Gaming has come a long way in terms of telling deep and emotional stories. Gone are the days of “gaming” implying bulky men killing stuff with as much violence as possible, and in came games on the other end of the spectrum. Games like Journey and The Last Guardian relied on mood and aesthetics to guide the player through the story without holding their hand. Following in the same footsteps is Vane, a new PS4 adventure from Tokyo-based developers, Friend or Foe. Vane hopes to engage players through an atmospheric discovery-led journey.
The game opens with a prologue. Players take control of a small child escaping some sort of cataclysmic event. Powerful winds and an electric storm are literally tearing up the dark world around you, shifting and changing the landscape. Carrying a mysterious object, you need to find refuge. With its dramatic lighting, the brief prologue provides an effective introduction to the art style. Unfortunately, you also get a sense of other things to come. The controls are extremely sluggish and textures seem to randomly pop in and out. Some of the latter is by design (as will become evident later in the game), but the game is riddled with graphical glitches.
Once through the prologue, the screen fades to black, then there’s the title screen, and directly after you awaken as a raven sitting in a dying tree in the middle of a vast and lifeless desert. Seriously. This transition is jarring at best, but speaks wonders about the game’s philosophy: Its a world full of secrets and mysteries that you need to discover. Nowhere does the game provide any instruction, tutorial, hint or direction on where you need to go. While many similar games take the same approach, Vane take this to the ultimate. There are no waypoints, environmental or other hints, quests, clues or intelligible reason for completing some of the activities the game expects you to perform. The end result is moments of genuine confusion and frustration. It didn’t help that there are only a handful of places of interest in the desert. It was only after playing for a couple of hours, flying around endlessly looking for the objectives, that I noticed the slight clues from the environment indicating where to go. A slight reflection, a change in the music or the hawking of other crows all indicate an area of interest.
It is not only the game’s nuances that will challenge you. The game is also riddled with technical issues. Taking off in raven form is extremely temperamental and every now and then you will get stuck on objects. Once in flight, the mechanics take a lot of time to get used to. Additionally, at a certain height it feels like forward movement is blocked by an invisible wall. Things are not much better in the main part of the game when you figure out how to transform between raven and child. At this point, Vane becomes a series of standard lever-pulling, boulder-pushing, button-pressing puzzle sequences. The issue here however is the movement. The child moves around at a glacial pace, and sometimes doesn’t respond to the “jump” command. All actions take ages to complete, and heading into the wrong direction will see you spend the same time going back trying elsewhere.
Apart from all this, there is the constant battle with the camera to deal with too. The right analog stick moves the camera around, but it constantly tries to snap back to the center. This makes navigating the terrain extremely difficult. Once centered, the camera also can’t seem to focus and constantly zooms in and out.
All of this makes navigating the terrain an absolute chore. Couple this with the initial confusion, and all sense of exploration is completely lost. I’m not going to lie, I hated my first couple of hours with the game but, I stuck with it and by the time I reached the main portion of the game, I was somewhat invested in the story. Unfortunately, this was when my character clipped though the graphics and got stuck, forcing me to restart at the last checkpoint – Which was at the start of the chapter. Seeing that there are no manual saves, and some areas are quite vast and challenging, this put me back at least 40 minutes. I wish this was an isolated incident, but it’s not. Clipping occurs fairly regularly, which made me cautious to investigate the terrain and risk getting stuck again. In addition, some puzzles, especially those involving other children, also tend to glitch. They stop responding to your call for help and disappear for no reason. For a game whose main focus is exploration and puzzle solving, this is extremely detrimental.
The level design isn’t much better. Most of the cave exploration is so dark that I struggled to navigate the environment. Even if you manage to find something resembling a path, many locations in the world look like they’re built for you to be able to traverse as the child, but that’s not the case. This makes it extremely difficult to know whether you need to be a bird or child to progress. Also, when you fall off a ledge you automatically turn back into a bird, forcing you to find a magical spring again to transform back into a child. Overall, progressing through the game just feels punishing instead of rewarding.
All of this would’ve been tolerable if the story was worth it but alas, the promising story setup in the prologue never materializes over the three to four hour campaign. It is just a tedious and frustrating experience, which is a pity. It has a lot of potential but is ultimately let down by poor controls and game breaking bugs. Once these are fixed/improved, there is definitely some fun to be had especially if you’re able to come to grips with the nuances in the game. It is visually striking in some areas, and I found the premise intriguing. You can see that the developers tried to deliver an enjoyable experience, but unfortunately their efforts were in vane.