Journey is an incredibly influential game; it’s concepts weaved throughout numerous titles who sought to emulate their ways and perhaps earn some similar levels of acclaim. Indeed the concept I’ve dubbed “That Journey Moment”, the one where you first skate your way down a long dune past a ruined city, has been copied so much that it has almost become a genre defining idea in itself for these indie exploration games. So it’s been a long wait whilst Thatgamecompany worked on their next title, something which I’d left myself completely blind on so I could enjoy it without having anything ruined. Whilst the spirit of Journey lives on strongly in Sky: Children of the Light its soul has been crushed by that evil which comes for many games should they live long enough.
That evil is microtransactions.
Your world was once one filled with infinite light with the constellations filled with stars who shone down upon you. However over time those stars fell to earth and their light no longer brightened the sky. So it was that your kingdom began to fall into disrepair until it found itself in the desolate state that it is today. Your task, little child of the light, is to find those lost stars and return them to their constellations and reignite the cycle of death and rebirth that everything, even the stars, are bound to.
Sky does a fantastic job of painting a beautiful world with the limited hardware that’s provided by mobile devices. The art style will look incredibly familiar to anyone who’s played Journey with similar colour palettes, styles and animations. The near decade between the titles has seen significant leaps in technology and Sky makes good use of them with lavish particle systems, lighting effects and wide open vistas that you’ll spend a good amount of time simply soaking in. Layered on top of these stunning visuals is an amazing soundtrack, one that’s beautifully tied into the events that are happening on screen. My only gripe was that the foley mastering seemed a bit off as the numerous bass-y things that happened seemed to peak out my headphones, even after turning the base down completely. I didn’t try any other headphones though so this could be a non-issue. It goes without saying then that Sky’s craftsmanship is superb and is likely the best I’ve seen on mobile platforms to date.
The core game mechanics will be familiar to those who’ve played Journey although I wouldn’t go as far to say that playing its predecessor is necessary reading to play Sky. The main aim is simply exploration as you seek out the lost stars, relive their memories and find other collectibles along the way. The main mechanic is, of course, flight although this time around you can basically glide for forever but to gain height will cost you one of your wing energy things. Right from the start though you’ll be surrounded by other players and, should you choose to cooperate with them, you’ll be able to soar to even greater heights. There’s 7 different worlds to explore, each with a different theme, challenges and collectibles for you to track down. There is also (rather unfortunately) a microtransaction store where you can purchase cosmetics and something called an Adventure Pass which I’ll touch on a bit later.
Exploration is a rewarding activity in Sky as they’ve taken out a good chunk of the frustration in tracking things down by highlighting things of interest with sun dogs that you can see from a decent distance away. Depending on how many players are in your zone though you might find some things already done or completely locked out to you and the game doesn’t do a great job of informing you about what’s happening. After a while though you get a feel for when an area has been completed even though you haven’t done everything and should you find yourself in a fresh area it’s almost guaranteed to fill up before you reach the end.
The puzzles and other mechanics are pretty light on in terms of challenge but that’s largely to be expected for a game that’s supposed to have wide reaching appeal. The community is also pretty great too with most players all too happy to help out where they can, sometimes even offering to friend you and grab your hand if it becomes apparent that you’re really not understanding what you should do next. This is, of course, the main thrust of the game which Thatgamecompany experimented with in Journey: the idea of helping each other out even though you only have limited means by which to communicate with each other. If the stars align just right for you this can mean some incredible emotional moments as you share pivotal moments of the game together with strangers you will likely never know or meet ever again.
However there are 2 major issues with the game that fundamentally tarnish what would have otherwise been another masterpiece from Thatgamecompany. The first, and honestly probably the worst of it, is the fact that the game is free and powered by microtransactions. Now the full game is available to you at no charge and, for the most part, you won’t be locked out of anything if you decide not to spend real money on it. But things like the adventure pass ($15) only last one season and need to be rebought for each of them, costing you a total of $60/year if you so wish to indulge. It’s also unfortunately obvious right from the get go as one of the most prominent UI elements is the god damn shopping trolley in the right hand corner. That instantly ruined the entire mood of the game for me as no longer were the symbols people carried with them signs of mastering the game, they were more likely real dollars. I feel that this really crushed the soul of Journey that this game inherited and there’s really nothing that can be done to Sky to recover from it. I’d personally suggest hiding the fact that there were any microtransactions until you’ve completed your first playthrough so you could have that emotional journey without the baggage of the F2P model hanging around you.
Secondly the control system is finicky, unreliable and down right frustrating to use. Some of the more complicated platforming sections are incredibly frustrating because your character won’t respond like you want them to and there are other times where it’s impossible to tell if you’re just not doing something right or if you’re really not able to do what you’re trying to do. This could potentially be solved by pairing a controller to your phone (something I only found out about after I’d completed the game) but still, the game was meant to be played on your phone as is. It’s incredibly frustrating to have such a well crafted game that’s so horribly let down by its control scheme. I don’t believe this is beyond fixing but I know I’m not the only one to be frustrated by it.
MILD PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
Sky’s story is very middle of the road, thanks in part to the fact that it shares a lot of tropes with its spiritual predecessor which has been copied to death by numerous indie exploration titles in the years since its release. However I do have to admit that it has its moments and, should you be lucky enough to be playing with people at the right times some incredible emotional moments. For me it was when I was finally heading to be reborn in the stars and I found myself walking through the pools of light towards the door. It was there that someone who was with me in the level just before appeared, and the first showed me where to get a free heart. From there they walked with me towards the door, cheering for me along the way. Then, just before I entered the door, they waved goodbye as I was sent down to be reborn. Honestly without someone else there at the end with me I wouldn’t have thought much more of it but the fact that I wasn’t alone at the end was an exceptionally powerful moment for me, one that’s still bringing a tear or two to my eyes as I write this.
Does that mean I can forgive the games various sins? Possibly as I can see the beauty that they wanted to achieve but honestly without knowing there was a store and with a better control scheme Sky would’ve been competing head to head with Ori and the Will of the Wisps for my game of the year. Now though? It’s not even close.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Sky: Children of the Light is an exceptionally well crafted games with a couple deep flaws that tarnish what could otherwise be yet another genre defining experience. The graphics and soundtrack are both exceptional in their own right but down right amazing when paired together. The core game loop is fun and rewarding, encouraging you to work with others and explore the gorgeous world that the developers have created for you. Sky also provides fertile ground for those emergent narrative moments that games like these are renowned for, something I’m incredibly glad I got to experience at the game’s emotional peak. Unfortunately the microtransaction store and the horrendous control scheme are painful wounds on an otherwise great experience, severely detracting from the game’s spiritual core. Overall though it’s still very much worth playing, if only to support Thatgamecompany so they’ll hopefully make another game in 8 years time.
Sky: Children of the Light is available for free on iOS and Android right now and will come to Nintendo Switch soon. Game was played on an Android Pixel 3 XL with a total of approximately 4 hours play time.