Whether soaring through the desert skies or exploring an ever-changing world on foot, Vane seeks to deliver an experience that will enrapture the player in its striking art style, gorgeous landscapes and stylistic music. The intriguing way the character transforms between a bird and human evokes an enigmatic feeling that extends to the world and its inhabitants. As I open the hatch to mysterious ruins in an unknown land, the music swells, and I think only one thing: “Why am I stuck to this door?”
So, Vane has some technical issues. I was glued to a door opening animation several times (which required a complete restart, by the way), and got trapped in the floor periodically throughout my time with the game. In addition, the lack of a checkpoint system means that entire sections must be completed in one sitting. While the mere presence of bugs is not inherently a big issue, it becomes compounded by the frequency with which they occur, and the time lost as a result. Having said that, the game can be completed in a few hours, particularly if you don’t take a lot of time to explore.
The controls, while simple, are in service of awkward animations that don’t always do what you want them to. Landing on perches as the bird or climbing walls as the child are finicky at best. Luckily, there are no particularly dexterous requirements or time-intensive moments that would necessitate tight controls. While this element of mediocrity doesn’t ruin the game, these minor frustrations dull the relaxed enjoyment Vane tries to provide.
It should be obvious that Vane was designed with strong visuals in mind. While this artistic attempt is admirable, it creates new problems. The camera does its own thing with the goal of giving you the best view possible. Not the best view to do what you need, mind you, but the best view to appreciate the art style. If you intend only on gliding through the skies as a bird with no destination, this is great. If you’re trying to actually play the game, however, the camera zooming in at its own convenience is annoying and obscures your vision. The obstinate child sections don’t fare much better, because the camera will often be unsure of whether it needs to be close or far. Some levels also involve segmented and enclosed areas that the camera will get stuck behind. While I can appreciate the effort that went into designing this world, the fundamental gameplay issues take you out of the experience and dampen its appeal.
In Vane’s defense, there are some areas where its visual design enhances the gameplay experience. As the bird, faraway places of importance will have twinkles of light that make them distinguishable, and the clunky child is assisted by the presence of bright areas that indicate the rough direction you need to go. Despite the relatively large scope of Vane, getting lost is a rarity.
This subtle direction is one of Vane’s strengths, but I think there are some lessons from other games that were learned incorrectly. While there are many contemporaries that focus on the “less is more” mentality, the successful ones prioritize a fundamental component. Inside has a similar look and feel to Vane’s child sections, but it succeeds as an interesting puzzle game in its own right. Journey is one of the modern progenitors of this style of game, but its unspoken multiplayer mechanic made it stand out. In contrast, I don’t know how to classify Vane’s gameplay. I would be hard-pressed to label it as a puzzle game, because while you must traverse the environment and interact with objects to progress, none of it is intellectually challenging. It feels like busywork, which I may have been willing to forgive if I was compelled by its story. The intro sequence, and by extension, the ending, are the only parts that are somewhat enthralling. Unfortunately, ambiguity is only a strength if it incentives analysis on the player’s part. I simply wasn’t invested enough to delve into the minutia of the story’s connecting parts.
Unlike the gameplay, the music deserves special mention simply because it’s so interesting. It rides the line of being both fitting and inappropriate at the same time, and I found it fascinating. While visual design is the key element in Vane, the music actually does a better job of conjuring feelings of mystery and unease. Had there been an accompanying gameplay hook or strong story, Vane would have succeeded in enough areas to make it a standout title.
Like all games that stress art and atmosphere above all else, appraising Vane is difficult. Some will fall in love with it from the first scene, simply because they appreciate its visual style and engaging music. For me, it’s the game equivalent of tuning in to the fireplace channel on Christmas day. It’s oddly pleasant in its own way, but there’s little substance to it. Vane simply has too many faults and not enough strengths to carry a recommendation. Even in the absence of technical mishaps, it’s simply not engaging or interesting.