Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is lovely. There’s a warmth and whimsy to it that really appeals to me, and in many ways it seems like a game built with The LEGO Movie‘s ‘Everything Is Awesome’ motif fully in mind. I mean look at it. It’s gorgeous, and all of the creatures in it look like they’ve been purposefully designed to be as cute and round and cuddly as possible.
After picking out your nameless and silent protagonist’s hair colour, body shape and eye tone, you find yourself shipwrecked on a beautiful island, separated into completely nonsensical but strikingly pretty biomes. The island, Gemea, is a place more or less free from violence (unless you count the brutal treatment of barrels and crates in this game), free from enemies, free from dangerous beasts and other roving perils. If you accidentally tumble over the edge of a precipice, your character will bust out a pretty little parasol and float slowly to safety. If you jump into deep water, the screen will fade to black momentarily and you’ll be back on shore again with barely a hair out of place. Everything looks cuddly, even the rocks.
The only slightly less-cuddly thing is a purple miasma known as Murk, which seems to only exist to artificially block off certain routes around Gemea and restrict your access to certain locations of interest. But the inhabitants of Gemea clearly aren’t too worried about this Murk business. They’re all too busy leading blissfully happy lives to be worried about a poisonous mist slowly taking over their island.
And why wouldn’t they be? After all, they exist in a game that looks like a cross between Wind Waker and Harvest Moon, with a little bit of Media Molecule’s Tearaway whimsy, but none of the inventiveness. Herein lies the rub with Yonder – it reminds me of similar, deeper, better games that I sort of wished I was playing while going through this. The trouble is that it’s all too easy to describe Yonder in lofty comparative terms, but there’s always something missing. It has the cel-shaded visual appeal of the more recent Legend of Zelda titles, but little of the epic sense of adventure. There’s something of the rural Romanticism of Stardew Valley at work here, but none of the depth in gameplay. There are hidden little secrets and glorious details to uncover across Gemea, but they could have meant so much more with a little lore or context.
That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of wonder to Yonder. The first time that you step into the Grasslands, and Gemea opens up before you, is heavily reminiscent of the first time you step out onto Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time. But whereas the latter kicks on into an adventure of breadth and scope which matches the hope that accompanies your first foray beyond Kokiri Forest, the same cannot be said of Yonder. For as beautiful and charming and adorable as it is, it becomes apparent all too quickly that everything is pretty much set dressing.
Buildings serve little purpose beyond breaking up open spaces. You can push back the Murk by collecting Sprites, but there are no puzzles to solve in the accumulation of these ethereal keys, you just stumble across glowing areas and then press a button. You can opt to have a Sprite accompany you, and choose between the ones you’ve rescued, but that choice means nothing beyond cosmetic swaps. The same can be said for some of the game’s other systems. Yonder realises Peter Molyneux’s dream of being able to plant a seed and then return to find it grown into a tree. But you can only do this in certain areas. Yonder suggests a certain level of freedom, but its systems (and this extends to crafting, farming, and fishing) are watered down and overly simplistic. The creative freedom offered in this game isn’t a patch on Animal Crossing let alone something like Minecraft, and for a game that doesn’t really have much else going for it in terms of actionable content, that’s a bit of a problem.
Unfortunately, that lack of imagination also extends to the quests in the game. Many of the characters you’ll encounter have little errands for you to run. Sadly, the meat of these tasks fall squarely in the category of the most bland and irritating fetch quests. Go to that place, find those things, and bring back enough of them to satisfy the objective. This is, by itself, pure open-world filler material. It’s menial busywork with additional backtracking, an easy fix for eating up a few hours, but this isn’t gameplay that nourishes the soul. Beyond exploring Gemea to locate these myriad items, there’s no challenge to this game aside from patience and a willingness to forgive repetition.
That being said, there’s potentially just enough gentle humour in the characters who dish out these quests, and sporadic comedy in the reasons behind all of your fetching and carrying, to get something out of this. One of the most memorable and amusing scenarios involves helping a woman grow a beard so she can impress her friend. The things you’ll end up doing aren’t particularly difficult, there’s not a huge amount of skill involved in Yonder, and the lack of any real stakes threaten to make the whole thing a bit of a yawn fest, but if you enjoy a bit of whimsical charm, Yonder might appeal as a simple mood piece.
It is delightful, especially in the early stages of the game. You know when cats sit down in a round ball, and they tuck in their paws to look like little fluffy puffs of sheer loveliness? Well, I have a word for that…chumbly. And every single creature in this game is adorably cute and chumbly, to the point where I actually cried out ‘Awww’ several times at the screen. Befriending them by managing to find the right food for the right animal never gets tiresome, in fact seeking out the answer to those combinations is something I spent a lot of time doing. Unfortunately, though, Yonder squanders this by making you lead your bribed companions back to your farm incredibly slowly.
For every wonderful little detail, like discoverable stones that will write new constellations in the night sky, there’s something lacking or irritating, such as how the game’s day/night cycle is too rapid by far. Or like how the fishing can be surprisingly serene despite its shallowness, but your backpack will never be able to hold as much as you want it to. Or how the game’s biomes do provide some breathtakingly gorgeous moments, but that getting from A to B really becomes a bit of a chore after a while, and I wish my little shipwrecked dude could jump a little higher.
I must admit that I ended up running out of patience with Yonder, but it’s important to consider why. I know that a certain part of that has to do with my own affinity for things like progression and reward systems. But a huge part of it is the absence of conflict or context. The former doesn’t require violence. Puzzles to be solved, riddles to be unravelled, decisions to be made – these are all things that can readily replace combat. As much as the developers should be lauded for trying to deliver an experience where your primary interaction with a world is something other than violence, the scope of that ambition in terms of execution is far too narrow. I love to see games find ways for us to interact with digital world that don’t amount to shooting or punching or stabbing or blasting things. But nothing in Yonder really steps in to fill the gap. In the end, there’s just not quite enough here to play with.
The caveat to all of this is that Yonder will likely be received far differently by a child than by me. In many ways it does feel a little like a game trying to step into the role of My First Open World RPG, and that’s no bad thing at all. But I wish that had been done with a little more narrative presence, or at least some inventiveness in terms of the quest design, or more depth in terms of the almost-standalone farming metagame.
Platform: PC (reviewed) | PS4
Developer: Prideful Sloth
Publisher: Prideful Sloth
Review copy provided by publisher. Click here to check out the scoring guide.
Sweet but shallow
In the end, Yonder is a game that I desperately want to like more than I actually do. It's bright and charming and affable and super cute. But unfortunately, it also left me bored and pining for the games that clearly inspired it.