When you start up Sky: Children of the Light, numerous messages shoot across the screen as it loads. Messages informing you of server connections, the reception of in-game currencies, and the like are commonplace for games with an online focus, but there’s one short message that feels uniquely descriptive to thatgamecompany’s fourth title: "Finding new friends." It's just a simple notification that you’re being connected to other players in this intimately connected universe, but it’s also a strong message of what Sky is really about. Although it mimics many gameplay elements from Journey, it’s Sky’s evolution of those ideas that makes it a fascinating multiplayer experiment with deeply meditative qualities.
Playing Sky is incredibly similar to Journey. You control a robed figure, recognizable as a small child, and navigate a series of small environments connected only by the constellations in the stars they share above. Sky keeps things simple by tasking you with navigating its environments and holding down a single button to soar into the air and take flight. Flight is central to Sky’s otherwise simple mechanics, letting you execute gorgeous maneuvers through the clouds or delicately glide between the remains of mysterious ruins. Expressive yet subtle animations make each movement in the air feel delightful, even though you’re doing little more than controlling your direction. Swooping down into the clouds only to tilt upwards at the last minute is rewarded with a cute pirouette, for example, letting the wind engulf your robe and accurately shape it in the wind.
Flight isn’t free in Sky. Flying draws light from your robe, which limits how much aerial freedom you have. Light is collected from any light source you come across, and it’s your job to spread it around in turn. You ferry around light with candles, using them to spread fire to unlit lanterns and shrines. You can also use light to burn away corrupted vegetation or scare dangerous wildlife that will attack you in the dark. Glowing, faceless children are scattered around each new area you explore, bestowing you with wings that help you upgrade the amount of light you can store at a time, in turn letting you fly longer. You can lose wings when you’re carrying no light and take damage from enemies or environmental hazards, though you can easily pick them up again. Sky doesn't feel punishing at any point, but it does use these gentle nudges to remind you of how great it feels to have a bounty of flight at your fingertips and what it might feel like to lose it again.
Collecting light is beneficial to getting around, which in turn lets you discover lost spirits that govern the central progression in Sky. Each area has a star constellation that you slowly complete by saving lost spirits and returning them to the skies above. Most of these are simple exploration puzzles. By diligently poking around, you find blue outlines of long-forgotten beings, each creating a breadcrumb trail to follow that tells a short story of the spirit it’s leading to. These are moments frozen in time, telling vague stories that can come across as anything from humorous to tragic. It’s cheerful to see a skit of two clumsy beings attempting to move objects far bigger than them from one room to another, and equally sober to witness another in anguish, mourning a painful loss. Sky’s story is intentionally vague so that you fill in the blanks, interpreting what purpose light serves in its world and why its sacrifice is meaningful.
Sky is entirely playable alone, and you're not required to find any fixed number of its spirits to finish it. But it’s also a game with a big emphasis on sharing your experience with strangers. You aren’t a unique figure in its world, and certainly not the only one carrying light to its eventual end. Instead, your journey is consistently filled with other players, each on their own adventure that you can choose to partake in for just a moment or two. You can contribute in small ways. A passing player might hold out their candle for you to light, letting you replenish their light in turn if you choose to. To befriend another player, you need to share a candle with them, permanently linking you two and adding them to your friends list (which is suitably represented by a growing constellation). You never see these players' names; instead, you name them based on your interactions with them. It feels like meeting someone new for the first time, but not immediately being able to speak to them. You can use taps to let out audio pings that help gather other players around you, but you're also able to take a seat on a bench, wait for another player to sit next to you, and engage in a more direct, text-based conversation if you choose.
The most interesting way to interact with other players is with emotes, which are unlocked with each new spirit that you free. You can use these emotes to express yourself to other players, with anything from a simple wave or a point in a direction to more intimate displays of friendly affection, like hugs. There are also separate emotes and actions you can unlock by increasing your friendship with other players. By rewarding each other with consumable candles, you’ll unlock unique abilities (which can also only be used between you two) that can change the way you navigate through each area. My personal favorite was the ability to form long chains of players by holding hands, with one player guiding the group to new places while using everyone's collective light to fuel the flight. This also helps new players see areas they might not yet possess the ability to reach, granting Sky a cooperative nature that's remarkably easy to engage with.
This simplicity helps some of Sky's more demanding puzzles, where cooperation between multiple players--anything between a single pair to a full group of eight--is required. Some doors, for example, require two players to light urns at the same time to open. Other more demanding challenges task up to eight players to gather around an octagon and light old runes in a specific order. Although these challenges are rarely hard to decipher, and finding enough players to participate with was never an issue in my time with the game, simply trying to get everyone to alight in more group-focused tasks was slightly frustrating. Since none of these puzzles are required to continue through Sky, they're easy to overlook.
Sky weaves its focus on forming friendships into its microtransaction model, too, which changes the rules of what you’ve come to expect from these systems in a big way. Hearts are used to purchase cosmetic items, but you can't buy them outright. Instead, you can purchase candles (which you can also get in-game) which can then be packaged and sent to a friend as a heart. This is the only way to earn hearts, meaning you’ll need to depend on the gracious gifts of friends you’ve made in Sky to kit yourself out in some fancy new clothing. There are also options to purchase seasonal passes that unlock more straightforward daily quests and a few pieces of exclusive clothing, but for the most part you’ll be focused on forming new bonds with strangers and exchanging gifts with them frequently if you’re invested in standing out from everyone else visually.
Your first flights through a temple in the sky or the hurried dash you need to make between awnings of large mushrooms in a rain-soaked forest are delightful.
This means that you’ll likely be playing Sky well after the credits have rolled on your initial playthrough, which can take anywhere between four to six hours. You can collect any outstanding spirits you likely missed, especially since some aren’t even accessible without having played later areas in the game. You also need to reacquire your wings for flight again, due to story reasons you learn about during the finale. All of this means that you’ll be revisiting many areas you’ve already soared through at least once before, which can remove some of the splendor you experienced the first time around. This is especially true when you’re breaking from their intended flow to poke around the environment in search of small crevices you missed the first time. This feels like it goes against the natural harmony of Sky's intended path, signposted with simple nudges that point you in the right direction. When you’re solely focusing on completion, Sky just isn’t as compelling.
Yet, there’s a meditative quality to return visits when you’re simply looking for a brief escape. Your first flights through a temple in the sky or the hurried dash you need to make between awnings of large mushrooms in a rain-soaked forest are delightful the first time around. Their mixtures of stunningly detailed environments and suitable stirring music are impactful, and less so when you’re running around in circles trying to see if there was a small crevice you forgot to explore.
Sky is both different to everything thatgamecompany has made before but also a smart evolution of what makes its games special. It's simple to play while feeling incredible at the same time, making the act of flight exciting every time your feet leave the ground. It also features a fascinating spin on in-game purchases, locking its most alluring rewards behind the action of making friends and making a positive enough impression on them. That means you have to play a lot of Sky to eventually work towards what you want, which saps some life out of the gorgeous vignettes you're free to explore. But it's no less memorable for the ideas it presents or calming in the way it gives you the freedom to pursue them, making it another journey worth seeing through.