The screenshots we see before a game's release almost never look the same as in-game. There are exceptions of course—thanks to triple-A games' newfound embrace of photo modes—but largely the shots plopped onto store pages and embellished into press kits frankly aren't representative of how the game looks in the moment to moment for players.
As a game critic, I'm often spamming screenshots. Sometimes they're framed carefully, sometimes taken flippantly. (The latter I blame on the PlayStation 4's easy Share button.) When I reviewed Judgment just last month, I came out the other end with over a hundred screenshots. When our own Mike Williams reviewed Final Fantasy 14: Shadowbringers, he took 443 screenshots. I'm currently playing the iOS social adventure Sky: Children of the Light for an eventual review, and again, am taking screenshots at every single moment. Only this time for more of a purpose, because it's shocking me how it can even look so good on a little mobile device.
Sky is the latest game from thatgamecompany, known for its work on Journey and Flower. When Sky was announced in 2017 during one of Apple's keynotes, the resounding talk around the game was that it looked awfully similar to its 2012 hit; capes, social elements, and all. The reality is not too off base. Just the other night, I popped into Sky imagining I'd meet a random person in the social hub area where you can dress up your cloaked character with new hairstyles, masks, and more; I blinked and hours flew by. I was entranced by it. In retrospect, I'm realizing this is thatgamecompany's staple.
It comes down to Sky's clouds, really. The clouds are what I keep staring at in my screenshots. It's what distracts me when exploring its wide-open levels too. When you glide, if you coast through some clouds it replenishes your flight stamina. Naturally, I nosedive into clouds often; I watch as my caped character tumbles clumsily before soaring again. The clouds have a painterly quality to them; not too realistic like the clouds you might see if you look out your window, nor do they look phony. The incredible score soars when you, too, soar. The clouds look dreamy and welcoming, as if they're begging you to dive headfirst into them.
In sifting through my screenshots, I'm still astounded by how sharp Sky looks, clouds and all. The clouds are always appropriately fluffy. When your character pulls out their candle to light other candles or burn something, a soft glow emanates from them and everything they light. The screenshots you take, whether with your phone's natural function or the in-game camera toggle you can bring up with a simple tap, always looks just as solid too.
I'll admit, I've had reservations about Sky since its announcement. Maybe that was because it was announced as a free-to-start game for phones, or because it looked too similar to Journey at a cursory glance. The adventure, which has you chasing down spirits and learning about an ancient civilization, feels a lot grander than its immediate predecessors. The environments are bigger than I expected too, which makes sense considering you can form parties with up to seven other players for eight caped characters skirting about.
The last time I was amazed with how a game ran smoothly on mobile was actually recently with this year's Kids, a short, breezy adventure from Playables. Kids, unlike Sky, is not a graphical powerhouse. It's solely a 2D animated game, but where it impresses is in its lack of frame rate issues. At any point, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of characters on screen that can move, and the game always runs smoothly, whether featureless figures are diving headfirst into a gaping hole or waving their hands to make a wave like they're at a sports show.
Beyond that though, most games frankly don't impress on mobile. Most games are built for the smaller infrastructure, and run well within those tight constraints. Sky, I imagine, had a long development cycle to make good on its ambition. There are no compromises seen in its large environments, nor in its smooth movement. It's just as beautiful as you'd expect from a thatgamecompany game.
It's shocking, too. Some of the screenshots I've taken over the course of my playtime so far can easily be mistaken for press shots. It's very much a "screenshot worthy" game, in that respect. But the shock comes in how consistent it all is, from both a performance and art direction standpoint. It all looks swell on my iPhone XS, though I imagine on lesser devices, it might not hold up as well.
I'm having a good time with Sky so far, though I'm not sure if I'll feel too compelled to keep playing it after review. Playing alongside friends helps you solve puzzles that require more than one person, and in turn uncover new mysteries and spirits. New cosmetics and gestures, in turn, unlock. At E3 2019, its developers pitched it to me as a "casual MMO" in this way. As a fan of Journey, Flower, and Flow though, I'm soaking in Sky more as a lightly solitary adventure. Maybe that's not how it's intended to be enjoyed, but with every sweeping vista, with every pile of clouds, I look forward to every new area I get to explore.