Vane is a bloody weird game. The good kind of weird, though. The kind where one minute you’re a bird flying across a vast desert in search of ancient weather vanes, and the next you’re landing in weird, golden goop to turn into a human and explore an ancient ruin. The kind where a bunch of creepy, hooded children yell at a golden ball to make a bridge grow out of a cliff face. Friend & Foe Games’ debut title doesn’t feel like a game developed with any degree of consideration. Instead, it’s a hotpot of ideas and ideals mashed together with the sole intention of being affecting and memorable, a concept so crazy that it works.
Vane mostly follows the exploits of a lone child in this harsh world. When the game begins, said child wanders through a raging storm of lightning and twisted metal, clutching a golden, adorned egg. After reaching what looks like sanctuary in the form of a building, a mysterious figure wearing a bird mask casts them out and leaves them for dead. Cut to the next scene and suddenly the player is in control of a beautiful, shimmering bird, instead. This is where the first half of the game essentially begins, as players control the bird and explore various environments, starting with an enormous desert. Eventually it comes to be that the bird and child are one and the same, and can transform between one and the other. This forms the crux of the ‘puzzles’ in this part of the game, where the bird must find its other feathered pals and command them to activate ancient mechanisms, switching to the child whenever necessary to find them, or interact with certain elements.
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This part of the game strives to evoke the same sorts of feelings that games like Journey or Fe have achieved. Feeling lonely in a big world, exploring with only the guiding lines of the environment to navigate by. Playing as the bird is easy enough, the controls are simple and the game doesn’t get caught up on punishing bad flying or forcing the player to make precise landings. The child is the same, for the most part. They control well enough and can usually make their way over small obstacles and ledges okay, but on multiple occasions I managed to get stuck in the floor or between tiny gaps and forced to restart large chunks of game. A real highlight though is transforming into the bird. Going from bird to child is done by finding special pools of golden substance, which often need to be found or placed first, but becoming the bird is simply a matter of yeeting yourself off of the nearest available ledge.
The latter part of the game changes things up a bit. Without spoiling too much, it mostly involves playing as the child and, along with more children, guiding a huge sphere that reconstructs the environment immediately around it when chanted at. The puzzles around the central mechanic here ramp up nicely, but once things really get going the game heads right into its brief finale. Vane is a fairly short game at around 2-3 hours, and what’s there is generally fantastic, but it feels like it ends too soon. In fairness, that’s partially because I was enjoying those few hours immensely, and this is definitely the kind of game that I’d encourage playing through in one sitting with the lights dimmed and headphones on.
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The reason for that is that the one thing that ties this all together, and the game’s biggest strength, is its presentation. At first glance, Vane’s low-detail, heavily polygonal visuals could be mistaken for a cheap cop-out under the guise of being intentionally idiosyncratic. After the initial open desert area though, and once things really take a dark turn, Friend & Foe Games’ true intentions become clear. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game’s environments so thoroughly shift and warp under the weight of its events. Huge slabs of metal tear themselves apart as lightning storms whip up a frenzy, floors and walls pulsate and monolith structures grow almost organically in front of the players eyes, constantly reacting or being reacted to. All the while every moment of thoughtful silence is countered by a cacophony of noise cracking through the atmosphere, occasionally punctuated by an aggressive sci-fi synth soundtrack. Not since the likes of Thumper has a game’s art looked and sounded so violent. The obvious aliasing and odd janky animation aside, this is one of the most visually arresting games I’ve ever played.
I could spend all day pondering Vane’s message, trying to interpret its themes and imagery. I could tear down and critique its gameplay and mechanics and . If I did though, I think I’d be losing sight of what makes it special. This isn’t a game should be played because it’s got great gameplay or puzzles, or even because it has anything particularly important to say. Vane is an experience that flies higher than the sum of its parts, but it won’t be for everyone. It’s a beautiful, maddening, thrilling, bewildering piece of art that isn’t afraid to do things just because they look fucking cool.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro | Review code supplied by publisher