Calling Vane a puzzle platforming game is a little like saying Salvador Dali painted a clock. Both are true, but neither description hints at the surreal, dreamlike strangeness that lies at the core of the product. In the case of Vane, we have a short and somewhat singular game that appeared on the PC after many months as a PlayStation 4 exclusive. It appears that the additional development time was not spent in fixing some of the issues that plagued the console version.
Vane begins in media res, as a child runs to escape an unexplained cataclysm in progress, a world being torn asunder by a violent storm of some unknown origin. In the next stage, the child transforms into a soaring bird and wordlessly glides above the landscape, gathering other birds and following glints of light that suggest a path. Eventually, the story moves underground and the child gains the ability to move between human and avian forms in order to solve environmental puzzles and progress forward.
Vane is in the… er, vein… of games like Journey, where language and character development are entirely supplanted by atmosphere and dreamlike visuals that are visceral and emotionally compelling. Vane often looks striking, with the bird character’s iridescent wings catching light and levels that are indeed surreal and evocative. Lacking context or traditionally structured story, it is nearly impossible to become emotionally invested in Vane’s shapeshifting lead character. While answers to some of the who/what/when/where/why questions are eventually sort of answered, the experience remains emotionally opaque and difficult to invest in. The moody, synth-driven score is captivating and goes a long way towards establishing whatever emotional beats there are.
It doesn’t help that, like the earlier console version, controls are still not very precise — either with a mouse/keyboard configuration or gamepad. Flying and landing are reminiscent of a kludgy flight sim and the camera is still a major issue, clipping through scenery and obscuring the action. Walking through the environment as the human child is cumbersome, and the game’s controls can add a chore-like element to solving the progress-linked puzzles. While the console version was plagued by game-stopping bugs, I encountered relatively few hiccups.
Ultimately, it feels like Vane is an aesthetic concept more than a game. Certainly, it has the elements of traditional platforming games — environments to explore, puzzles to solve — but they are unrewarding and sometimes frustrating to experience. Vane’s art direction, music and suggestions of myth and mystery might be enough to carry some players through to the end, but others will be disappointed by Vane’s refusal to tell a coherent, character-driven narrative.