Modern life can be pretty stressful. After a hard day of work, school, or trying to learn that dance from the Katy Perry video in time for a hot date, many of us turn to video games as a means of winding down. A lot of us turn to fast-paced, violent action games for cathartic relief – but skill-based gaming can almost be just as stressful, especially for people like myself who aren’t skilled at all. Which brings us to Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles, a game so ridiculously chill and unapologetically whimsical that it could fix even the worst evening of thanklessly writing articles for a website with an intimidatingly macho name.
Yonder starts with some very simple story setup and a bit of basic character customisation, before promptly dropping you onto the island nation of Gemea. It’s quickly apparent that the people of Gemea are in need of help – purple mist is suffocating the land, towns are in disarray and cats are missing. Upon stumbling into the first of many small towns, the player is handed the deed to an abandoned farm and the tools required to get it back up and running (side note: if they have the tools why hasn’t someone fixed it already?). A few minutes of learning to forage in the environment, craft tools and befriend animals later, and you’ve got yourself one cute little farm and a laundry list of other odd jobs picked up along the way. At this point it becomes pretty clear that the game isn’t really in any hurry to see you follow the story to completion – Yonder is not a game about saving the world from impending doom. Rather, it’s a game about wandering and exploring at your own pace, doing nice things for people and generally just being a cool guy (or girl), and that’s kind of wonderful. Well, mostly.
I’m Mary Poppins y’all!
Yonder’s most critical issue, and the one that could be make or break for anyone looking to take the plunge on a purchase, is that the core gameplay loop is borderline tedious. Being an open-world adventure game with no combat is by no means a bad thing, but with no immediate challenge or system of character progression, Yonder falls on the quality of the remaining mechanics and the quests available to keep people engaged. Unfortunately, while things like crafting and fishing are fun (if a little basic), the often clumsy interface and woeful inventory management serve to get in the way at every turn. Backpack space is limited and can’t be upgraded, and the sheer variety of items able to be collected and their necessity in crafting items means you’ll constantly need to make use of storage facilities, which are only located at farms. Farms themselves must be found almost by accident, and then repaired using crafted items, which means a great deal of the game is spent wandering around with an inventory full of the wrong items necessary for the current objective. It doesn’t help that the act of farming – a potential selling point for anyone hoping Yonder would be the Zelda-meets-Harvest Moon game of their dreams – amounts to crafting enough animal pens and feeders to increase the farm’s rating and then… well, that’s it. There’s no hands-on work involved in farming and as far as story progression goes it’s completely inconsequential.
This lack of consequence carries throughout the game, in fact. Despite the myriad of lands to be explored, quests to be quested and guilds to be joined, none of what is accomplished in Yonder really amounts to anything and a vast majority of the tasks at hand end up being tedious fetch quests. It feels rather like someone took an Ubisoft open-world game and stripped out everything except the filler missions. Should you feel compelled to close out your time with the game and push through to the concluding task (also a literal fetch quest), the game will abruptly end and you’ll wonder if there was a point to anything you’d done along the way.
This is probably fine
The most interesting thing about Yonder is that despite all of the aforementioned issues, I actually quite enjoyed my time with it. Although the ‘game’ part of this game may not stand up to scrutiny, it’s still a remarkably joyous way to spend a few hours, stuck inside on a rainy day or shut in from the world and away from the harsh reality of life. Exploration is a delight, as scenery is varied and interesting and shines through with fantastic use of lighting and effects. Particularly great are the ‘sage statues’ dotted across the landscape that act as fast travel points and are unlocked by understanding and fulfilling their desires (not unlike the Demon Doors from the original Fable). Plus, load times across the entire open world when fast travelling are mercifully instantaneous. Coming across a new town is always exciting, as each one is modelled creatively after the crafting guild that resides within. Player characters can be dressed up in a plethora of outfits, accessories, hairstyles and colour schemes, adding much needed motivation to completing quests and seeking out hidden treasures. Best of all, the local fauna (the majority of which can be lured into a permanent vacation at any available farm) are as laughably strange as they are ovum-burstingly adorable.
Is there Groffle merchandise yet? There should be
Yonder is structured in such a way that most players will find themselves playing a little bit at a time, slowly chipping away at their growing to-do list of people to help, gadgets to craft and errant felines to return home. To this end the game succeeds at being a sort of non-game, where the real fun comes from switching off, ignoring responsibility and soaking in every sight the land has to offer. Approaching the game in hopes of a grand Zelda-like adventure or a deep crafting or farming simulation, however, will more than likely lead to disappointment.
The appeal, then, of Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles, is the promise of a good, wholesome time at a relaxed pace. A sightseeing trip where the only pressure is a self-imposed desire for completion. While our own world is filled with chaos and anxiety and deadlines and politicians – Gemea isn’t in any hurry to solve its problems, and neither should you be. Just relax, put on a pink beard and a cute blouse, and chase some Groffles.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro