Your quest to relieve lingering spirits, which are suspended as translucent silhouettes across various worlds, is a charming story about healing and restoration that’s almost meditative to play. It’s emotional and beautiful in a way few games are and really shows why thatgamecompany is a master of this particular craft.
Tutorials teach you how to do things like move around with the floaty and sometimes obtuse on-screen virtual joystick controls, jump by tapping your right thumb, and soar through the clouds by holding it down, but Sky is a game about discovery in more ways than just its world. For example, there are nuances to movement you can pick up as you play. If you time your jumps just right to hop immediately after landing the previous jump, you pick up speed while skipping across fields and meadows. Or if you land a jump on the downward side of a hill, you’ll skate across the ground at higher speeds. Learning those unnecessary but useful techniques gives it a sense of progression even though you’re not mechanically unlocking new abilities.
Similar to Journey, Sky offers an almost unrivaled sense of freedom, specifically because of its simplicity. Detailed guidance on where to go or what to do generally isn’t needed because exploring the open and inviting worlds and intuitively finding things on your own is basically the entire game, but naturally it can also be a bit unclear where to go at times. If the subtle storytelling wasn’t as delightful to watch. Large creatures appear in between worlds to offer a Shadow of the Colossus-esque emotional weight to everything. The sounds they make sound are desperate and painful, while your character and the spirits you discover are more melodic and cheery in tone.
And arguably, meeting and playing with others is just as important to the story as the minimalist cutscenes themselves. Plus, interactions with other players are so responsive and fun that the simple format doesn’t grow tiresome. Instead, it actually felt like the shackles of a guided tutorial and restricted level designs are removed by the time you reach the second world, about 15 minutes in.
Each of the seven different landscapes has a personality of its own, from the ethereal and cloud-heavy worlds full of floating islands to those covered in dense, green grass inviting you to skate across the prairies, or even forests drenched in rain that evoke a somber yet comforting atmosphere.
But what puts Sky over the top is how much it embraces its wonderfully positive social interactions. There’s no voice or text chat and no way to directly communicate with other players – instead, you use a collection of quaint and frankly heartwarming gestures. You can hold out a candle to greet and add a player to your friend list and then assign them a custom nickname (since you can’t see their actual name). You can play music together, exchange glowing butterflies, and even hold hands to go exploring as a team. Up to eight players can join hands led by a single leader that guides the group across the land and through the sky. The impromptu grouping system feels genuine because of the emotive interactions characters make towards each other and it’s a great system to help new players figure out what to do and where to go. It’s a bit like putting yourself on autopilot while someone else guides the way, but you can easily break off whenever you want to resume control.
Technically, you can invite friends directly to play with people you know, but much like Sky as a whole, the unspoken communication in its multiplayer is a big part of the magic and is best with a stranger. One player I met (who I decided to name “Homie”) explored with me for over an hour. Sometimes we’d stop and just sing to each other by tapping our avatars directly or we’d hop across fields, skating and racing against each other. At one point Homie grabbed my hand and flew us both through the sky, swirling and weaving between the clouds. At no point was I concerned with “what to do next” – I just enjoyed the spectacle. It was simple and wonderful.
Sky is as complex as you want it to be. The entire game is completable from start to finish entirely solo, but several hidden doors and secret side areas can only be unlocked if multiple players gather together to solve simple puzzles, like lighting two candles at the same time. On the surface, these puzzles are often as simple as tapping on a candle to light it up or following a trail of glittering dust to the next spirit silhouette, but there’s a satisfying magic in every interaction. Story events aren’t explicitly explained, but you can put the pieces together based on the environments and poses of each silhouette you encounter. Many scenarios are heartbreaking, featuring characters buckled over in grief, and that makes your relieving touch to dissipate the spirit all the more powerful. Visually, it’s breathtaking from start to finish and even though you’re just lightly tapping on the screen and watching the environment bursting with light, it’s hard not to feel at ease.
While I loved every minute of Sky on an iPhone, I couldn’t help but yearn for a more capable gaming system. The on-screen controls do a respectable job while exploring, but when you need precision and subtle movements for platforming segments or when guiding another player around the world, the lack of actual buttons and control sticks got in the way a bit. Thankfully, the forgiving and welcoming design meant minor annoyances like floaty controls rarely interrupted the fun.
In some regards, Sky’s focus on deeper gameplay robs it of a bit of the charm that made Journey’s elegant simplicity so special the first time around, but that’s often the case with follow-ups and spiritual successors. Instead of trying to replicate its predecessor, thatgamecompany has instead iterated and expanded upon what came before to craft an adventure that’s strange, meditative, and memorable. The mysterious ending, which I reached after about four hours, invites repeat playthroughs and the dynamic multiplayer encounters ensure no two runs will ever be the same.