To see a landscape from above is to transform it, to understand it differently, to form new concepts of action within it. A plane’s window brings a world into view and renders it alien, a swollen floor of cloud-tufted strangeness. It feels like game developers are still discovering the power of such perspective shifts, though they’ve treated us to some wonderful examples. The Total War games reel from the clatter of individual spears on helmets to the Tetris-esque spectacle of formations locking together. Fortnite opens with a skydive, the camera briefly enclosing the whole of an island that will soon shrink to a few, bullet-torn acres. And then there’s this week’s Vane – a glorious, if clunky, third-person odyssey which casts you as a bird who is also a child, journeying across a desert world.
That should probably be journey with a capital “J”. The fluttering, scarlet spectre of thatgamecompany’s work looms large over Friend & Foe’s new game. You see it in the curl of the protagonist’s headscarf and the delight Vane takes in the shifting of sand, bulbs of the stuff erupting from your footfalls as you scale the dunes. There’s also the obvious influence of Team Ico (Friend & Foe’s five employees include veterans of The Last Guardian) in the mildly chaotic, arse-over-teakettle movement of the child, not helped by a framerate that is clearly a lower priority than the setting and certain elaborate environmental effects. Vane finds its own, peculiar dimension beyond these inspirations, however: its closing chapters are like nothing I’ve seen, and there’s something quietly revolutionary about how changing species allows you to perceive its landscape anew.
You begin as the child, carrying a glowing orb across creaky metal platforms during an apocalyptic hurricane. Robed avian figures eye you from orange-lit doorways as the ground is torn from beneath your feet. After a few moments of this the stormclouds surge, rushing the screen – and you reawaken as a bird, perched on a white tree with nothing but air and silence for miles around. A button press launches you skyward to assess a world that is now a wasteland (quite where each of the game’s five chapters sit in time is one of Vane’s lingering enigmas). Like a 19th century astronomer reading canals into the surface of Mars, you begin sifting hints of artifice from the ebb and flow of geology. The suggestion of a wall, here and there. Swaying pylons that lead you out towards the world’s misty perimeter. The sloughed-off carapace of a tower, lying in segments across a riverbed.