Vane Review: What a Beautiful Mess This Is
When Vane made its first public appearances it created a strong buzz, as the beautifully haunting open world and graceful flight of a bird throughout it promised a captivating experience. When the game arrived for play on PlayStation 4 earlier this year, however, players found that looks can often be deceiving.
With Vane now ready for its PC release there were hopes that the time between editions could be used to hammer out some of the mistakes which frustrated console players so much.
Unfortunately, it was not to be.
Come Fly With Me
One area where Vane, for the most part, lived up to lofty expectations was in the visuals it delivered.
While the slightly-washed-out colors aesthetic isn't my personal favorite, even I found plenty to like about what I was seeing when the game put me in position to relax and enjoy the sights. Sadly, those opportunities were simply too few and far between to make for a truly satisfying gameplay experience.
Vane opens with a young boy running along a surface peeling up and generally being destroyed by a storm, which is light on explanation, but high on striking visuals. When you finally reach your destination, however, you are rebuffed by a mysterious figure and booted to a title screen whereupon you begin your time as a bird.
Flying through an open world is one of the more enjoyable ways to roam in video games, but the best thing Vane contributes to the genre is a newfound appreciation for games from your past.
Controlling your bird feels like navigating a frigate, with slow and imprecise response to your every flick of the thumbstick, while the controls for flapping are inconsistent. More than once I found myself fully aware of where I needed my bird to go, only to have my attempt to flap my wings and fly upwards thwarted for no apparent reason. By flying away a bit I could gain the height I needed and maintain it to my target, but trying to rise where I was originally had my bird bumping against an unseen ceiling.
Clunky controls may have been excusable if not for two major problems.
Most egregiously, the game routinely called for precision with your bird form as you attempt to land upon a series of weather vanes. When every flap of your wings sends you careening off with only a mild hope it's where you'd like to go, and efforts to simply halt and drop in place are infinitely more challenging than seems necessary. You'll likely quickly be praying for the end of the bird portions of your adventures, turning what should be the most fun part of the game into a chore.
Your bird also lacks meaningful direction for much of the journey. The introduction to stalling your flight prompts with a simple cue to press the button, but without a clear indication of where. Having not seen the vane in the gulch it sent me to, I landed on the ground, hopped around a bit and then took to the skies again unaware I had not yet done what I was there to do.
This ordeal led to an extended period flying aimlessly without the guide the vane would have provided, culminated in entering a series of caves where I more than once found my camera glitching my screen into total blackness, leaving me completely turned around and lost until I could happen upon a landmark I recognized.
By the time I had finally finished sending enough birds to a large vane to crash it and unlock the material I needed to be a boy again I was very excited to see the back of it. Then I jumped off too high of a ledge and was a bird again.
After backtracking all the way to the transformative material once more, I was at last allowed to move on to the next phase of the game.
Making the change from wings to walking, unfortunately, fails to fix much of what ailed the first act of the game. Response is still slow and clunky, and it's all too easy to find yourself unsure of where you need to go or how you need to get there.
The weather vane system for your bird form is largely replaced by a series of balls which must be rolled, alone or with some often-unhelpful help, from here to there. If you've ever heard the story of Sisyphus forever rolling a boulder up a hill and thought it sounded like a great time, then you're in luck.
If you make the mistake of dropping off a ledge too high at any point throughout your time as a boy, you'll transform again and have to fly back to the start of the current puzzle.
When absolutely nailed, the puzzles can be fine. Nothing that will have your pulse racing, but not overly egregious, either. Unfortunately, the odds are very high that every player will have multiple times throughout the game where the slightest misstep, your own or the game's, throws the puzzle into infuriating chaos. Even so much as looking away from the screen for a minute to grab a drink or adjust the AC meant risking getting turned around in the meandering cave.
There's No There There
Environmental storytelling can be an excellent device when handled well. I wanted to love this game very badly. Short, story-driven experiences are right up my alley, even when they feature basic gameplay.
I stumbled upon Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons as a PS+ game that I entered with no prior knowledge and loved the experience of exploring these beautiful settings. The puzzles were rarely overly complex, but it didn't matter because they worked and simply served as a means to experience the world and story the designers had prepared for you.
With Vane, everything about the execution of the game serves to undercut the story it is trying to tell. When navigating becomes so challenging that even the smallest task has the potential to devolve into disaster, it saps interest in the larger storyline. I didn't have time to marvel at the world being created and the story being told because I was too frustrated to pay attention to it.
I can't say for sure if the story of Vane was not great in the first place, was poorly executed, or was simply undercut entirely by the gameplay around it. All I know is that I was less interested in why I was pushing a ball to a point than I was interested in how doing so would bring me closer to the end of the game.
- The visuals can be spectacular, particularly the opening scene, flying outside and a period where the world changes and reconstructs itself as you navigate it
- When the flying phase clicks you get glimpses of the great game it could have been as you soar over hills and dive through canyons
- The controls handle as if the game was never play-tested and corrected
- Minimalist approach to direction lacks the necessary structural cues in some parts of the journey
- Punishing backtracking system means any mistake can lead to a massive amount of retracing the steps it took to get there
- Glitchy camera work often results in partial or total obscuring of where you are, which can easily lead to getting turned around trying to rectify it
Vane is not a good game. What positives there are to be gleaned from it are significantly dwarfed by the negatives. Even my early impulse during my first hour with the game, that there was a real gem to be found if more time had been taken to polish out some of the flaws, is one I lost confidence in the more I played.
Had the time between the console and PC releases been used to fix the broken controls, extending the time if needed, I might be sad for what could have been. As it is, I think another two years in development would only have gone on to yield a longer experience, not a better one.
[Note: A copy of Vane was provided by Friend & Foe Games for the purpose of this review.]