Often referred to as “The Legend of Zelda meets Stardew Valley, but entirely peaceful”, I couldn’t have been more excited about the release of Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles. If the combination of those two legendary titles was even half as awesome as it sounded I’d probably never play another game in my life! With loads of running around, picking stuff up, quests galore and some of the most adorable graphics in gaming, just how well does the overall package play?
As the hero you will explore Gemea, uncovering the island’s secrets and the mysteries within yourself as you embark on a journey of self-discovery. On a quest to become the island’s champion, you join forces with Sprites, creatures who are the only thing capable of dispersing the murk, to save Gemea and its people.
The towns of Gemea are filled with kind-hearted residents who have faced many difficulties since the murk arrived. By contributing to the island through farming, crafting, cooking, fishing and brewing, relationships can be built with the locals, who offer everything from resources to a new farm as rewards.
I’m the type of guy who plays Fallout 4 or Skyrim for hundreds of hours, completing every quest and picking up every item even if it puts me 500 lbs over my carry weight and makes me crawl back to town. My fiancee and I have a combined total of nearly 3,000 hours in Destiny, and currently have over 180 hours played in our newest addiction, Stardew Valley. My point is that if a game gives us enough incentive to scavenge, farm, hunt for loot and complete quests we’ll get nearly infinite enjoyment out of it. I’ll stay up til 4 in the morning not noticing what time it is, then wake up at 9 or 10 wide awake to play some more!
With all of that being said, Yonder (as I’ll refer to it in this review) seemed like a dream come true to me. When I first booted it up I was amazed at how adorable it was, especially after weeks of playing the 2D game Stardew Valley for so long. Yonder is easily one of the most adorable, cute games I’ve ever had the good fortune to play, and it’s made even cuter by the exaggerated animals and lush scenery. Just like Horizon: Zero Dawn the game begs you to take countless screenshots of the immense beauty everywhere, especially as the sun sets or rises and the weather changes, bringing new life to even the same locales. That screenshot just above this paragraph is easily one of the most beautiful shots I’ve ever taken in a game! Because the game has no health bar, enemies or death I was curious how the game would handle fall damage, so I jumped off a cliff and my little dude whipped out an umbrella to float down! AN UMBRELLA! HE FLOATED DOWN LIKE MARY POPPINS ALL ON HIS OWN IN THE MOST CHARMING WAY! When I found a top hat to wear, this scene became so amazing I would do it over and over just to watch it happen. Oh, and night time? My little dashing fellow automatically pulls out a lantern to illuminate the direction I’m facing. These touches may sound minor, and would be irritating if not automatic, but it just goes to show how much polish and consideration to detail went into the game.
The story is simple but adequate. You’re traveling with a small crew to a place called Gemea using your Celestial Compass, the only thing that can find it, when a storm hits your ship and leaves you shipwrecked on the island. There you discover that Murk is covering up various places on the island, and Murk is very bad for humans. However, with the help of Sprites, little cute magical creatures you can find throughout the island, you can clear the various patches of Murk and return the Cloud Catcher to its former glory! While on the island you discover your crew has scattered and your wreck destroyed the dock that’s used for trade, marking some of your earliest quests.
The map and quest system are fantastic. Like Skyrim or Fallout 4 you’ll come across quests everywhere you go. I rarely had less than 10 quests at a time, and pretty much any time I’d walk over to complete one quest I’d pick one or two more up. This all happened as I passed countless boulders to smash for rocks, crates and barrels to break for random goodies, trees to cut down and replant, vines to pick and more. I loved collecting all of these things on the way to my various destinations, and I loved how easy it was to head toward my destination with the Celestial Compass. Pushing down on the directional pad brings up your compass, and it sends a beam of light in the direction of any quest you select. This was a genius touch until I realized it was still easier to look at the map and merely select a quest from there (although, sadly, the game doesn’t allow you to create custom waypoints or even select things like traders, farms or anything that isn’t an active quest). In addition to quests, there are loads of hidden things to find – the Sprites can be hidden anywhere or given as rewards for quests, and there are also hidden kitties and chests to find all over the world. The kitties are especially adorable – they meow when you get somewhat close so you know one is near (as long as your volume is on; there isn’t a visual cue that I saw) and once you find it it’ll be lying there, rolling around and looking as cute as can be.
The Sprites you find and earn are used to clear Murk, a purple barrier that covers up precious treasure and paths to new areas. In addition to needing supplies to build bridges to new areas, Murk effectively works to prevent you from exploring the whole map from the beginning of the game. Each patch of Murk requires a minimum number of Sprites found to clear it, but they don’t get used up; if you have 8 Sprites you can clear every patch of Murk you find that requires 8 or less. Also, when you get near Murk the map keeps track of it, although sadly the map doesn’t show how many Sprites are required to clear it so you’ll have to keep notes yourself. Clearing Murk contributes to an area’s completion alongside things like finding all the spots to plant trees (and planting trees in them) and completing all of an area’s quests. The higher your rating in an area the better bonuses you’ll get from your farm and the more insanely adorable animals you’ll see out and about.
As expected, foraging was easily one of my favorite parts of the game. The feedback to smashing boulders, mining ore veins, cutting down high grass or chopping down trees was excellent, so much so that it became addicting! There’s a small bit of magnetization that pulls nearby items to you, which was just enough to not be annoying when walking through tons of items while still requiring a bit of backtracking. Unfortunately, there’s no text feed on the screen when you pick items up, so there were numerous times when I destroyed a crate or barrel and I didn’t even know what I received. A little icon appears but was often too small for me to differentiate it from the loads of other possible items. Chests typically display text if you find something special (like shampoo), but if something else was going on or it randomly just doesn’t display I was merely left hoping I got something good.
One of the biggest surprises, and one of the most awesome twists on any exploration game I’ve seen, was the addition of geocaches. Geocaching is a really cool game where people visit a website and post the GPS location of a hidden item along with a clue as to where it is. For example, an ammo box may be hidden inside a hole in a tree with a hint that says something like “look for me where squirrels play.” Everyone can look these up and find these items in real life, and often they even include little toys, stickers and trinkets. The general rule is that if you take something, you should replace it, and you can track everywhere you’ve been on the website as well. Yonder introduces this concept via a geocache item in the game that you can place anywhere at any time, and you can place any item you want inside it. From what I saw there’s no real incentive to do this, but generosity is its own reward and it’s fun to find them in random places as well! Maybe you can even send them a thank you message to thank them for the gift!
The game’s crafting system is fairly elaborate, often requiring numerous steps to create a single item like the Large Animal Pen above. To craft just one of these you must have a carpenter’s kit, 2 nails, 2 wood beams, 2 wood tiles and a plank. HOWEVER, if you don’t pick these up through trading they all require their own items – carpenter’s kits and nails are easy, but the wood beams and wood tiles each require a carpenter’s kit and glue of their own. Wood tiles even require 2 planks, and planks can only be obtained via trade (with traders or a special location that allows you to turn wood into planks). While this is a bit complex and requires planning (and a lot of trade or foraged items), it’s awesome that the crafting system has so much depth.
Because so many items are needed, it’s important to keep an eye out for all sorts of goodies everywhere. Many of them can be made into useful things (as above), but they can also be made into more valuable items for trade (like turning some sticks and vine into a bundle of sticks!). This is incredibly important as the easiest way to obtain items you need for crafting more elaborate items involves trading with various folks scattered throughout the world. Most traders have items they prefer and items they care less about, so trading a shirt one place may be worth 150 or it may be worth 400 somewhere else. This variance in value is made even more important by the fact that the game has no monetary system – you MUST give a trader equal or greater value to what you want. I actually preferred the concept of this system as it really made it feel like trading and not just amassing huge amounts of wealth until I could just buy whatever I wanted anytime.
While foraging was fun, fishing easily took second place. The game has a huge collection of fish and you can cast your fishing pole out nearly anywhere water exists. Just like tools don’t degrade over time, fishing requires nothing but a fishing pole and some water. Once you cast, you can move the bobber around with the left stick to tempt a fish until it bites. Once a fish bites it’ll try to escape, and your job is to push the left stick in the opposite direction of the fish. There’s an arrow that shows you which direction you should press and as long as it’s green you’re good! Fish can also be exceptionally valuable; some are so high in trade value that you can nearly buy a trader out of all their stock with one.
While fishing approached OP levels of value and it’s always fun to look out for goodies to pick up, farming wasn’t so special. One of the first quests in the game has you fix up your first farm, and I was really excited to see how I would be able to put all of my foraged and traded goodies to use. It was definitely nice to have a chest to store stuff in (especially once I found out just how easy it was to max out my inventory space), and once I found out these items could be accessed from any farm I let out a HUGE sigh of relief. However, as far as I’ve seen there’s very little to do with a farm – you can put down places for large or small animals to stay, water and food troughs (although I still don’t know their exact purpose), tree planting areas (a square that allows you to plant two trees you can later cut down and replant) and crop growing areas (squares that allow for 9 crops that grow over time and can be harvested). In my experience with the game it was disappointing – yes crops are worth a decent amount of money, and it goes without saying that keeping an animal and being able to give it love is adorable as heck, even cleaning up the adorable-yet-gross poop the animal drops is way cuter than it should be, but that’s it. Since there’s no true fast travel system, returning to a farm can be a chore, and building or crafting the stuff to build a farm up takes a lot of money.
The entire time I played Yonder I couldn’t help but compare it to Zelda, Stardew Valley and Minecraft. I’m aware this isn’t Prideful Sloth’s fault, they never once made any such comparison themselves. However, with graphics and text dialogue (along with the audible “hmmmm” or “aaahhhh” or “errrrr”) reminiscent of the N64 and Gamecube era Zelda titles (but cuter!), and a game based entirely around farming, fishing, questing, crafting and foraging it was bound to happen. Without Zelda‘s dungeons, the deep time-management systems and farming of Stardew Valley or the insanely massive worlds with unlimited customization of Minecraft, there wasn’t much to keep me interested. Quests in Yonder often reward you with customization items (clothes, hair styles or shampoos that re-color your hair) and typically boil down to bringing someone items they need or crafting a certain total value in a single crafting category like the carpenter, tailor or chef categories to progress in their guilds. I also really wanted more storage space, especially since a lack of real fast travel means if I need something I just stored I have to walk all the way to the nearest farm and back. One of the last things I did in the game was explore far away from the main land up by a mountainous area, and I was so excited when I found a Sage Stone! Sage Stones are the closest Yonder has to fast travel – once you complete a small quest for them it’ll open up and you can travel to a small hub area, then exit through another Sage Stone you’ve already opened. The first one I came across was easy, I merely had to lure an animal over to it, but this one that took forever to find required me to change three pieces of clothing. Unfortunately, since space is so limited I never carry clothes with me. Why would I? But because of this one little error in judgement I was forced to walk all the way back and I’ll have to return to it someday, way out there, to open it. This may sound minor, and I understand that fast travel was likely left out to encourage exploration and foraging from place to place, but even if I had to craft some expensive item each time I fast traveled I would have in a heartbeat in a situation like that.
I have no doubt there will be loads of fans of this game. I can’t express enough just how cute the game is, and the lack of a health bar, enemies or any other threat (hunger, thirst, temperature, running out of money, not exploring fast enough, you name it!) leads to a relaxing, enjoyable break from the stress of more challenging games. I’ve seen Steam reviews where people praise the game because they get too tense with games where enemies can be around any corner, and others where people use it as a gateway game into the exploration genre for kids or non-gamers. I’ve also seen reviews by hardcore gamers who just can’t get enough of the game because it’s so fun to look everywhere for secrets and collectibles. However, without more incentive to use the various systems in the game, Yonder just isn’t for me, and that’s okay!