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June 2019


Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Friend & Foe Games
Release Date: Jan. 15, 2019


PS4 Review - 'Vane'

by Thomas Wilde on April 15, 2019 @ 1:15 a.m. PDT

Vane is an atmospheric adventure about unraveling the secrets of an unknown land, finding your place in it, and pulling at the threads of the world to make a change.

Journey can be considered a watershed moment for indie games — and for exploration games as a whole. It was a game that told you nothing about the world or what to do, but it naturally guided the player to the next objective and conveyed required tasks that seemed to naturally make sense. It was short but highly memorable to the point where players tried to decipher the intricacies of the world long after the credits rolled. Since then, the game has become a goal for many developers to reach, and the results have varied quite wildly. Vane is the latest title to attempt this type of game, and while it isn't pretentious, some of the design and story decisions can feel wasted.

Vane starts off in an electrical storm atop a metal land that is being slowly being ripped apart. Playing as a child carrying some glowing precious cargo, you roam around the level trying to find shelter while also being mindful to not get carried away by the flying metal slabs or get electrocuted by lightning. You eventually make your way to a doorway, where a large hooded figure stands, but after a moment, you're blown back by a loud noise and the doorway closes. You try to find another means of protection, but it becomes too late, as you lose the thing you're holding and the strong winds from the storm whisk you away into blackness, concluding the wordless prologue.

Once the title screen appears, you take control of a bird perched on a tree in a large desert wasteland. There's no hint as to what you should do, but your instincts will tell you to simply follow the canyon immediately visible to you. This soon leads to a small lake with a deflated windsock and a group of birds flying overhead. When the windsock's metal post glints periodically in the sun, you'll figure out that you can land on the structure and call on the birds to help you activate the windsock. If you then fly in the direction the windsock is pointing, you'll notice that there's a large but beat-up weathervane and even more birds flying overhead. Landing on the structure and calling on the other birds causes the vane to buckle a bit, but it's up to you to solve the rest of the first brainteaser.

This segment of gameplay immediately shines a light on two major issues with Vane. The first has to do with the camera, which can be best described as finicky. As you're flying around, it shifts from left to right quite often, sometimes making it difficult to gauge if you're close enough to an object to land on it. It also has a tendency to not keep a constant zoom distance on your bird. That works out fine if you're the only creature there, but when you have an entire flock present and you're trying to figure out if you're facing the right way, the refusal to zoom into your bird is frustrating. The camera also has a tendency to cut into the world, so you're often seeing through solid objects and breaking the illusion of the game world in the process.

The second major issue has to do with the game's lack of direction. At no point will you have any markers telling you where to go, and there are no text prompts to explain any short-term goals to you. On the one hand, this is pretty refreshing, as most modern games are too eager to lead you by the hand and tell you where to go and what to do at every step. This approach feels more like the games of yesteryear, where discovery provided much more satisfaction. On the other hand, the size of the world makes it too easy to wander away from the objectives, and the world is always filled with things that hint at interaction but provide no payoff when you do so. You're not completing an extra side-quest by interacting with things, and once you find out what you need to do to progress, you'll feel that the activities are a waste of time.

Discovering and solving the puzzle of the large weathervane will lead you to a glowing pile of sand, and getting close to the sand transforms you into a human child. As you would expect, your human form gives you the ability to climb on ledges, push objects, and activate switches. You can enlist the help of nearby children, though that usually boils down to them assisting you in pushing objects around. Falling to your eventual doom causes you to change into a bird, and the only way to change back into a human is to find magical sand piles scattered in the world.

Turning into a human child doesn't get rid of the issues that plagued you when you were a bird. The camera is still a mess, but the issue of clipping through the ground is amplified, as the sand piles and other magical artifacts cause the ground to morph and pulsate. It creates a very cool effect similar to stop-motion animation, but the clipping increases as a result. The lack of direction also creates more frustrating situations as your human form opens up more puzzles. Some of the solutions feel obtuse due to the more complicated puzzle mechanics, so there's an increased sense of wasted time. Adding to the issue is the fact that the AI of the other children is often unpredictable. Sometimes you'll call for their help, and they're totally unresponsive. Other times, they'll stop in the middle of a task, and there have been a few times when they don't stop, causing some key puzzle pieces to be placed in the wrong spot after a lot of work to get it to the right location. There was even an instance when an entire puzzle had to be restarted because a key component had been pushed into an abyss.

The most frustrating part is the ending to the story. There are two endings, and it becomes rather obvious that one of them is the bad ending. You need to essentially replay the last chapter of the game to see them both, but after discovering both the bad and good endings, you'll feel unsatisfied. There's no explanation for everything that just happened, and there's no hidden meaning to grasp from what you've seen. Instead of having an epiphany at finally comprehending the story, feelings of apathy come through since you won't feel an emotional attachment to either conclusion.

At the very least, Vane has an interesting enough presentation. Sound-wise, the soundtrack is a mix of orchestral melodies and '80s-style synth. It melds together to create an atmosphere that encourages exploration but warns of danger. The other sound effects are fine, while the lack of voice, save for the calls to others when you're a child, heighten the wordless mood of the tale. Graphically, the low polygon count makes for an angular world that looks artistically pleasing thanks to the more modern lighting engine. The frame rate isn't as high as one would expect for this style, even on a PS4 Pro, but it isn't completely detrimental to the game. Aside from the aforementioned unruly camera that often clips into the environment, the game remains in letterbox mode, which is detrimental to the overall gameplay since it seems to indicate that a non-interactive cut scene is playing. As such, many players will wait around for the black bars to disappear, wasting time when they could be moving around instead.

Vane is a game that sticks to its ideals at the detriment of everything else. It's a noble idea to let players figure out everything on their own — until you realize that the large environments and the number of interactive but ultimately useless elements mean more time wasted in activities without a payoff. The puzzles are simple in their execution, but their obtuseness can be infuriating at times. The story may begin mysteriously, but both of the endings are unsatisfying, even though the story is still muddled at that point. There are plenty of other titles on the PS4 that do a better job of telling a short and mysterious tale artfully, and your time is better spent with those and saving Vane for a video walkthrough unless you're hunting for Trophies.

Score: 4.5/10

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