Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
There are moments in Vane, the new open-world game from Friend & Foe, that are simply lovely to observe. Massive ruins in the sand, giant mechanical devices rumbling deep in a cave, a distant vista in the desert that sparkles with near-Euclidean perfection... these are wonderful images that pull you in to the game, and keep you appreciative of the immersive world it’s striving to create. Which is a good thing, because it contrasts all the times I just want to strangle this dumb bird I’m controlling for most of it.
I can respect a game that doesn’t hold your hand—that lets you discover its secrets as you go, and ignores the usual signposts and hints to guide you on your way. And in its better sequences, Vane pops with inventive, hands-off style. Beginning as a young person rushing to the safety of a distant building as the world collapses around you in some sort of massive, hurricane-like storm, your avatar is denied entrance to the monolith and sucked up into the storm. The game begins in earnest soon after, with you now controlling a raven-like bird that you send soaring into the sky, following a canyon that eventually leads you to a series of sparkling windsocks hidden among desert oasis and, finally, a gargantuan dilapidated weather vane. What are you supposed to do with it? The minimal controls—flap your wings, steer, slow down, and caw—give some indication, but overall, you’re left to your own devices.
But after the third time I was forced to start all over again due to a combination of glitches and a lack of sufficient places to save, I started to get a little annoyed. There’s open world, and then there’s forcing people to soar endlessly over a sparse desert until they stumble upon something that may or may not be germane to the game. Controlling a bird should be more fun, frankly, and I was disappointed with the shaky controls and minimal opportunities to really accomplish anything in that form. Perversely, the actual “game” parts of the game are far more entertaining when you reassume the form of your child character, roaming through maze-like structures in an effort to find... someone? Anyone? Eventually you have chances to switch back and forth between bodies, which is great, but as the patch Friend & Foe rushed out just before the launch (paired with a gameplay guide for similarly stymied players) suggests, more than a few people have presumably gotten irritated at the ways the game can freeze you in place, or leave you casting about wondering what to do next. I flew back in and out of one cave several times (and quit, thinking I could return to where I had successfully solved an escape room-like puzzle, only to find I hadn’t reached a save point yet) before finally randomly flying off into the desert, eventually happening upon the next step of my adventure through sheer dumb luck.
Vane eventually finds a better rhythm—and I’m looking forward to continuing playing it—but the sparseness is admittedly frustrating in a game that doesn’t actually offer much “world” in its open world, outside of the places you’re actually supposed to visit to progress through it. Like a combination of Journey and Inside (albeit with the ability to, you know, turn into a bird), I can see what they were going for, and I enjoy the ambition. But Journey always gave you a goal on the horizon, a way to orient yourself. Vane lacks any such clues; even the gigantic metal weather vane that gives it its name doesn’t really point you in the proper direction, so much as imply, “Hey, why not trying going somewhere else, now?” Still, it’s so damn beautiful, with a great, Tangerine Dream-esque score, that I can’t help but return, curious to see what other secrets might be hiding in its oblique narrative and immense blasted landscape.