getting stuck, and what should have been a very cool sequence became an exercise in frustration.
There are a lot of clever ideas in Vane, but they’re not given any time to shine. With a fair amount of getting lost, a few unfortunate falls and having to replay an entire sequence due to my character falling through the scenery, the entire affair was over in a little over two hours. I came away feeling less like I’d completed an epic quest and more like I’d finished playing through a very pretty tech demo.
Lovely birds, though.