Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is a hard game to classify. It’s an open world adventure game but one without many of the usual elements. There is no combat or violence, no character progression such as levelling, and very few, if any, puzzles. It has touches of a lot of other games other games: Zelda, Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing to name only a few, but for the most part it’s its own thing. It’s a serene, meditative experience where everything is tied to exploring the world around you. It’s also surprisingly great.
Developed by Aussie studio, Prideful Sloth, Yonder begins with your nameless character shipwrecked on the isle of Gemea, your long lost birthplace which has since fallen prey to a dark substance called ‘murk’. Within the first few minutes, you’re charged with finding creatures called sprites to help you with clearing the murk from the land. You’re then turned loose into the game’s rich open world to do pretty much whatever you like. Yonder’s gameplay is tied almost entirely to exploration. There are no enemies to defeat, no levels to gain and your only real obstacles are environmental ones. You can spend your time how you choose, wandering the island looking for more sprites, doing quests for the island’s inhabitants or gathering materials for crafting. Early on in the game, you unlock a farm that you can build and manage, gathering up animals and planting crops in order to produce more materials for crafting and trade. There is no pressure or urgency to anything you do which is strangely relaxing. The game relies on a sense of discovery to keep you playing, constantly rewarding your exploration with new crafting materials, collectibles or quests.
One thing I really enjoy about Yonder is its lack of handholding. Aside from the opening few quests, the game largely allows you to figure things out on your own. When it has to explain mechanics, it does so with clarity and minimal fuss. There can be moments where you’re floundering around, trying to puzzle out how something works but the sense of achievement when you finally get there is palpable. Yonder’s story is a very slight affair that can be breezed through fairly quickly, but getting to the end is kind of missing the point of the game. It’s all about taking the time to appreciate the charm of Gemea, of trying to find out what’s hidden on the other side of the next mountain or of finding the next piece of gear to enhance your farm. It’s a game full of charming little touches, from the way your character floats down cliffs with an umbrella, to the purring sound made every time you locate one of the hidden cats scattered throughout the world. There’s a fairly unobtrusive online component to the game involving leaving items for other players to find in their own version of Gemea, something that I didn’t really see the point of until someone left a crafted item right next to a quest that required it. This saved me about thirty minutes of hunting around for materials so my appreciation for it improved immeasurably and I spent some time trying to pay it forward.
Any game like this is going to succeed or fail based on its setting and Yonder doesn’t disappoint. The island of Gemea is simply gorgeous, divided into distinctive areas that are full of bright colours and cartoonish details. It’s deceptively simple at first glance, particularly with its somewhat plain character models, but the world is full of beautiful vistas, strange animals and seemingly endless little secrets to uncover. There is a day night cycle that moves quite quickly and as the days and years progress, seasons change altering the scenery, with muted colours and falling snow during winter and bright sunny days in summer. From a visual design point of view, Yonder really stands out.
To some people Yonder’s leisurely pace will feel a little like busywork. It’s a peaceful game and one designed to be tackled slowly and steadily, to soak in the world rather than the tasks themselves. Admittedly, it can get a little frustrating when you realise you have to hike all the way back across the world to fetch something and that’s probably my only issue with the game: even with a few allocated fast travel spots to unlock, you still do an awful lot of walking from one spot to the next. The game’s sense of discovery does really well to combat this though and each time I found myself grumbling about yet another five minute trek back to town, I would discover something new that would send me off on a tangent, on a new voyage of discovery.
Yonder isn’t a game to play if you’re after excitement, rather it’s a calm and gentle experience. It might be a little slow for some, but that’s part of what makes it unique. It’s the gaming equivalent of lazing by the pool on a summers day with a drink in hand. It’s a charming little sandbox worthy of playing around in and if you give it the chance to get its hooks into you, you won’t regret the time spent with it.
Review by Matt Russell