Vane is a hard game to put into words, which is appropriate since it doesn’t have any in it. Initially, it plays like the descendant of The Last Guardian and other works from acclaimed director Fumito Ueda, but it slowly takes on a more sinister vibe. There’s a synth-heavy soundtrack with an industrial edge and unsettling, unexplained scenes that are reminiscent of Playdead’s macabre side-scroller Inside. Over the five-or-so hours the game lasts, it gets stranger and darker, but one thing remains consistent throughout: Vane will frustrate and confuse you, and it has no interest in telling you what to do. Patience is required to get the most out of this gorgeous, atmospheric experience.
Things open with a terrible storm amid a ruined city, where powerful winds are literally ripping up the world around you. Vane’s protagonist is a small child who starts out carrying a mysterious object before finally being engulfed in the storm. After a fade to black, you’re now… a bird. It’s a jarring transition that speaks to Vane’s entire philosophy. It’s a game that takes place in a vast, virtually empty world full of mysteries and secrets. All of those secrets are up to you to discover. At no point does the game provide any real direction or hints, aside from the occasional button prompt that lets you know the actions at your disposal. (There aren’t many, aside from the ability to fly and call out.) The story remains entirely unexplained by the end.
For the first hour or two, I absolutely hated it. I couldn’t figure out what to do, and I just kept going around in circles. The bird scene takes place across a huge expanse of desert, with only a few notable points of interest, like a tower, some ruins, and a small blue oasis. You’re free to fly wherever you like, and the game never tells you if you’re off in the right (or wrong) direction. In those early moments, I was completely bewildered. There are plenty of games with no instructions or hints, such as the recent Switch game Gris, but generally, they’re designed in a way that organically pushes you to where you need to go. That isn’t the case in Vane.
While initially frustrating, this near-complete lack of guidance eventually forced me to really pay attention to the sights and sounds of the world around me. I noticed the glint of sun hitting metal out of the corner of my eye, and as I approached, I started to hear the caw of other birds. I started manipulating small machines, my eyes firmly focused on any minor change. I had to keep this level of concentration up throughout the entire experience, even as what I was doing changed. Later in Vane, you’ll discover how to transform from bird to child, lead other children around a dangerous landscape, and discover a magical power that lets you literally rebuild the world around you. But even as the game gets stranger and darker, it remains up to you to figure out what to do.
When it works, it’s an amazing feeling. But it often doesn’t, leaving you instead feeling lost and confused. This isn’t helped by some fussy controls, a particularly troublesome camera, and frequent glitches. As the game gets trippier toward the end and structures pop in and out of existence, it can be hard to tell what’s an intentional glitch and what’s an actual technical misfire. (This resulted in me falling through the floor on more than one occasion.) Other Ueda-inspired games, such as Rime, have tried to sand off the rough edges that are so common in the designer’s work, but Vane does no such thing.
So with all of those issues, what makes Vane worth playing? It all comes down to atmosphere. While it’s easy to point to games that Vane appears to take inspiration from, the end result is a wholly unique experience, particularly later on. It starts out as what seems to be a mystical fantasy before shifting to an industrial sci-fi landscape. You’ll explore harsh factories and crumbling cities. Its gorgeous, low-res visual style creates a striking effect and some memorable silhouettes. You move from one powerful set-piece to the next, and it’s all the more beautiful as the images aren’t cluttered by any kind of HUD or UI. Vane feels designed for taking perfect screenshots.
What makes the game memorable is also what makes it frustrating. Vane doesn’t really rely on story or characters. Instead, it focuses primarily on the audiovisual experience, presenting stunning scenes that you can imbue with your own meaning. But by leaving so much up to the player, Vane’s developers have also created an experience that can be obtuse and mystifying, often to its detriment. Whether you’ll enjoy Vane depends entirely on how much patience you have for discovering those many mysteries all on your own.
Vane is available now on PS4.