Vane — A boy and his bird

Vane is an amalgamation of many different games within the action-adventure genre and while it does things differently than most, it does seem that part of the gameplay gets lost in the process.

In Vane, by Friend&Foe, you play as a boy and a crow — but not at the same time. You begin the game as a boy with a blue scarf running around on top of a steel structure in the middle of a storm. Heavy synths bellow as lightning strikes all around you, pieces of the structure torn from their foundation, flying off into the air. There’s a house nearby and as you approach it to accept its shelter, a black-robed creature with the face of a bird screams a horrifying cry at you. You fall down from shock, losing your balance and are sucked into the vortex. As the camera pans to the left, you see three more robed figures crossing a bridge to a dark tower in the distance.

After a fade to black, you are given control of a crow with shimmering, jewel-like wings mid-flight as it soars over a vast desert landscape. Once you get the hang of your new power of flight, you’ll notice a ravine cut into the earth which you can choose to fly down into or above, either way it’s your only leading clue to your next destination. Following past the ravine, you come to a pond with a shimmering object on its shoreline.

As you approach the shining glimmer, you realize that it’s a weather vane, one with chimes attached, and that many other crows such as yourself have gathered to also inspect this curious object. Landing on the rim of the ‘vane, you are instructed to caw loudly and doing so brings the other crows to perch themselves beside you and do the same. Wind fills a flapping, sock-like fabric and the chimes pull taut, pointing in a particular direction, tugging till they snap off and sail away with the sudden gust of wind. The crows that were once by your side also take off to follow the shimmering shards of the chimes far in the distance.

It is at this point that you are given free discovery to figure out the game for yourself. You have most of the basics down, but it takes some searching in generalized directions to find yourself on a forward path. The open environment offered to you is absolutely gargantuan and it’s easier to get lost than anything else. Knowing that the vanes are a progress point, you are set off to find more of them, but with no text, progress indication or even a map. You are left to wonder if you have found all of what you need to move on to the next task. It’s certainly a trivial task for a bird, but if you happen to stumble upon a cave hidden off the main paths, you’ll begin to work towards the next milestone.

Inside this cave is a golden pile of polygon dust and as your bird gets close to it, it begins to transform back into the boy. You solve a couple of quick platforming puzzles and bust out of the back side of the cave, which opens itself to another pond with a weather vane. Falling in the water on a ‘too far’ jump reveals yet another secret — falling of any kind (beyond a certain distance) transforms you back into the bird form again. I love self-discovery in games as much as the next person, but core gameplay elements I feel should at least have some foundation to them and most of the ones in Vane do not.

Beyond the discovery of your transformative abilities, once this ‘vane is activated, you should be able to see a large, complex vaned-structure in the distance. With three levels of blades, other spinning things and a golden orb nestled within its spherical cage heart — it looks like a mechanical giant against the yellow sky. After you activate several of the other weathervanes in the outlying area, you can caw while resting upon this behemoth structure. The bird collective will echo your song, shaking the structure and making it crumble on top of itself, releasing the orb to the ground and ravine below. Once it hits the ground and breaks open, the golden orb spills more of the golden dust, and after using it to become the boy again — you have another cave to explore.

Gameplay from beyond this point gets rather strange. As you begin to discover the range of your abilities as this ‘bird boy’, you find that the game’s universe has more surprises in store. Other birds in cages, when exposed to the same golden dust you use, turn into other boys who look similarly to yourself. These clones will help you push this large pulsating golden orb with a opalescent glow through abandoned structures that grow and rebuild but only as you push this orb near them. It’s surreal and interesting, but you can easily find yourself overly frustrated as this orb is very cumbersome and if you fall off the edge, you’re going to have to go back to a defined point where you can transform back again — and run all the way back to where you fell.

Thankfully, the game’s graphics are dazzling. The entire game has this low-poly look that undulates and vibrates from effects such as the movement of the orb, which defines its effecting area by a circular bowl of static. Even with this lower-poly aesthetic, every object has a vibrant sheen and everything is well-defined enough to determine what it is at first glance, which isn’t true for most games with this graphic style. Animations have a purposefully low framerate run which gives an almost dreamlike appearance, and seeing polygonal dust clouds formed by the player after each footstep is charming and whimsical.

Vane is a tough sell. It does well as an art game, but when it comes right down to it — it’s so easy to get lost that I doubt most players will find themselves completing the game. Vane’s visuals are stunning and the music — which is a nice cross between simple orchestrated work and synthwave — is a fresh take on an adventure soundtrack, plus it has an interesting, non-verbal story and is overall quite the unique experience. Here’s hoping most will find themselves pushing through the uncertainty to find the gem within.

Vane is a timed Playstation 4 exclusive and is available now on the Playstation Store.

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