Wild Blue Yonder
Mix a relaxing game like Animal Crossing with the open world of The Legend of Zelda. Pepper in light elements of Harvest Moon and Minecraft, and you have the recipe for Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles. Yonder’s beautiful landscapes entice you to explore the world around you. Unlike other adventure games, there is no combat whatsoever. Moreover, there is no sense of urgency, so you are free to do as you wish in one of the most laid-back games I’ve played on the Nintendo Switch.
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The story follows your lightly customized character who wakes up on the island of Gemea following a shipwreck. The protector of Gemea instructs you to dispel the mysterious purple substance known as Murk that has taken over the island. You do this by locating mystical Sprites hidden about. As you progress, you learn more about yourself and the land. It’s an intriguing setup, but that’s as deep as the plot gets. Even the truths you uncover are underwhelming.
Where the story falters, Yonder makes up with enjoyable exploration. The land of Gemea encompasses different environments that are pleasing to the eye. Honestly, I wasn’t impressed with the character design and textures, which hearken back to how late GameCube or early Wii games looked, but I was taken aback with how breathtaking the scenery was. With the rapidly passing time and seasons, you get to witness the numerous landscapes under various lighting and weather effects. A built-in photo mode takes advantage of these picture opportunities. My only gripe with the presentation was with the frame rate, which often dipped or lagged for seemingly no reason, distracting me from the otherwise serene vistas. There is no traditional voice acting beyond excited grunts, but the sound design is simply sublime. The background music balances calm melodies with moments of silence. During the latter, the environmental noises immersed me into the world.
Beyond looking nice, Gemea is a large world to traverse. Don’t expect AAA game sizes; the island is a tiny fraction of the expansiveness of Breath of the Wild, but it’s still a decently sized overworld in the vein of a bigger, denser Hyrule Field from Twilight Princess. What matters is that it’s nonlinear, and you are free to go in any direction…with some caveats. For one, your character is no platforming hero. You barely have jump height and will struggle to make it up steep cliffs, not to mention some of them are artificially blocked off by invisible walls anyway. Second, the Murk also guards some passageways, and you can only open them by having enough of the 26 Sprites to dispel it. It’s similar to how 3D collectathon platformers gate off progress, but it’s nonetheless enjoyable to seek out the Sprites, some of which you unlock via solving puzzles or completing quests.
Speaking of which, while you can technically go where you want, the game is built around quests. A handy compass helps you keep track of them and leads you with direct quest markers, so you rarely get lost. Unfortunately, the majority of missions, even the main story ones, are fetch quests that add little substance to the story or gameplay. And since this is a purely pacifistic game, there are no enemies to fight. That being said, there is a wonderful tranquility to be had from making progress, taking the journey, and soaking in the sights, but those seeking an action-adventure title will be disappointed.
What makes Yonder unique is that within the context of an open-world game, there are elements of casual life sims like Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley and sandbox builders like Minecraft or Dragon Quest Builders. Farming and crafting are fun to dabble in even though they’re not as well-developed as games devoted to them. For instance, you get several farms, but you don’t actually do much besides planting small plots of seeds, making some buildings, and raising a few animals. The farms are small parts of a large landmass, so it’s unlikely you’ll be visiting them often anyway. Likewise, the crafting process amounts to gathering resources with your tools and following simple recipes to produce items. Thankfully, everything is easy to understand, which fits the game’s easygoing nature.
Although the individual mechanics sound half-baked, you are free to dive as deeply as you want into each playstyle. You will have to do a little of each to beat the game, but once the credits roll at around six to eight hours, you can go back and spend as much time as you wish building a successful farm or perfecting the crafting arts. There is a decent postgame if you pursue even one of these professions thanks to layers under the surface that encourage you to bring fertility back to the region or become master of several crafting guilds. Simply trying to collect all the Sprites, befriend all the animals, customize your character with new costumes, or catch all the fish through a basic fishing minigame brings a wonderful depth to Yonder. Even the passage of time plays a part, too, and you can partake in special seasonal events based on your current in-game time and location, such as a Halloween-themed event, complete with a candy collecting minigame that netted me a vampire costume.
Some quality of life issues hold Yonder back. Strangely enough, there is no proper fast travel option. You can warp, but it’s limited; you first have to craft a warp item, then consume it to travel to one of the few farms on the island but only if you’ve unlocked it. The world isn’t super huge, but it’s big enough that your slow running speed and need to constantly backtrack can reduce your wanderlust. The trading system also feels unnecessary. Instead of simply selling your items, you must trade your goods with the shopkeeper’s stock. Shops will only make deals if you trade items of equal value, so you’ll have to carefully choose your products so they add up correctly. It’s a convoluted process that, in turn, makes the farming and crafting less desirable.
Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is a fascinating hybrid of open world adventure and casual life sim. Although no idea is fully developed, they all fit together well. The beautiful world is filled with areas to explore and quests to complete. The short campaign and lack of action may bore some, and the island isn’t as large as in bigger budget titles, but the peaceful world of Yonder lends itself to a truly pleasant but still substantial experience.
Note: A review copy was used for this article. This review was originally written on DarkStation.