Birds of a feather flock together in Vane, the new game from Friend & Foe.
Genre: Puzzle, Flying,
Developer: Friend & Foe
Publisher: Friend & Foe
Release date: 15 Jan, 2019
Let me start off by saying Vane is not a game for everyone, there is a specific type of gamer in mind for this game. I’m talking about the patient gamer who enjoys walking simulators and puzzles that may not have an obvious solution. I say this because I know folks, even a close relative, who as much as they try to like this type of genre just feel that it’s empty and without substance or true gameplay. And that’s fine, everyone games differently. But, Vane is for those that enjoy the long trek across a video game landscape for no other reason than to see what the hell is on the other side. It’s about exploration and to my surprise, also about community and calling together your comrades to tackle insurmountable difficulties . Though rather brief, the experience does leave a lasting impression.
Story and Gameplay
The story in Vane is intrinsically woven into the gameplay, there is no way to truly separate the two. Unlike another game I played as a girl who transformed into a bird called Aer: Memories of Old, Vane does not lead you to visit ancient artifacts of a world gone by with backstory or text. You won’t find yourself hunting down bits of history from place to place. Instead, it’s more direct as you learn the story while exploring through the actions played out in the scenes.
You start out as an unnamed girl, fighting a terrible storm of some kind as she makes her way toward a tower in a very impressively designed beginning. She is then stricken and transformed into a bird, able to traverse the world at will. This leaves players quite literally free as a bird and there is no guidance, objective, or map of any kind.
Now, this is good and bad. Good for the type of player who just enjoys exploring with no aim in mind, and bad for the type of gamer who expects to at least be mildly pushed in one direction towards the next area in an open world. There is none of that. You are entirely on your own to figure out what to do and how to do it. At first, I thought this is fairly interesting and I don’t mind having to explore in the least, but without the slightest clue about where to go or how to interact once I discovered an area, I found myself frustrated about exactly what the game was expecting of me.
After some time I was convinced this game should be included as part of the definition of the word “meander”
meander ( me*an*der) verb: to wander aimlessly or casually without urgent destination. Ex: Play the game Vane as a bird.
And so I played along with a guest gamer in my video, and we played for quite some time before we actually found out where to go. Once we did, it was a huge head-scratcher just to figure out what the first puzzle was even about and we were totally unsure about how to approach it all. On a complete guess, I decided to explore some more and found additional areas to interact with and realized that the game wanted me to bring together others to solve this puzzle, and I really respected that. It wasn’t a feeling of the lone adventurer solving things, but instead the concept of birds working together as a flock.
Once I got that far, the game changed to where I was once again a girl, but I could change back and forth if I found a certain golden orb close by. This allowed for a short variety of puzzles where I had to be a bird for one part of the area and change back to a girl to help others. Again, it centered in on the theme of the flock helping more so than the individual. The puzzles have no hints, but as long as you keep the mindset of exploration and bringing together others to achieve a larger goal, you won’t be too stumped.
From here, there were more interactions of the aviary kind and a sort of rite of passage that I wasn’t expecting. Mostly ball rolling and levers, but I did enjoy the way it forced me to explore around in order to proceed. Again, stick with the idea of working as a flock and you’ve got an idea of what to do. Well, mostly anyway because it did take me about 20 solid minutes to figure out what and where to go to get that bridge puzzle figured out. You will find clever uses of rolling the ball puzzles, but not much more than that. It’s not overly original in its manner of puzzles, just original and rather pretty in the way it goes about going from point A to point B. So, you are there for the ride more than the actual brain games.
I have to say, I enjoyed the last part of the game the most. As you ascend the tower, the manner of getting there is something akin to walking through an Escher painting and it was a lovely surprise, hell I’d even go so far as to say it’s an experience and I even went on to play both of those perplexing endings. Don’t ask me what those meant, I haven’t a clue. All I got were trophies for both of them.
Bugs & Glitches
All this wasn’t fantastic, though, because Vane has a huge issue with bugs. I fell through stairs a total of four times and had to restart those levels from the beginning after getting stuck on geometry, which was about an hour of time completely lost give or take, although it was much faster the second time around. The save system is nearly non-existent because there are no checkpoints. You either finish the level or you don’t and have to restart that level from scratch if you leave the game.
The movement of the girl is incredibly slow, almost like Wander from Shadow of the Colossus, and jumping wasn’t very accurate as I’d fall more often than not. This didn’t help on areas that require precise movements to traverse almost like a 3D platformer. Also, near the end, her hat would suddenly change from a whistle-hat to a t-shaped hat and that was a little disorienting when she was with a group of others as I tried to determine which was the one actually moving the ball forward.
The environment is intended to melt and move dynamically in many portions of the game, but that can lead to unpredictable outcomes where you lose sight of your character as she gets buried under some rocks or falls through some stairs with no way out because the camera zooms in and then you can’t see a single thing. I’ll mention the camera one more time, it’s too free-flowing and zooms in too much. It needs to stay back a bit because once that dynamic landscape glitches, you may as well be playing with a blindfold.
Style and flair are something Vane has in abundance, and I feel it might even float it well enough to get folks to play it at full price. Artistically, this game is somewhere along the lines of a modern water painting running on a game engine that shifts and moves like polygonal claymation. Shadow and perspective, darkness for emphasis, subtle color blends, and more. It’s a bit of Fantasia for the eyes, but it’s not out to wow you in the slightest. It’s just the nature of the artwork and I never got the feeling I was purposely being overwhelmed with sensory overload. Well balanced and attuned, the graphics cover the game world well, even if they are glitchy in areas with pop-in and spazzy geometry in places. That’s actually the way it’s intended to be, sort of melting and rebuilding from the ruins of what once was. You won’t be guided forward much by the graphics, but it’s consistent and well thought out.
The audio is nicely composed and ambient, which is best for these type of games because I wouldn’t want an annoying melodic theme to be playing the whole time while I explore for an hour in an area where it might end up in a frustrating dead end. There are good sections where the music relays tension or change and I felt it was performed quite professionally and never overbearing.
Now, for the average gamer, I’m not going to recommend this game. You will likely get frustrated and maybe even bored playing it. For the gamer who enjoys exploration for the sake of looking around for hours and has no issues with a lack of direction or guidance, then this will be right up your alley. However, I have to note that without save checkpoints, you could be rather upset if after flying through the desert for an hour you quit to go to sleep, only to find out you must do the entire level from scratch again the next day. Not good. Also, falling through stairs and getting stuck on geometry to restart the whole level really didn’t help either. So be warned, this game needs some patches and there is only one checkpoint per level.
That said, it’s a unique experience and I loved that last level. It is just not mind-blowing or incredibly touching like Journey or Shadow of the Colossus, but it does have its moments. I don’t see much replay value here other than replaying the last level. Once you complete the game, you can select any level you want, which is great to see the second ending. The puzzling is not trite and requires some thought about what the game is expecting. The only downside is that the puzzles are not exactly new and refreshing, it’s likely something you’ve already done several times in other games.
For those interested in this game, I’d recommend wishlisting it and waiting for a good discount. At $25, it’s not likely worth the experimental 3-4 hour game that it is when there are better games out there for the same amount of money, but it’s still something you may want to explore down the line if you enjoy walking simulators and meandering gameplay. If non-combative exploration with no guidance and some puzzles sounds like it’s a bore to you, Vane will not change your mind. It didn’t wow me or leave me with a feeling of amazement but there are definitely a few nice experiences to be had here for the carefree soul who likes the sound of the wind moving by.