Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles review
I can't help but think that saving the world is an awful lot of work. You have to deal with menacing villains, fight legions of armored minions, and track down ancient artifacts, all while knowing that countless people are relying on you. That's a lot of pressure for a would-be hero. The mere thought of slogging through forgotten ruins -- especially if I have to lug a big-ass sword around -- is straight-up exhausting.
Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is a game for people like me. Playing it still means that you spend hours on a quest to save the world. But in Gemea, heroism is defined by your animal husbandry skills instead of combat prowess. As far as adventures go, it's a bit more relaxed. Yonder is more Harvest Moon than it is Zelda.
In fact, the only time that Yonder feels hurried at all is when it's trying to get story bits out of the way. Your player-generated character washes up on Gemea after a shipwreck, meets a goofy-looking fairy, and learns that some purple-black mist is plaguing the land, all within fifteen minutes. From there, you're free to try your hand at farming, crafting, and cat-collecting -- all at your own pace.
The notion of an open-world game without combat isn't anything new, but I can't think of one that leans into the subgenre harder than Yonder. Gemea is a decently-sized landmass divided into eight distinct biomes. Snowcapped mountains give way to rolling plains and heavily canopied forests, each with villages and outposts that serve as hubs for the game's guilds and barter-based economy. You can choose to become a master Baker, expert Carpenter, or a professional Tailor, among other vocations. Learning each discipline grants access to a host of new crafting recipes, and because it's simple enough to join each guild, you can become a real jack of all trades while roaming from one biome to another.
But a jack of all trades is a master of none, and that's Yonder's biggest shortcoming. With no combat to keep you sharp, the different crafting and farming systems need to be deep enough to hold your attention. That just isn't the case here, though. During my ten-hour journey across Gemea, I never had a reason to dive into any profession.
Take farming for example. After earning my first farm through an early quest, I was eager to hire a local ranch hand and build up my roster of resource-producing animals. I'm a sucker for an optimized farm and was hoping for a chance to maximize my produce output with careful planning and animal mastery. Instead, all I could do was lure wild animals to my property by "gifting" them a favorite object. Once on my farm, they automatically produced milk (and other goods, depending on the animal). That's all there is to it. It's pretty hands off and rather underwhelming. After getting the gist of how Yonder's version of farming and animal husbandry worked, I left and never bothered to return; it's too basic to warrant multiple trips back and forth to reap a farm's bounties.
The same can be said for most of Yonder's quests and crafting elements. While I could craft hundreds of different items, I never felt a need to make more than the basic objects required for some of the game's quests. Undertaking diversions like bridge repairs and murk-clearing missions can open up small pockets of land that are otherwise inaccessible, but many of them require components that take too much effort to acquire. It's simpler to move on than it is to run back and forth obtaining the resources needed. Like farming, there's no worthwhile reward for the time investment it requires.
It's a shame, too, because it's wonderful to just wander through Yonder. The game has a slick, cartoonish art style that's whimsical and a treat to look at. Every one of Gemea's animal inhabitants is a silly mashup of different creatures, like the Groffle, which resembles a buffalo and moose, complete with a dopey-looking grin. NPC characters are equally charming, with wild hair colors and wardrobes. The way every critter and human meshes with Yonder's evocative environments creates a cohesive world that makes simply walking around a more-than-passable way to pass a few minutes.
But after a while, Yonder starts to drag. Its systems are too shallow, and its main quest is too stale to support the idyllic world. Playing Yonder feels a lot like you've just spent an entire vacation looking for the perfect postcard to mail back home. You spent every moment in a beautiful place, surrounded by unfamiliar faces, but never stopped to appreciate it and soak in the local culture. Instead, every free second was spent running around, just hoping to capture a single moment that tells everyone the trip was worth it. It never is, and that's a bummer.