We were something like six hours into Vane when we glanced down at our phone to see what time it was, and realised that we'd only been playing the game for forty-two minutes. How was this even possible? It was like when Matthew McConaughey visited Dr. Miller's Planet in Interstellar: a world catastrophically affected by the intense gravity of a nearby black hole that slows down time so much that standing on the surface for ten minutes accounts for seven years passing back on Earth. It was that, but in reverse. Mere minutes had gone by in what felt like hours. On the plus side, that meant that this author's tea was nearly ready, and Lauren was doing risotto.
The downside, of course, is that Vane is such a chore to play that everything feels like it takes way longer than it needs to. There's a bunch of problems here, but even if the technical and mechanical issues that plague the game were to magically go away thanks to post-release patches, the central crux of the experience would still be flawed.
You begin Vane as a young boy trying to find shelter during a spectacular storm that features lightning strikes, furious winds, tiles being ripped from buildings, and an ice cool synth soundtrack. It's an engaging opening that hints at narrative delights that sadly never materialise, and once the winds have died down, you're inexplicably playing as a bird and everything goes to pot.
You're a crow. Perhaps a raven, or jackdaw, or rook. Who knows? Maybe you can Google it during one of the many times you happen upon a game-breaking bug that requires you to restart. Either way, you fly about in the skies high above a sizeable chunk of desert, and... well, that's up to you. There's no hints, there's no quests, there's no clues, there's no waypoints. There's not even the vaguest of intimations as to what you should be doing. The game is frustrating not because the joy of exploration is lost on us, or that we're simply too thick to play a game that doesn't spoon-feed us or hold our hands. It's that what you're supposed to do here is often so obtuse that you'll discover the solutions to puzzles that you didn't even know were puzzles by luck more often than judgement.
The desert section of the game, for example, features a puzzle in which you must transform back into your child self by standing in some golden dust. The golden dust is trapped in a ball. The ball is trapped in a cage hanging from a vane. There are numerous smaller vanes around the desert with birds hovering above them. You have to fly to one of these smaller vanes, land on it, and hit triangle to instruct your bird brothers and sisters to fly to the big vane. Once you've done that four or five times around the desert, you need to fly to the big vane, land on it, hit triangle to instruct your bird brothers and sisters to land on it with you, all so that the combined weight of the birds collapses the structure, the cage cracks, the ball falls, and you're free to stand in the golden dust and be a boy again.
But there's no logical reason that you'd ever come to those conclusions on your own without just doing mad things for the sake of it. You don't know you need to be a boy to progress. You don't know that standing in golden dust turns you back into a boy. You probably haven't seen that the ball in the cage is full of golden dust. Pressing triangle when standing on the big vane makes birds land next to you whereas if you press it when you're on the smaller ones it makes them fly away. This isn't so much a puzzle as it is as an arbitrary list of things you need to do in order to move on to the next area.
The slam dunk comes when you're finally a boy again, and you (again) have absolutely no idea how to progress. Without going into too much detail, it involves walking up to a locked door and jumping through it, magically finding yourself on the other side, which means that the boy you're playing as either has the power to pass through very specific surfaces in very specific locations and only if he jumps, or that the game glitched and the door was supposed to be open. Honestly, we've got no idea on that one, and we're not going to reload the checkpoint to find out because reloading the checkpoint begins the entire desert section again.
There's nothing wrong with a game asking you to figure things out for yourself, or one without an HUD to point out items of interest, but there has to be environmental storytelling in place to teach the player gameplay mechanics organically that they can then use to progress on their own terms. At times it seems like Vane expects you to be clairvoyant.
Thankfully, once you're out of the expansive desert section of the game everything does become a little more streamlined and logical, but a new set of problems quickly arises. The bird doesn't control particularly well, the camera clumsily finds itself in the wrong place at the wrong time so frequently that you'd be forgiven for thinking it was actually designed to be unhelpful, and the enclosed spaces of the caverns that you find yourself in simply exacerbate both of these issues exponentially.
When you're playing as the boy the controls are slow and clunky, and he trundles around the environment with all the grace and finesse of Barney the Dinosaur trying to run through a swimming pool filled with treacle. Occasionally, the boy will just stop moving, or he'll fall to his knees and stay there for five seconds or so. Perhaps he can sense our will to live ebbing away. It's tedious.
Vane is exhausting, ponderous, bewildering, endlessly frustrating, needlessly obtuse, narratively unsatisfying, mechanically clumsy, and technically shoddy, all shot through a camera so ill-equipped to deal with the rudimentary task of showing you what's happening on screen that you might as well pop a blindfold on and try using The Force.