The Open World of 'Yonder' Is Supremely Pretty, But So Shallow
There's a kindness to 'Yonder,' but I want to like it more than I do.
All images courtesy of Prideful Sloth
I like crafting. I like building. I like roaming without any particular aim, doing all the little tasks that leap into my mind as important but, for the average player, might seem entirely pointless. I love to make work for myself in open-ended games. When I played Dragon Quest Builders, I took pains to restore every little ruined cottage or shack I came across, to build graveyards over bone pits. I once built a train system in Minecraft complete with snack vending machines at the various stops.
And I like games that don't base their play on combat. I like combat just fine, but I hate that it's become part of just about every video game experience outside of puzzles. I should adore Yonder. I wanted to. But writing about games for a living has taught me how to recognize when I want to like a game more than I actually do, and every moment I spent playing Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles was a moment spent neck-deep in that recognition.
If nothing else, there's a kindness to Yonder that I do sincerely love. Even though the story is centered on curing the land of an ominous purplish smog called The Murk, the world itself is a fairly benign and welcoming place. There are no swords to raise, no hungry wolves to slay. Even if you fall over the edge of a cliff, the hero is quick to pull out a little parasol and float gracefully to the ground. Compared to just taking a tumble and landing unscathed, that parasol itself is a constant reassurance. Everything's fine. Everything's cool. Enjoy the gorgeous sunset, the chirping birds, the gentle piano music. Relax and have a good time. Emoji smiley face. Emoji boatdrink.
But kindness alone can only carry a concept so far. In play, Yonder feels like the underlying social skeleton of a game that never actually had the flesh placed on top of it.
While some part of me desperately wants to see a conflict-free version of what I enjoy most about exploring in Breath of the Wild, the world of Yonder is utterly dead in comparison. Buildings exist almost universally as set dressing, as do the citizens placed nearby. They stand in place or roam about very slightly (the world's animals actually seem to have more complex routines than its citizens), with the scattered few offering trades or quests or crafting guild memberships. Eventually you can unlock multiple little farms here and there and bribe some of them with food so they'll work the land on your behalf, but for the most part the only difference between a person and a fencepost is their idle animation and a line of absolutely generic game tip dialogue.
The only real variety beyond that is in the merchants, who have regionally priced goods that reflect the abundance and the deficits in their towns. The tailoring town for instance is both a great place to buy and a terrible place to sell clothing and sewing supplies, while they'll make you a mint if you decide to barter them in the town that's more concerned with cooking. Since there's no cash in Yonder (another element I do sincerely enjoy) making the most out of these exchanges does matter.
At least, to a certain limited extent. There's little in the way of goods in Yonder's economy. It all pretty much comes down to materials or cosmetic items, so outside of crafting or retrieving specific items for quests there's very little reason to engage.
More than anything else, I found myself playing Yonder like a checklist.
Crafting in general isn't much of a motivator. Each guild has an apprentice and a master rank, and all it takes to move from the former to the latter is crafting $1000 worth of goods. Mastery unlocks some more recipes, but once I'd hit that Master level I rarely saw much reason to use them. I'm usually the sort of player who will pour entire evenings, even weekends into any kind of environmental customization a game offers, and even so I just didn't see much point to it here outside of setting up the bare basics. More than anything else, I found myself playing Yonder like a checklist.
You can dress your character, decorate your farms a little bit here and there, but the actual creative aspect of playing is extremely limited. Limited to a degree that would be completely acceptable in a game with more going on, but there's just so little to Yonder—crafting, collecting, and exploring—that it really can't afford to be as spartan with these mechanics as it is.
There's also a degree of usability I've come to expect from some of my favorite make-work games, and Yonder doesn't have even a scrap of it. Running is intensely tedious, and although there are large animals seemingly ideal for riding (even shown with a character sitting atop them in some of the game's promo art) I was never able to figure out how or even if I could actually saddle up.
There are a handful of fast travel points in the form of head-shaped stone portals, but they're placed in a way that seems way too in love with their own secrecy and mystery to actually be convenient. More often than not it felt more efficient to just run wherever I needed to go than to try to make my way to and from the nearest portals. You also can't look at your map while you're in the fast-travel hub, and each head-portal is only vaguely distinguished with a few natural features from its biome, so given that there are a couple different forests and a couple different icy areas, it's incredibly easy to choose the wrong destination. It makes what should be a convenience into a real frustration.
It only aggravates things that your character's inventory is limited, and item storage can only be accessed on your farms. It would have been wonderful to see some cues taken from Dragon Quest Builders in this area in terms of making storage more easily accessible for crafting in particular, regardless of player location. As it is, Yonder's world became an obstacle to everything I wanted to do. Spending 10 minutes running around on foot to pick up that bottle of dye you need is just not super fun. It turns the gentle and constructive exploration that Yonder ostensibly exists for into a kind of punishment for not thinking far enough ahead.
None of this is even touching on my biggest problem. Yonder is a game about affecting your environment. Improving it. Building it up from ruin. You're encouraged to do big things like clear sections of Murk from the map. You're encouraged to do little things, like plant a certain number of trees in each biome. But in following along with these objectives, you will always come face-to-face with the narrowness of Yonder.
Trees can only be planted in empty tree plots, so generally to plant one you first have to cut an existing tree down before planting a seed in its respective plot. You build, but you do so mostly by completing checklists and unlocking premade structures that don't offer much in the way of personalization outside of determining your preferred animal pen to farm plot ratio. There's just so little of the freedom that I thrive on when I'm playing this kind of game that by the time I was 75% of the way finished the game I couldn't think of a single thing I'd done that I was proud of, or an experience I'd had that I found unique or important.
To put that into perspective, this was not a challenge I had when I played The Tomorrow Children, a game often criticized (and not unfairly) for its treadmill-like gameplay loop. There's just a jarring nakedness to Yonder that is incredibly hard to look past, even if you want to.
Look, I love a good make-work game. I love to have no greater goals than harvesting my plants or crafting a nice sturdy dining table. I'm the person who makes immaculate gardens in Minecraft in spite of its unimpressive gardening and farming mechanics. I want a cookie jar in the kitchen of my rustic videogame cabin just for the atmosphere it adds. I will go to great lengths to acquire the fancy chair instead of the easily crafted plain one. I will spend hours enthusiastically running around with backpacks full of apples to feed my doll-like comrades. Even stripped of the rewards systems that fuel the most satisfying work fantasies in games like Story of Seasons and Stardew Valley, I am perfectly content casting my own value onto all of my busy work.
But Yonder is just too naked. For as pretty and soft as it is, and for as much as I wanted to appreciate its attempt at an underappreciated kind of play, there's just too little meat on its bones and too little weight to its world. It's a hollow, disparate set of tasks and locations, an unfortunate example of just how easily an initially charming make-work game can simply become a chore.