Welcome to Gemea. Here, you can explore a beautiful cartoony environment and befriend strange fantasy wildlife… and build and work on your very own farm… oh, and meet and talk to some delightful characters… all while clearing some strange dark smoke using some other floating-type creatures. Sound – busy? Well, what if you could do it all from the comfort of your couch?
Previously on the PS4 and Steam, Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is the flagship title of Brisbane-based “micro-AAA” developer Prideful Sloth, and you can now play it on the Nintendo Switch. So take a trip with us to this lush and charming open-world with a whimsical environmentally-driven narrative.
Exploring the darkness
Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is pitched as a “relaxing open-world adventure” game and the traditional yet simple good versus evil story really bears that out. As your own customisable avatar, you start out on a ship headed to the mysterious Gemea island led by a strange compass. Upon landing, you find that despite their friendly demeanour, the inhabitants of the island have been enduring a difficult last few years.
A strange pollution-like smog called ‘The Murk’ has descended upon the island, limiting the movement of the people and laying waste to several homes and farms across the land. The characters on the island ‘urge’ you to assist (in the most polite non-urgent, slightly-hurried sort of way). Luckily, you soon discover that you can find and collect ‘Sprites’ and together with them you have the ability to clear The Murk. The island begins to reveal more secrets from your own murky past and you are quickly compelled to explore the world and find out more.
The light at the end of your wrist…
To aid you on your quest, the entire ‘world map’ is open from the start and so you are immediately able to explore the island, which is made up of eight areas with distinct environments, weather patterns and terrain – from white snow-capped mountains to Japanese inspired purple cherry-blossom-like forests.
While exploring, goals are initiated by entering certain areas or meeting characters and are added to your ‘to-do list’. Not only is the map of the island available for setting destinations, but the ‘Celestial Compass’ can also be activated at any time – sending a guiding beam light directly to the needed endpoint – like a magical medieval GPS. The island is also dynamic, not only with day and night cycles but even seasonal changes affecting character reactions and wildlife.
Relaxing exploration in a hundred mechanics
While following the main story goals, the gameplay consists first and foremost of trekking across the island. The impending doom never seems to be daunting or near enough to make you move any faster than a leisurely stroll. Hence, throughout your slow exploration, you will not only have time to smell the daisies, but also chop down indigenous trees and attack innocent boulders. Your quest to acquire different materials like wood, stone and silky spider silk will encourage you to wander to the different areas of the map. I recommend doing this while listening to Hopeless Wanderer by Mumford & Sons on repeat, and whispering: How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
…throughout your slow exploration, you will not only have time to smell the daisies, but also chop down indigenous trees and attack innocent boulders.
Along your nomadic travels, you will also come across endearing little towns. Each of these areas are ‘known’ for a distinct set of skills: carpentry, cooking, construction etc. Meeting and learning from the local expert craftsman allows you to learn their various crafts. Your collection of materials will come in handy, as you’re able to use these to craft more complex objects; it is small RPG-like skill-building at its very simplest. All these collected and crafted materials can then be traded at the different towns for other materials.
To add to these collecting, crafting and trading mechanics, the game then also allows you to build a farm. This is relatively simple. First, there is basic seeding and harvesting: Dig up some harvestable ground, plant a seed and wait for a cycle or two and you have more materials to be used for crafting or trading. Want to have an animal farm instead? Well, find a roaming animal, feed it and make a new friend and makes sure he follows you back to your farm. Need to get back to exploring? Hire a farmhand from one of the local populace and keep him well fed, or your new pet will be sure to fill your farm with a few of his very specially produced poop emojis.
Not enough for you yet? Throw in some fishing.
Need more? You can also do some basic mining along the way.
More still?… Ok, remember the dark smoky pollution like stuff that formed the basis of the main story? Well, that still needs to be cleaned up. So now you need to do the Pokémon thing and catch all ’em Sprites. These whimsical little fellows are hidden all over the world, and clearing The Murk and moving beyond involves getting the required number of Sprites for each darkened section. With every cleared section you move closer to helping the island townsfolk and closer to the truth about your origins.
Charming and Sweet
The sweet cartoony artwork of Yonder reminded me of the visual style of The Wind Waker, and the day-night cycles and diverse biomes produced opportunity after opportunity to look over beautiful vistas. Looking across the kingdom, I found myself constantly making use of the built-in photo mode to capture shots of the night sky, mountain views and lush environments.
The music was simple and pleasant to the ear, often producing an instrumental, medieval country-like background to the various areas to explore. The only small complaint I had with the music was that it felt a little limited and because of that at times it seemed a little disconnected to what was going on on-screen. I remember walking through an open grassland and suddenly hearing an impending beat rumbling in the background – and immediately feeling tense. However, I never found the reason why. Or heading to a new darkened section of the map, only to be accompanied by a bright, yet totally incongruent, cheery tune. So like I mentioned above, you may want to have your favourite ‘wandering’ music lined up on Spotify and available as a back-up.
Too much of a good thing…
The simple visuals of the game really did provide a feast for the eyes. When these were accompanied by a matching melody the exploration was enjoyable. So is it a world you should immediately jump into? Well, it does have its limitations.
As a fan of platformers, I found the controls a little clunky at times. The decision to limit actions like chopping and swinging a mallet to very specific areas, like next to a tree or around suspicious-looking boulders, and only when prompted to do so was a bit restrictive; kind of like getting a new sports car, but only being allowed to ride around fast-food drive-throughs. I also struggled handling certain environmental features – at various points I found myself trying to climb a section of a mountain only to have my avatar jump backwards and fall back down again. Luckily, you never really die… unless you fall into the dreaded… wait. That might be a spoiler… Nope. Just checked it’s not… So here it comes… unless you fall into the dreaded… water. Seriously, avoid water at all costs.
Seriously, avoid water at all costs.
I also found that the multiple mechanics became too convoluted. Like the ‘Jack of all Trades, Master of None’ saying goes, I found that each mechanic was fun enough on its own, but when combined it became easy to get a little confused. A little like one of those fancy burger places that start off well but then get a bit carried away with their signature burger: “Two delicious beef patties, a slice of mature cheddar, two crispy bacon strips… and avocado, blue cheese shavings, kale jus, salami-scented daffodils, golden syrup, raspberry and lentil jam and a sprinkle of cooked anchovy, all wrapped up in a gluten-free, all-brown, non-pasteurised 100%-organic rice-wheat bun.” Somewhere in the middle where it just becomes just a little much.
Similarly, at one point, I got lost in the main story and so began exploring, hoping that some exploration would help me get back on track. After an hour or two of getting a little bored with working on my farm, collecting enough wood to start a decent lumber yard and stone to rebuild the Coliseum and establishing my own medium-sized fish and coloured shampoo trade-route, I finally realised I had simply missed a hidden path. I struggled to enjoy that hour or two and found the undirected collecting, farming, trading and other mechanics not interesting enough to hold my attention, particularly when not directly related to the story.
I also found that the story could’ve been fleshed out a bit. Not only would the narrative have benefited from some more meat – most of the characters are nothing more than a pretty hexagonally bearded face – but the Sprite-creature mechanic felt particularly underutilised in relation to their interaction with The Murk. This occurs even to the extent that the same animation (of the very first Sprite caught) is used to clear every section of The Murk no matter how many have been caught. And, as far as I could tell, that was their only function.
A ‘lite’ version of heavier favourites
Having completed the story and a whole lot of exploring my stats page tells me I am 53% complete. This did not surprise me due to the insane number of collectables available along the way – crafting materials, clothing items, skill sets and crafted items, Sprites, fish, animals… and a disturbing number of cats all need to be collected to hit that magic 100% number. This is possibly both a completionists dream and nightmare all wrapped into one. Finally, it may just be me, but I have no real idea why this game title had the word – Yonder – in it. or even ‘Cloud Catcher‘ for that matter. I mean, having completed it I can assume what it refers to, but it is not really ever mentioned. Not a game-changer, but odd anyway.
So does that mean you should you give Yonder a miss? Well, no. It is sweet and charming and if you have a few hours and enjoy some ‘lite’ adventuring – the story will probably be enough to keep you interested. Really, it is the collection game for those who find Pokémon too intense or time-consuming. It is the farming simulator for those who find Stardew Valley too detailed and the open-world exploration game for those that found Breath of the Wild too intimidating. Plus, it’s all of those wrapped into one. So travel to Gemea, just be sure you bring your medieval walkman and a big backpack along with you and you should be just fine.