Vane is shrouded in mystery. Right from the start, it drops you into its world with no preamble or context: It opens with a person running through a terrible storm, presumably trying to find shelter. As they approach a massive tower, a cloaked figure emerges and bars them from entering. The person remains laying on the ground as the door closes, the cloaked figure moving out of sight. The scene cuts to black; it fades back to a crow sitting perched on a tree overlooking a massive desert. The title card flashes on screen, and it’s off into the wasteland you go.
From there, Vane leaves you to your own devices. My first hour or so was spent flying around trying to figure out where I should be going and what I could do. Vane is intentionally obtuse. It doesn’t provide any guidance, hoping you’ll find your way forward yourself, piece things together on your own. At most, it occasionally provides a button prompt — triangle to “caw,” circle to slow down and land — when they become relevant. Its lack of guidance didn’t bother me, as I was content to just soar around what traces of civilization remain, stare in awe of the sights around me.
It encourages you to poke around. Early on I found myself deep in a cave, soaring around ruins. Eventually I came upon a clearing that emanated light. A golden substance lay at the base of the hole, pieces of it flying toward me as I got closer, slowly pulling me in. I land in it: the bird is engulfed by light and suddenly a human child rises from the pile of gold, gasping for air. Now I was running about the cave jumping over gaps and pushing blocks like a puzzle-platformer of some sort. I stumbled around for a while, trying to figure out where I could go in human form, whether there was any point to doing so yet. Soon enough, I was able to make my way up some of the pathways carved into the cave walls and made it to a door leading back into the desert and went back to flying around.
Vane‘s at its best in these moments. It’s easy to see how the game can use this gameplay loop of scouting out areas to explore then doing a bit of puzzle solving well. It’s what makes the opening chapter so strong, so interesting. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last.
I eventually did work out how to progress — send my fellow crows toward a massive weather vane to help knock it over — at which point I made my way into the next segment wherein I left the open desert for an enclosed space. Cages hang in rows suspended on rails, some moving deeper into the complex while others lay discarded. Its spaces feel similar to those of Ico or The Last Guardian: stagnant, but filled with wonder. Appropriate given the team at Friend and Foe Games counts people who worked on those games among their staff.
The change from the open landscape to smaller, indoor environs leaves the bird form by the wayside. As you start to rely more on your human form, the mystery of Vane begins to subside as it settles into a more mundane type of play. Instead of frequently swapping between bird and human forms to explore and solve the occasional light puzzle, Vane shifts the bird’s utility to that of occasional means of transit. By the time the third chapter rolls around, you don’t have any real need to swap forms anymore. You merely explore the world on foot, pushing a magical orb through crumbling structures, never needing to take to the skies, unable to go very far even if you do. It makes sense given where the story goes, but it’s still disappointing to see it discard what was a strong initial pitch.
While I largely enjoyed my time with Vane and was fascinated by what little of the story I could interpret (though because of how obtuse it is, I can’t say I felt particularly invested), it definitely loses some steam around the mid-way point. The final stretch makes up for it with some visually striking sequences, but you have to be willing to put with up the slog that is the middle chapters. Vane has its moments, and those moments are good, but you have to work to see them.