Yonder: the Cloud Catcher Chronicles is an interesting beast. It feels sort of like a cross between The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Stardew Valley, which on paper sounds like a miracle; Breath of the Wild is legendary, and Stardew Valley is magnificent. And yet, Yonder doesn't come close to measuring up to either one of these. I really love what Yonder tried to do, and it's still something that plenty of people will enjoy, but it's a game that still needs a lot of fixes and polish.
This game has your custom character getting shipwrecked on the shores of Gemea, a land that is facing the threat of being swallowed by the Murk, a mysterious purple void that doesn't get properly explained until far later in the game, but it's causing distress to the inhabitants of Gemea - or at least that's what Yonder claims is happening. A mysterious being known as the Cloud Catcher tells you to track down mystical beings known as Sprites, as they will help you clear the Murk and restore the island. Honestly, though, it's easy to completely forget about the plot; there's no urgency to the game whatsoever, and I was hard-pressed to find any characters who cared much about the Murk at all. I outright refuse to believe that this world is in any danger; it seems like an eternal day of crummy weather, at worst. It's possible, however, that this was intentional.
Yonder is the most chill and relaxed game I've ever played. There is no combat, no danger, no threat of harm, no possibility of injury, and there isn't even any sort of meaningful looming threat; the Murk is more of an occasional roadblock than anything dangerous. You will never be attacked, because nobody wants to hurt you, not even the giant round buffalo-looking Groffles. I'm a fan of this concept, personally; if you're trying to find a game to relax with, a game that never introduces any stress is a good place to start.
As I mentioned before, this game is partially an open-world exploration game that clearly takes inspiration from Breath of the Wild, right down to the identical opening shot of looking down at a lush green forest from a cliff after escaping a cave. You start with a completely empty map, and you'll slowly explore more and more of the world of Gemea, collecting various items from it along the way. You'll come across a variety of NPCs, sidequests, and even small villages that you never knew were there as you work to clear the Murk. I'd say it was a complete and total ripoff, but considering that Yonder's original release was only four months after Zelda, I'll chalk it up to somewhat of a coincidence.
Exploration is based almost entirely on finding quests to take care of. These can involve solving problems for NPCs, constructing things like bridges or fixing up shrines. Since the game has no combat, however, absolutely everything comes down to being a fetch quest. You'll spend essentially the entire game buying, collecting or crafting materials to give to others so you can check off another quest and get some reward for it. Sometimes the rewards will help you progress to other quests, while other times it's clothing or a Sprite. A lot of the time, the reward is shampoo, which lets you change your hair color; if you're like me, however, and you found the perfect shade of red for your highly cute character early on, shampoo loses its value very quickly. It's also a little bizarre that you have to collect your hair customization options, but hey, if Zelda can make you collect colors, so can Yonder.
Often times, you'll complete the requirements for a quest accidentally while you're exploring, or collecting things, or fishing. This seems to be what the game is built around, because if you go out with the express goal of collecting X thingamabobs and Y doodads, it's just not fun at all. Looking around for trees to chop is not terrible, and fishing is actually kind of fun, but finding flowers or vines or minerals is just the grindiest of grinds. This is basically how I play video games, though: I decide that I'm going to complete a certain goal, and I work at it until it's solved. Yonder makes this really boring and slow.
The major differentiating factor here is the farming portion of the gameplay. There are several farms you can build up in Gemea, which includes building structures, raising animals and growing crops - and I don't think I enjoyed a moment of any of it. In games like Stardew Valley, you're never far away from your farm, and you start off your morning in the middle of it every single day. Here, whatever farm you want to get to could be all the way across the map, and you have no choice but to make the long trek there if you ever want to tend to the farm. Then you can spend a few seconds cleaning up manure, caring for your animals and collecting goods from them, such as milk, before going off on another adventure in search of compelling gameplay.
Alternatively, you can bribe NPCs into being your farm hands by giving them food, and they'll take care of the farm for you. They'll clean things up, care for the animals and obtain their goods in your stead. It's a decent way of getting more resources, and it's a lot easier than traveling all around the world to several different farms. However, the inclusion of farm hands seems to be the development team admitting that it's better for you to not do the farming yourself - and if that's true, then what is the point of even having it? I play Stardew Valley for the satisfaction of tending to my farm myself. Here, there's nothing satisfying about it.
On top of that, the controls just make the game frustrating. Your character can't turn around quickly like in other games; if you need to make any substantial change in direction, they need to stop, physically turn around, and then start running again. This is slow, laggy and just irritating. I also had some annoying trouble picking up materials as I was running by, which was one of the most satisfying parts of exploring in Breath of the Wild (no, I will not stop making comparisons). It's also a bit of a pain scaling any sort of rock formation, which you often need to do if you don't want to run all the way around a river; you'll often bounce backwards as you try to climb, and you don't always go where you want to go.
For even more fun, try holding down an arrow button in a game menu, then let go and watch the cursor fly way past where you wanted it to be. This feels like the result of carelessly porting this game to the Switch. I'm even more convinced of this every time I turn the game on, and everything appears to lock up on the development studio's splash logo. I also found some odd bugs related to dialogue with multiple characters.
Lastly, I'm a bit miffed at how certain things in the game just aren't explained to you very well. Major game mechanics went unexplained for me, almost as if I had accidentally skipped past a bunch of tutorials - which may have been what happened, as I swear the game teleported me to my first farm when I started the game back up the second time. I also wasted nearly ten minutes trying to figure out how to just use an item, before I realized that all items are context-sensitive and can only be used in their appropriate spots. Lastly, make sure to familiarize yourself with the map (bring it up with down on the directional pad) as it is an absolute lifesaver that will make your game far less frustrating.
Still, even with all these complaints, I oddly found myself compelled to continue playing this game. Exploration is still fun, and there's still a sense of satisfaction every time you complete a quest, even if getting the materials for it was a pain. Watching the world get colored in on your map is satisfying, and it's a little exciting every time you find a new village, even if it's tiny and full of just a couple of traders and maybe a quest. The first time I came across a time-locked warp area, I was genuinely surprised and pleased that such a secret would be in the game, and that waiting for it to activate would actually be worth the time.
One of my favorite things about this game is the barter system. You don't accumulate currency at all in this game; instead, each of the objects you pick up, or craft from the crafting menu, has an inherent value attached to it. If you want to buy something from a trader, you have to search your backpack for things that have an equivalent value to what you want to buy. This is a really clever system that I like a lot, and it gives more meaningful value to all of the random pickups you find around Gemea, since you can trade them if you don't want to use them.
Aside from the main story, your progress in this game is measured by the happiness of each region in Gemea. There are eight regions, each one with a different biome, and they each have their own health rating, for lack of a better term. You can make a region healthier and happier by completing quests, finding Sprites, clearing Murk, discovering new species of plants and animals, and building up a good farm. In my experience, farming is not super essential to this, and if you want to ignore it entirely, your play experience isn't really going to suffer for it. You'll still be able to return happiness to each region, which will unlock more farming-related bonuses for your farm hands to manage for you. As boring as it can be to go out and complete quests, it's still satisfying watching a region turn from "suffering" to "happy" over the course of your adventure.
I keep seeing people talk about how beautiful the game looks, and I can't say I really relate. The environments look quite nice, especially with lighting effects, and the sort-of-toy-like visual style of the world is pleasant to look at. Everything seems a little cheap, though, as if there were supposed to be textures all over, but they just left everything as pastel colors instead. Characters in the game do not look good by any stretch, and they feel like leftovers from the tail end of the GameCube era; the character creation component is similarly weak, without a whole lot of options for you. The sound is alright, I suppose, but it's nothing special. Sound effects get the job done, and the music is totally forgettable but otherwise listenable and a good accompaniment.
If you're looking to beat the main story, and you don't get constantly sidetracked like I did while playing this game, you'll wind up spending a bit over a dozen hours with this game. Going for 100% completion is a much more significant endeavor, and honestly I'm not sure if it will be worth my time to do, given how annoying it can be to complete specific quests. The world is decently expansive, and it will take you a good long time to see everything it has to offer. The game isn't short on content, it's just short on reasons for you to keep going.
I really wanted to like Yonder: the Cloud Catcher Chronicles more than I did. The concept is solid, and the game's shortcomings mostly come down to the details, so a Yonder 2 might be able to blow away my expectations entirely. Right now, what we have is a relaxing exploration/farming game with decent exploration, boring farming, somewhat annoying controls, and an odd addictive quality to it. If you're looking for a game that's pure relaxation without any stress, this might be worth picking up for you.
Final score: 6 out of 10
A copy of this game was provided for review by the publisher.