Sky: Children of the Light
Developer thatgamecompany have made a name for themselves with gorgeous exploration-focused games like Journey and Flower. So you can imagine the excitement when they announced they were working on a new multiplayer game for mobile devices. Sky is just as pretty as their other works and is meant to be a game for everyone, encouraging friendship and teamwork and social interactions. There’s a lot to be impressed about, most notably the dreamlike visuals and flight-centric gameplay. The cooperation between players is also a welcome departure from all the battle royale games pitting everyone against each other. And while it certainly is worth spending some time with, there are flaws that are hard to ignore.
When you first arrive in the world of Sky, you’ll acquire a cape that allows you to fly and glide. When you press the button on the lower right corner, you shoot upward and consume some light energy. The cape starts off weak, allowing you to only fly a short distance before your light runs out and you have to find a source from which to replenish. Much of the game involves searching around for ethereal children scattered throughout the world that upgrade your wings. The more winged lights you collect, the stronger your cape becomes and the farther you can fly. It’s fun to explore all the hidden areas and find these collectibles, but at times I also wished I could just use my wings to my heart’s content. My favorite parts of the game are where clouds or flying beasts allow me to soar freely. And the most stressful areas are those where things like rain, wind and monsters destroy my light, leaving me grounded.
The wing upgrades aren’t the only things you’ll be searching for in this magical world. Throughout the six kingdoms, there are ancient spirits waiting to be freed from their stone slumber. You need to seek them out wherever they might be hiding. Once awakened, they teach you a special expression and get added to your constellations. From there, you can use the in-game currencies to purchase accessories and cosmetics like hats, musical instruments, or purple wings. The expressions they teach you are mostly for entertainment value, like taking photos while doing a handstand. They look great, and the attention to detail is impressive. But some are also needed to unlock other spirits or complete certain missions. There are also expressions you can earn between friends, like a high-five and a hug. It’s obvious down to every little detail that this is a social game.
While it may seem early on that Sky can be played solo, there are many aspects that encourage traveling with friends. First off, some doors can only be opened if multiple people are activating it at the same time. Some puzzles even require as much as eight players to cooperate. But besides that, the game allows friends to link hands so one person can lead and the rest can relax and enjoy the view. While holding hands, players also replenish each other’s light even without an outside source. So this means, if you’re trying to reach something high up and there are no candles nearby to refill your energy, you may have trouble doing it alone. But with friends, you can just stop to rest and automatically refill, then continue the rest of the way. No candles necessary. Just be aware that the system is a little buggy at the moment, so going through a gate with friends or trying to warp to a friend could have some unwanted results. Hopefully these issues can be resolved, though.
As I mentioned, some areas are more stressful than others. The six kingdoms pretty much alternate between relaxing and dangerous, and the dangerous areas led to endless frustration for me. I found it hard to explore the rainy Hidden Forest with my light constantly getting doused. So I was more than happy to hold hands with friends and let them pull me along. Same goes for the Wasteland, where menacing dragons can steal your wing upgrades, forcing you to go back and look for them. In fact, I’m afraid to venture there at all without friends, so the cooperative aspect of the game kept me playing to the end instead of giving up early on. I wouldn’t even attempt the final area alone, so I’m lucky to have a friend who’s skilled at the game and kept me safe as much as possible. The ending is truly awe-inspiring, so I recommend finding people who can help you through it if you don’t feel confident doing so yourself.
The expressions are also fun to use with friends, and can even be used to communicate simple things. There’s a really useful way to call out to other players for help, too. If you tap your character, she lets out a call that can be heard all around the area. It’s a good way to find friends if you get separated, but also to let others know that you need more people to help with a puzzle or just to offer some light. These wordless features are surprisingly affective, which is good because it costs currency to unlock chat with each new friend. The in-game chat is also a bit clunky. I sometimes chatted with friends I knew from outside the game, but preferred using my separate phone to talk with them, as it was easier and more efficient and didn’t interfere with the game.
What’s a little strange about the social aspect is that strangers remain strangers, for the most part, even after they’re friends. When you first see another player, they look gray and lifeless. If you touch candles, you can see their true form. You can then offer them one of your candles, an in-game currency, to become a friend. But they’re essentially identity-less, as you get to name them. Unless you spend the currency to unlock chat or find a bench to talk with them, it’s kind of like befriending a bot. You can still invite friends using a barcode and then feel like you’re actually on an adventure with them. But I personally find it hard to truly bond with the people who have no identity outside of the name I gave them.
One of the reasons I relied on friends so much is that the controls don’t feel great to me. You can either play one-handed or two-handed, and I chose two handed, with the joystick on the left and the camera on the right. The jump/fly button is also on the right, and then there are some things like your expressions menu and settings options up at the top. The bottom is for chat and taking photos. There are some user interface issues in that you wouldn’t know where the settings are unless you happen to tap that area by chance or someone told you. The same thing goes with the photos — I only learned about the in-game photos when I took a screenshot using my device. But those are minor issues compared to the unpredictable flight controls. I’m sure some folks have no problem with it, but I would often waste my energy trying to get to a platform only to miss it and have to regroup and try again. The first time I really struggled was when I had to jump across giant jellyfish to get up to a higher platform. I found it hard to gauge how close I was to them and kept coming up short. I’m not sure what they can do to improve it, but I would probably enjoy the game more if I felt like I had better control when flying. As is, I find ice skating to be the most fun and easier to control.
Another issue I had was with my field of vision. I’ve been playing mostly on my iPad so everything’s bigger and my fingers don’t cover the action. But the game isn’t optimized for the full iPad screen, so everything is the same aspect ratio as an iPhone, with black bars at the top and bottom. I’m used to this with PC ports, especially of 2D point-and-click adventures where it would be too much work to adapt the artwork to a different size. But Sky was designed specifically for mobile devices. It’s also a 3D open world, so I’m not sure why the window couldn’t be expanded. It’s especially noticeable with cutscenes that are super widescreen, filling only a sliver of the screen. Aside from the aesthetics, I often found myself wishing that I could just see more of the area around me instead of being limited to that small window. Much of the game is about looking for secret areas and hidden items, so it’s extra painful having those black bars instead of seeing more of my surroundings.
Now, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Sky is a free-to-play game and it’s pretty generous, as you can complete the story without spending a penny. I haven’t bought anything yet, as I refuse to spend money on consumables and in-game items. But I still find the in-app purchases problematic based on who the developer is, what the intended message of the game is, and how they affect the overall experience. So let’s break it down.
The main currency in Sky is candles. You earn them by lighting red candles you see or burning certain other items you come across. Freeing spirits also gives you candles, as do certain events. These candles are used to upgrade your expressions and purchase single-use spells from spirits. But they can also be used to create hearts, the most valuable currency in the game. Hearts allow you to unlock different hair styles or wing colors, masks or hats. Three candles can be turned into a heart, but there’s only a certain number you can make. Past that, you’re relying on friends to gift them to you or perhaps exchange with you. The problem is, it takes a lot of candles and a lot of hearts to buy the cosmetics you want. That’s mainly because they’re all part of skill trees. You can’t simple buy a blue cape. You need to first upgrade that spirit’s expression several times, buy its spell, unlock the permanent wing that requires special candles that are much harder to earn, and then buy any other cosmetics leading up to that cape. So you can either earn those candles and hearts at a very slow rate or buy the candles using real cash to make it go faster. There’s no IAP you can buy that permanently doubles your candles, so it’s basically an endless money pit if you start spending.
But it’s not just that the candles take a long time to amass. The problem is that the game is fairly short and then expects you to replay each area over and over to get the light from candles up to once a day. It’s clearly designed this way so players get tired of the slow time-wasting grind, cave and buy some candles. And even if you do, you still have to replay through the game over and over to acquire the special Ascension Candles that allow you to further upgrade your spirits. This is a bit of a spoiler, but that means you have to go back and get all the same wing upgrades each time you complete the game.
And by the time you even reach the end of the game, you’ll likely have already played through each area several times to get all the spirits. It’s not enough to go back to find the spirits you missed and then head back home. You have to play through the end of an area to cement those spirits. You won’t have access to them back at the home base until you do. That means watching a lot of cutscenes again and again — some are skippable and some are not. And speaking of cutscenes — you might sometimes get interrupted by one that other players triggered, forcing you to wait before continuing what you were doing.
With the game being designed so thoroughly around repeating the same actions over an over, the intended message of friendship and teamwork can get lost among the actual messages of addiction and consumerism. One especially infuriating aspect is that it costs a candle to befriend a stranger, as well as unlocking expressions between you and them. You literally have to buy their friendship or remain strangers. This was especially maddening for me when I went solo to an area after spending almost all my candles. When I record video for my YouTube channel, I’m shown wearing in-game headphones. I don’t meet many people wearing them, but this time I met a group of four headphone girls. And they were all helpful, too, listening to my calls and patiently waiting for me to get everything I needed without even exchanging a single word. I so badly wanted to befriend all of them, but I only had one candle left, so only one of them became my friend. And it even costs candles to upgrade your friendship to chat, so I couldn’t even say anything to her. How can a game that stresses the importance of friendship make you choose whether adding some stranger to your constellation is worth shelling out cold, hard cash? It just doesn’t mesh well. I think a much better system would be to just limit the number of friends a player can have so they don’t add everyone they meet.
Now, as much as this monetization has warped the game, I can live with most of it. Since there’s no time limit on these items, I could just play once in a while with friends and not feel too pressured. I don’t feel like I absolutely have to have a purple cape by next week. I also get that it can be exciting to work up to an item and then finally get it. But what bothers me the most is the temporary seasonal content. At the time of this writing, there’s about forty days left to the summer event. This means there are six special spirits spread across the kingdoms. They offer special cosmetics that are only available to purchase during the event, and they require seasonal candles. These are earned by completing achievements each day. If you don’t spent any money, you can get about two candles per day by completing certain tasks, like praying at a specific location. If you buy the seasonal pass for $9.99, you get a few extra candles, a special pendant and twice the achievements each day. So if you start early on and make sure to complete all the achievements each day, you might be able to afford a good number of the seasonal items. But is that really the kind of message this game wants to send?
(Edit: It’s since come to my attention that the game advertises that the Adventure Pass gets you most of the seasonal items “straight away,” which is not only false, but the items at the top of the seasonal tree cost hearts. So even if you do the seasonal achievements each day, you would still need to get enough hearts somehow before the event ends. This is really pushing things too far. If someone spends $10 on the event, it shouldn’t still require a ton of work to access the items.)
I don’t like to be on a game’s schedule, feeling like I have to check in every day or miss out. But seeing other players in a fox mask and playing fancy instruments is giving me serious FOMO (fear of missing out). I don’t want to buy the season pass and feel compelled to check in every single day to earn my seasonal candles. But if I don’t, those items will be unattainable after a few weeks. All this just seems so pro-consumerism and the opposite of what the main story is trying to say. It nurtures addiction instead of encouraging a healthy relationship with games. Even though you don’t technically have to spend money or devote your precious time to these mindless tasks, the game is at least creating jealousy among the haves and the have-nots. I expect this from 99% of the free-to-play games in the App Store, but I didn’t expect it from such a wholesome studio as thatgamecompany. It’s a real shame that such a gorgeous game that obviously was created with good intentions got warped by its monetization. The result is a confused message where the story and the long-term goals are at odds with each other. I can’t help but wonder what kind of experience it might have been if it had just been a paid game or part of Apple Arcade, without any microtransactions.
Sky: Children of the Light is still a visual masterpiece and impressive to behold. But it’s not without its problems. It’s too punishing at times while trying to push a relaxing vibe. But it can be doable with a good group of people, so even those struggling can still find a way to complete it. That cooperative aspect of it that encourages teamwork sets it apart from most other games and makes it truly special. I only wish it respected players’ time more and didn’t try to foster addiction. It’s still very much worth playing through at least once, but try not to let it become the part-time job it wants to be. So download Sky here and soar through the clouds.
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