Too often, promising games disappear from the public eye, prompting questions as to where they have gone. Routine, announced in 2012, has not seen a substantial update in more than 18 months. Deal with the Devil, revealed in 2015, quietly ceased development in 2017 due to funding shortages. Vane appeared to fall into this category. Announced in 2014, silence befell the project until the release date was suddenly and unexpectedly revealed last month.
Vane is the creation of Friend & Foe, which is formed by developers who worked on The Last Guardian. As may be expected, Vane continues several thematic and artistic elements from that game, as well as its predecessors, Shadow of the Colossus and Ico.
Vane starts with a young boy being booted into a raging sandstorm in the middle of a metallic city. Lightning flashes from the sky, obliterating patches of the metal walkways the player is running across. After encountering several dead ends, the boy eventually finds a doorway, where a strange humanoid creature with a beak-like face makes an ominous sound, and everything goes black.
From that point, as the light returns, the player finds that they have been transformed into a bird, able to fly across a vast desert landscape. Vane eschews holding the player’s hand altogether, not even providing basic control instructions or objectives. The player is forced to figure out what to do entirely on their own, with only very rare button prompts appearing.
This omission brings to light Vane’s first problem. The total lack of knowledge about what to do or where to go is a source of frustration, as the player is seemingly forced to spend a lot of time flapping about the expansive—and admittedly beautiful—environment trying to figure out what to do.
Exploration can be great fun in games, especially when the game has a beautiful landscape to look at. However, the point of exploration is to find something, and Vane has vast areas that are just… empty.
Eventually, the player will stumble across puzzles; some of these require the protagonist to be in bird form and call for the assistance of their fellow birds. The vast majority of obstacles require the human form, as opposable thumbs are of great use in many situations. Early on, the game does little to inform the player if they are making any progress. Apart from some spare audio cues, correctly solving a puzzle may go unnoticed.
Graphically, Vane looks incredible. The game has a unique graphical style that combines incredible realism with various effects and touches to demonstrate that the world depicted is not the real one, but instead some realm far distant. Some areas and objects show deliberate polygonal and voxel patterning, giving the environment a slightly surreal edge.
Of particular note is the bird form of the protagonist, with its incredibly realistic movement, animation, and beautiful iridescent feathers. Considering the amount of time the player spends looking at this form, they may be satisfied to discover that it looks amazing.
The human form, by contrast, is less interesting. Most of the time, the player will only see the character from a distance, leaving the player unable to appreciate his appearance, movement, and body language. His rare vocalisations are in an unknown language, which does not help when trying to get a handle on his personality.
The game also has occasional glitches in the movement animations for the boy: times where he appears to be pushing against nothing or clipping into objects. Considering how top-notch the graphics and animation is otherwise, these glitches are jarring.
The soundtrack is surprisingly minimal. The score has occasional pulses of music, particularly during the opening sequence, which showcases a rather good electronica/EDM track. However, the majority of the time, the player will only hear environmental sound effects, such as the wind blowing, water dripping, wings flapping, the irritating screeching of other birds, and sometimes more ominous sounds. The result is certainly immersive, if not always easy on the ears.
Vane evidently takes many of its cues from Shadow of the Colossus, with its huge environment and almost total lack of text or voice work to tell the story. Where Vane differs is that Shadow of the Colossus had a clear objective from the outset and a clear (if sparse) narrative arc with a heartbreaking ending.
With Vane, telling what exactly the player character is trying to accomplish is difficult. The game provides little indication as to what the goal is and how they are meant to accomplish it. The synopsis of the game says that the bird/child will transform the world—but the player is not given an indication as to why this transformation needs to take place. This lack of indication, and the apparent omission of personality for the main character, makes Vane quite difficult to actually become invested in.
Another notable issue is the loading times. While not overly frequent, the initial loading and transition between environments takes a very long time. While the environments are beautiful and expansive, other games have managed these transitions without such huge loading times, suggesting poor optimisation on the developer’s part.
Vane is beautiful in its expression. Players will find themselves stunned by the world the game depicts, but, unfortunately, the title seems to be an expression of style over substance. Vane looks and often sounds amazing, but the developer has pursued making a work of art at the expense of something that is fun to play.
Overall, Vane could certainly be considered a work of art. Nevertheless, though it was clearly aiming to be the next Shadow of the Colossus, it hits wide of the mark, as Vane lacks the depth and impact of that classic title.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.