Exploration adventure game Vane, developed by Friends & Foe Games, first released on PS4 on January 15 of this year. I admit, the original release completely flew under my radar. However, with the news of its Steam release just last week, I thought it would be great to check it out for a full review. How is it? This is our Vane review for PC.
Story and Gameplay
This is perhaps the most ambiguous aspect of Vane. In the Steam press release, Art Director Rasmus Deguch said:
“Since Vane contains no words whatsoever, it can be understood universally across all cultures and languages. We recognize that its abstract approach to storytelling won’t be for everyone, and that’s okay. It’s the game we set out to make and we’re very proud of how it came together in the end. We hope PC players appreciate our vision.”
This intrigued me because I honestly had no idea what to expect. However, having now completed Vane, I simultaneously know more and less than I did at the start, which has left me incredibly conflicted. You play as both a nameless boy and a bird tasked with finding your own way in an achingly beautiful world, wrought with destruction.
Vane is unofficially divided into several chapters, each taking place in a different setting. The further you progress, the smaller the playable area becomes. You explore the area around you as you attempt to make it to the next chapter, meeting children like you along the way who aid you in your journey.
There are light puzzle elements involved as well, mixed in with some light platforming. For example, the middle chunk of Vane involves rolling a giant glittery gold magic ball which has the power of rebuilding the world in close proximity to you. You exploit this mechanic to cross caverns, move gateways, and climb towers.
Honestly, these puzzles were fine. Just fine. I didn’t necessarily find them challenging and engaging like the ones in LIMBO, nor did I find them ludicrously easy like the dragon key “puzzles” in Skyrim.
You are given zero direction. It’s up to you to figure out where to travel and what to do when you get there. In general, I’m ok with games like this, provided you are given the tools (read: not crutches) to reason out your next destination and action.
However, it is here where my first frustration with Vane comes forth. Usually, I look for landmarks, but with so much of Vane being dark and stormy, and with the world around you literally decaying and looking very similar, I found it increasingly difficult to get my bearings.
I pride myself in being an explorer in video games, but even I found myself completely turned around at points, at a loss to where I was, and from where I had just come. I’m not asking for a map or even a mini-map, but I honestly believe even a simple compass with Cartesian coordinates would go a long way as a quality of life improvement, if only to provide you with a relative position.
As you slowly reach journey’s end, the music becomes louder, the world becomes less stable, and you yourself slowly physically change from the boy, to an adolescent, to a tall hooded figure not too dissimilar to a plague doctor.
I won’t sit here and pretentiously analyze the metaphor behind this change. What I will say is that this transformation, rather than helping me further understand the world of Vane, merely left me with more questions than answers.
Who are these hooded figures? Were they all children? What is their purpose? What is the purpose of the glowing gold magical ball? Like I alluded to at the top, I was left with more questions at the end of my journey than at the start. I was left wanting more. Unlike other games in this genre like LIMBO and Journey which also drove me to question my experience, Vane’s mysteries simply weren’t as intriguing for me.
Perhaps this is what the developers intended, for you to question the journey and interpret it for yourself. But I am not one of those people. For example, a similar game, Journey, invites you to draw your own conclusions at the end of its adventure. However, I had a good understanding of what Journey entailed and this made my overall reaction to its ending that much more impactful.
Vane’s ambiguity here falls short and is a weakness rather than a strength. I could not draw my own conclusions because my thoughts on the narrative and journey became increasingly scattered. The end result was simply more vaguery.
Note, I’m not asking for a cut and dry conclusion. Indeed, Journey’s ending was anything but. The best comparison I can make is this. Journey, while still ambiguous, began as a disparate collection of various components and ended as a chassis for a car. It wasn’t a finished built car in that you’d struggle to identify the make and whether or not it was an SUV or a family sedan, but you could still determine that it was indeed a car.
Vane began as a disparate collection of components and ended with only some of those components connected together. It wasn’t enough to identify the intent of what I was experiencing. It might sound overly harsh, but it’s for this reason I feel that Vane’s story is almost there, but ultimately falls short. I so desperately wanted to love the story, but I just couldn’t.
A Lack of Control (and Saiteks)
Vane works for both keyboard and mouse and controller on PC. Be warned, though, getting a controller to work isn’t as straightforward as it is in other PC games. Friend & Foe Games knows this and are working on a fix. But in the meantime, they’ve posted a workaround on Steam forums. From experience, this workaround does work. The easiest solution I’ve found is to start Vane with your controller plugged in, unplug it once you see the main menu, then plug it back in. Note, I only tested my Xbox One controller, so I cannot provide any definitive conclusion as to the efficacy of this workaround to DualShock 4 users.
The keyboard and mouse controls are about as good as makes sense for Vane. You use WASD to move, mouse to look, and mouse buttons and spacebar to fly and interact. This may be all well and good, but no matter which control scheme I used, the controls in Vane were something I was constantly fighting against.
The camera has a mind of its own, sometimes refusing to look where I wanted it to look. Overall, the controls felt incredibly heavy and resistant. I get wanting to frame the game in a certain way for cinematic or dramatic purposes, but I will always always prefer complete control over the camera. The flawed controls were a huge disappointment to me, and tangibly affected my exploration in a negative way.
65 Days of Music
The sound design in Vane is exemplary. It’s not as kinetic as DOOM, nor as analogue as Wolfenstein, yet it manages to convey a real sense of unknowable impending dread with aplomb.
It’s a digital tapestry of synthetic low frequency groans, echoing and amplifying your every action, juxtaposed brilliantly against high frequency staccato chimes, compounding the dark effervescence of Vane’s atmosphere.
The soundtrack is equally impressive. Produced by Thomas Lilja, I couldn’t help but be reminded of No Man’s Sky brilliant soundtrack by 65 Days of Static. Vane’s soundtrack is filled with synth beats, frenetic action, and moments of deceptive bliss.
The sound in Vane is a huge strength, and really helped sell the environment.
A Sight to Behold
Arguably, Vane’s greatest strength lies in its visual design. It’s not a photorealistic game with ray tracing and all that jazz. Instead, Friends & Foe Games have (wisely) focused on art style to define a distinct visual language.
Built in Unity, Vane’s art style is incredibly difficult to describe. Its part fine clay sculpture, part simplistic polygons, part painting. The art style perfectly sells the environment, its dark setting, and the brooding tone. And for this, I love it.
There are only three graphical presets to choose from: Low, Medium, and High. I asked the developers what changes between the presets, and studio co-founder, Matt Smith, answered thusly,
“The Detail Level only affects the global LOD [level of detail] bias, which basically means that the lower the setting, the sooner meshes start to lose detail as they switch to lower LODs around the player. AO [ambient occlusion] and AA [antialiasing] is not affected and stays the same regardless of setting. Vane uses default Unity AO and temporal AA.”
Performance is incredibly good as well, with my i7 8700k and 2080 Ti equipped PC not dropping below 120fps with headroom to spare. Given that it’s light on resources, achieving 60fps on more modest PCs should be no problem.
Vane’s visual presentation is truly something else and is unquestionably its greatest strength. Friends & Foe Games can be proud of the work done here.
Vane is a difficult game to summarize. There are parts of it I absolutely love like the sound and visuals, but there are parts of it which frustrate me to no end like the overly ambiguous story and terrible camera.
I truly wanted to love this game. But I just don’t. Vane isn’t a bad game. It isn’t even just-an-ok game. It’s a good game. But it’s flawed. Given that Vane is the debut outing for Friends & Foe Games, there is no doubt a lot they can do to improve on their next title. I hope they review these criticisms and iron them out for their sophomore effort. In this respect, I am absolutely looking forward to their next game.
In the end, I do like Vane. But I would caution anyone interested in purchasing it and lay out my concerns regarding the story and controls like I’ve done here. For me, I honestly don’t know if the amazing visuals and outstanding audio overcame the story and controls enough for me to claim Vane as a masterpiece. I can’t instantly recommend it without reservation. But I can’t outright reject it either.
Score: 7 out of 10
- Unbelievable visuals
- Amazing soundtrack
- Sound design sells the world
- Overly ambiguous narrative
- No real tools to gently ground the player in the space
- Awful camera