America - Front
America - Back
By Rex Hindrichs 19th Jan 2019 | 2,159 views
The arthouse game is a tricky prospect. In a medium founded on fun challenges, how much room is there for works with other priorities in mind? Making games as ‘experiences’ that still hold up as conventional entertainment is a difficult balancing act to pull off. In its debut effort as an independent studio, Friend & Foe attempts to walk this tightrope with its game Vane. But does our hero reach the sky or fall flat on its face?
You play as a bird on a curious and transformative journey through a desolate world. The barren landscape before you, threatened by an encroaching storm, holds a few secrets to uncover. Drawing from the experience of titles including The Last Guardian, Vane feels a bit like an experiment, asking “What if Fumito Ueda tried his hand at making Journey?”. Minimalist artistry, cryptic storytelling, puzzle focused design; many of his trademarks are emulated in this new project, but there’s still plenty to differentiate this effort from its inspiration.
Gameplay takes place both on the ground and in the sky. Flying through windswept canyons on feathered wings is a more analog experience here than in other games, but also a bit more awkward and unpolished. Explore enough and you’ll soon discover the game’s driving force - a mysterious golden dust that transforms you into a human child. This form allows you to interact with objects you wouldn’t otherwise be able to, but is also slow and tedious. Leaping off cliffs returns you to bird form, while finding more golden dust transforms you into a child once more. You’ll need both forms to overcome obstacles and complete your journey.
Vane does not hold your hand. Tutorials amount to little more than the occasional button prompt to interact with something. Narrative is sparse, interpretive, and isn’t going to give you many hints to go off of. You are largely left to your own devices; to explore and experiment until you discover the solution organically on your own. This can be frustrating and the game is certainly not for the impatient, but there is still an intelligence to the design that gently guides your search until you at last find the answer. This is often in the last place to look, but the payoff can still be satisfying and memorable.
Unfortunately, the game’s high points are often diluted by its lack of polish. Controls can be finicky, the camera often clips through the environment, loading is frequent and lengthy, and performance struggles in more demanding areas. Worst of all are the bugs that can sabotage your progress, sometimes forcing you to restart entire chapters thanks to poor checkpoints. Combine this with the slow, at times tedious pace, and again I must stress that this game is not for the impatient.
On a brighter note, for such a small studio, Vane punches above its weight in presentation. Embracing the limits of its production, detailed models and textures are eschewed for inspired audio visual design. Rich color theory turns the drab into the haunting and beautiful. Flashes of sophisticated animation can take you by surprise. Bold synthesizers and ethereal sounds highlight important moments to dramatic effect. Low poly counts are embraced for a painterly quality transformed by a fascinating distortion effect that provides one of the game’s most unique and impressive signatures. Altogether the game it's distinct and striking.
I wish I could go into further detail about Vane, but to do so would cheapen the sense of discovery that is core to the experience itself. At just a few hours in length, whether or not a mixed bag of an art project is worth the price of admission is up to you. In my opinion, the industry can always use more risky passion projects like this, even if they don’t always reach their full potential.