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.
I’m not exactly known for going against the main stream view of a game but for what its worth my opinion is (mostly) formed based on the merits of the game itself rather than the popular opinion of the time. This became painfully apparent after my Dear Esther review and despite my assurances that I was able to put game play aside for a good story (like I’ve done several times before) I feel that many people who read that review don’t believe I’m capable of identifying a good story. Then I came across Journey, yet another game that tentatively pushed at the boundaries of the “game” definition and I thought this could be my redeeming grace. Of course Journey is nothing like Dear Esther as there’s no question as to its status as a game and what a game it is.
Journey opens up with you, a nameless and near faceless individual, standing in front of a vast desert. Apart from some vague imagery of what appears to be a star falling to the ground there’s not much more of an introduction. You’re then given control and shown the basics of movement using the PS3’s motion controls as well as the tried and true dual joysticks. Journey then leverages off your past game experience to drive you to the next goal (a close by hill) upon which the ultimate goal is shown, a giant mountain from which a pillar of light is emanating. You will spend the rest of the game attempting to reach that point.
The art direction of Journey had me first thinking that most of it was cell shaded but it is in fact just heavily stylized. Whilst the characters and scenery are usually quite simple the environment which you play through is quite vibrant and dynamic, especially for a place like a vast desert. At the same time the foley and sound direction is magnificent as they compliment the visuals quite aptly. Indeed one of the best aspects of Journey is the seemingly perfect combination of visuals and sounds, timed perfectly to evoke your emotions in a certain way at specific times.
Whilst the game play of Journey is undeniably there, thus firmly separating it from other experimental titles, it’s quite simplistic yet thoroughly satisfying. If I’m honest I went into this expecting Dear Esther levels of game play: I.E. nothing much more than exploration. You’ll spend a great deal of time in Journey exploring the areas but that’s far from the main game play mechanic which centres heavily around the idea that you main character can fly, albeit for a limited time.
The little tassel on the back of your character is your flight timer. You can jump and then fly to great heights but as you do the symbols on your tail start to burn away. When they’re depleted you’ll fall back to the ground and you’ll have to look for places to recharge it. Thankfully these are plentiful, either taking the the form of stationary points or animated cloth animals that will follow you around, recharging you as you go. You can also increase the length of your flight time by finding glowing orbs that are scattered around the place and the end of each level will let you know how many of the potential orbs you collected before carrying on.
Where Journey really starts to shine however is when other people start accompanying you on your journey. I remember my first encounter clearly: after finishing a level and proceeding to walk through a long hallway to the next I spotted movement off in the distance. I was going to back track to look for more orbs but the way the figure moved seemed… different to everything else. Excited I followed after them and when I got to them it was clear that there was another person behind that controller. Where it really got interesting though was when we tried to communicate to each other, being limited to only short bursts of sound. This meant that cooperating had to be somewhat instinctive, but you’d be surprised how much you can say with only a simple means of communication at your hands.
The multiplayer aspect, whilst not an essential part of the game play, does lend itself to some awesome emergent game play. When your characters are close to each other you slowly recharge each other’s flight time and you can recover it fully with single communication ability you have. This means your flight time can be extended indefinitely if you and your partner work together allowing you to gather many of the glowing orbs thus increasing your flight time again. Towards the end I had an extremely long tassel that allowed me and my partner to reach unfathomably large heights with relative ease. This made many parts of the game much easier and also served as something of a bragging right when I was joined by someone with a shorter tassel.
Journey has not a single line of dialogue, instead relying on cut scenes that tell a story through a series of brilliantly done hieroglyphics. They didn’t make a terrible amount of sense for me at the start but as you progress a grand story of a society that rose from the desert only to fall down again. The pictures start off in retrospective, highlighting things that had happened in the past that lead up to the world as it exists today. About half way through the hieroglyphs start turning prophetic, telling a story that seems to be eerily close to yours as it is happening right now.
Ultimately the story that’s told without a whiff of dialogue or text is amazingly satisfying. Whilst its not a gripping emotional conclusion that I’ve felt for similar story based games in the past it’s definitely fulfilling and thankfully steered clear from any notion that there might be a Journey 2 (and however they’d follow up Journey is an exercise I’ll leave to the reader). Showing you the names of people you shared your journey with along the way is a really nice touch and I was devastated when I found out that my video capture software had crapped out halfway through and those names were lost to the ages.
Realistically the only fault I can level at Journey is the price as at $20 on a game that I can’t share with my friends that only lasts 2 hours seems a tad steep. I’m sure it will eventually come down a bit in price and there’ll be something of a renaissance of people playing Journey again but until then I wonder how many are willing to take the rather steep plunge to play through it.
There’s few games that have made me smile the way Journey did, both at the beginning with a child like wonder at the amazing world that was presented before me to the ultimate conclusion that was a beautiful metaphor for the grand cycle of life and death. Everything about Journey just seems to meld together so well, from the art to the music to the game play. I could go on but realistically Journey is something that you need to experience for yourself.
Journey is available on PS3 exclusively right now for $20. Total play time was approximately 2 hours.