Yeah I know, I have a type.
Take some kind of high concept, wrap it in an intriguing art style, throw in a few interesting puzzle mechanics and back the whole thing up with a semi-decent soundtrack and you’re almost guaranteed to get a look in from me. Part of my penchant for these kinds of games was born out of my time being consumed by other things but over time I’ve grown to quite like the genre and all the weird titles it seems to produce. Vane, as you’ve likely already guessed, fits that description almost perfectly and was the second title to come to me via the new Steam recommendation engine. I’m glad to say that this time around it was bang on the money, directing me to an incredibly surreal and intriguing experience that I had not come across before.
In a ruined desert, a strange golden dust transforms a free-spirited bird into a determined young child. You are not the only one to have undergone this transformation however and the world around you is littered with evidence of a world that was once far more than what it appears to be today. Your transformation sets in motion a chain of events that will reshape the world, hopefully for the better.
Vane’s art-style is quite unique with its direct influences coming from the Team Ico games of old. That’s combined with a weird glitchy aesthetic, which gives it this strange sci-fi overtone. Indeed the styling of the world is equal parts fantastic and high-tech, giving you this feeling the environment is stuck between the fantastic and the real. Given I’ve played far too many low-poly indie games of late it’s nice to see a developer take a different angle with it instead of simply using the aesthetic as a way to get out of needing to texture too much. There were a few poorly optimised areas, mostly the larger open areas when the heavy particle effects were going, but other than them the game ran perfectly smooth.
You’ll encounter a wide variety of puzzle mechanics whilst playing Vane as it starts off as a kind of walking-simulator-esque experience as you soar around the desert looking for places to land. From there the game evolves into a kind of puzzle platformer, requiring you to explore the level to figure out how it works, look for where you need to transform and so on. Later on the game then adds in what I’ll call the “rebuilding” mechanic which appears to reconstruct the destroyed world around you. It makes for an interesting progression in terms of mechanical complexity, gradually ramping up the challenge over the game’s short length.
None of those mechanics are well introduced unfortunately, making figuring them out a rather laborious endeavour of trial and error. There’s hints around, of course, but it can be hard to tell when the game is trying to nudge you in a direction or if it’s just something that looks like it should be investigated. Vane isn’t the first game to suffer from a problem like this and it’s one of the more challenging elements to get right; making exploration worthwhile by challenging the player and not just filling the world with random rubbish to seek out.
I’d probably be a bit more lenient on Vane if it weren’t for the absolutely god awful controls that it has. Flying is honestly a major chore and it’s far too hard to perch on something, especially considering that’s one of the core mechanics. Indeed I managed to spaz out the physics engine multiple times by flying too close to something and it not being able to figure out if I should land, bounce off or do something else. This continues with the controls on the ground which feel far more wonky than they really should be. This is most aptly demonstrated in the part of the game with a procedurally generated level, often resulting in you getting stuck on geometry or sliding around randomly as the game tries to figure out how to place you. For a game that gets so much right to get a basic thing like controls so utterly wrong really perplexes me.
The story is interesting, even if it’s so hand wavy in what it shows that you could really make anything out of it. It’s obvious that you find yourself in the ruins of a once prosperous world, one that’s ravaged by what appears to be a never ending storm. However from there everything is pretty much up to your interpretation. On a hunch I just checked and there are 2 different endings although really it seems either of them are as about as satisfying as the other. All this being said I don’t think that the story of Vane was the developer’s overall focus and, whilst it’s somewhat interesting to contemplate, it’s not really the main thrust of the game.
Vane is a weird dichotomy of excellent craftsmanship in some respects and down right negligence in others. The art of Vane’s world is an eclectic mix of old world fantasy with sci-fi overtones all built up beautifully in low poly detail. The puzzle mechanics grow organically throughout the game, ramping up the challenge gradually. However the lack of any direction with the puzzles coupled with the absolutely trash controls means that the game experience is far more frustrating than it needs to be. I’ve dealt with vague puzzle mechanics before, and I can somewhat forgive them, but controls that are that wonky just makes everything worse. Hopefully future titles from Friend & Foe Games don’t incur this penalty as what they’ve built here has the makings of something truly awesome.
Vane is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2.7 hours playtime with 39% of the achievements unlocked.
Everyone who’s tried to use Steam’s various recommendation engines over the years knows that they’re more miss than hit. Indeed most of the examples I’ve found diving through the “New and Trending” section or using the Discovery queue have usually been mediocre, if not downright terrible. So when I saw that Valve had put up a new type of recommendation engine, one that allows you to play with a few of the parameters that drive it, I was very intrigued. Setting the timeline to recent and turning the popularity to niche put up quite a few examples that looked good on first pass, Epitasis among them. Whilst this particular game might not have hit the mark, owing to its incredibly basic implementation, it was still a title that I would’ve never come across if not for the new engine.
The setup for Epitasis is done through a couple pages of text on screen, telling you that you’re a scientist combing through deep space signals for signs of intelligent life. One day you get one and it points to a set of coordinates on Earth. A team, led by yourself is put together to go and investigate whereupon you find out that the location houses a portal to an alien world. In there is a strange world of shapes and puzzles laid out before you, almost like some kind of test. It’s then your job to solve the puzzles of this world to see where they lead.
Right off the hop you can tell that Epitasis was built in the Unreal engine as it has that certain feel about it that most bargain basement games made in it have. The environments are sparse and lacking in detail, seemingly built to have a lot more put into them than what’s currently there. Some of the lighting effects are done well but honestly I don’t believe there’s anything there that isn’t built into UE4 by default. The trailer basically shows all the best looking parts of the game with the rest of it being a dull, lifeless landscape. The game world really didn’t need to be as big as it is and a lot more effort should’ve been spent on making the area that mattered tighter in its implementation and adding some detail.
Mechanically Epitasis is a simple puzzler, mostly consisting of making sure switches stay on or juggling boxes between gated sections. They weren’t particularly well playtested as some of them require an inordinate amount of legwork to complete, pinging back and forth between puzzle sections in order to complete them successfully. Then there are other sections which are quite obviously not intended to function together, allowing you to completely bypass the intended mechanic. The logic of the puzzles is also quite bizarre, with some of them giving you the impression they should function in a particular way but work completely differently, making some puzzles challenging as you try to work out the developer’s internal logic. All in all it feels like a decidedly unfinished game; barren and simplistic, falling short of what I feel was the creator’s intended dream.
Indeed looking at the game’s Kickstarter campaign which finished some 2 years ago it looks like a good chunk of what’s in the game currently was already there and the intent was to flesh out the world a lot more. Like nearly all Kickstarters it delivered late, over a year past the initial forecast date, showing that the developer must have been a lot further away from an actual game than they thought. Of course I understand the challenges that face a single developer but too often I see newcomers try and make something grander than they can ever accomplish. Games don’t need to be long or great in scale to be good, they just need to be enjoyable experiences. Epitasis could’ve done a lot more with the time invested if it pared back its ambition and focused on the core of what it wanted to achieve.
I will admit that it does have a good soundtrack however it’s decidedly out of place for the environment you’re playing in and is often out of kilter with what you’re doing on screen. Games like this live and die by their pacing and a key part of that is how the soundtrack ties into on-screen events. Epitasis doesn’t really appear to have much of that, leading to a very weird atmosphere.
Maybe I’m being too harsh on a university student whose only real world experience in the games industry is being a QA tester but even if I simply judge this game by how well it achieves its own vision it still comes up lacking. The environments are far too large for a game like this where exploration is beyond pointless, serving only as a monument to ambition that was never realised. The simplistic puzzle mechanics aren’t going to challenge anyone for long, even the ones whose logic are somewhat mystifying. Finally, whilst the game does have a good soundtrack it feels disjointed and out of place, lacking the tight coupling that these kinds of puzzler/walking simulator type games require. As a first title for a nascent game developer it’s not completely terrible but even among peers it’s not much to write home about.
Epitasis is available on PC right now for $28.95. Total play time was 104 minutes with 90% of the achievements unlocked.