Video Games Review: Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles (PS4, 2017) is an adventure game that won’t tell you what to do

Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is a game that pulls from all sorts of different places for inspiration. It pulls from literature, it pulls from movies and (most often) it pulls from other games. While its inspirations are worn quite proudly on its sleeve, it’s what Yonder does with them that makes it memorable.

A third-person adventure title created by Australian developer Prideful Sloth, Yonder is unhurried in a way few in the genre are. It is entirely content to let you unravel its mysteries at your own pace. There’s no level grind, no pinging health bar, no in-world timer urging your onward. It just … is. And, rather than feeling like a maddening lack direction, this Zen and the Art of Game Design approach actually works to Yonder‘s benefit for the most part.

The game begins with a little boat caught in a storm. It crashes into the shoreline of Gemea, a verdant island, leaving its occupant stranded, in what feels like a nod to Swiss Family Robinson. You set out to explore the world, a lifetime of video game habits, well-oiled reactionary cogs, turning in your head — I have to get a weapon, start saving currency, stay alert for enemies who could gank my Level 1 punk arse. But some of these beats never arrive. The enemies never come. There’s no way to actually fail. No player death or game over screen as far as I could tell.  Yonder is committed to total pacifism in a way you don’t see in video games very often. Considering my first reaction had been “I’ll kill anything that moves,” it actually made me feel like a bit of monster.

Even the game’s main villain, a hazy, purple ghost-thing called Murk, doesn’t hurt anyone or indeed do anything particularly evil. You simply wave it away by finding fairies or Sprites. That’s literally it. That’s how you beat the bad guy. Find some fairies, drive the Murk back with pure positivity (and truly spectacular Dad puns, spouted by the fairies themselves).

You are guided throughout Gemea by nothing more than your own gut and the game’s lilting soundtrack, given total freedom to explore the world as you like and uncover its secrets. While the world itself certainly isn’t anything we haven’t seen in plenty of adventure games before, its what you get up to in the world that is remarkable. I quickly came to realise that my presence on this island was welcomed, but not because anyone was in peril. The land wasn’t in strife. No-one needed saving. Nor was I considered a threat. It was assumed I was there to help. And so help I did, constructing a fairly slapdash farm, planting seeds to help grow trees. This in turn emboldened the local fauna to investigate my farm and, just like in Viva Pinata, they may decide to stay or they may just bugger off. If they stay, I could eventually milk them and then use that milk to trade other farmers for items I can put back into my farm. I’d found the game’s money-less, barter-only economy.

You may find your experience with Yonder to be a bit of a disjointed one at first, but this only lasts as long as it takes you to let go of any pre-determined conventions associated with the adventure genre. The school of thought in operation here is minimalism. Clutter — in art, mechanics and communication — has been tossed overboard in favour of something more free-form. No one part of the game has its hooks in another. Adventuring, farming and even following the threadbare story all exist in their own mechanical biomes. If you’d prefer to farm forever, Yonder will not stop you. If you’d rather gallivant around and take a tour of the island, Yonder will not gate anything off. The only time I saw anything close to gated content was after I’d knocked over two or three story missions and it opened up a handful of new buildings to start work on.

While I appreciate the game’s dedication to being a relaxing inversion of the adventure genre, I did start to find myself wishing for a little more “game” here and there. Most of the tasks you are given, should you seek them out, are fairly uninspired fetch quests — go here, find the thing, bring a specific amount of it back. You can’t begrudge it though, Yonder is so pleasant in every other regard that you forgive the lack of imaginative quest design.

After all of this pleasantness then, why did the game decide to sucker punch me in its last seconds and leave me feeling incredibly sad? Yonder uses its closing sequence to read you a fairy tale, the thrust of which is Being You Is Neither Enough Nor Okay. It takes you back through your family’s history and examines how Gemea came to be stricken by the Murk. Given that the game goes to great pains to have a main character that is gender neutral and totally customisable, having it drop such a heavy weight about identity and self on you at the last minute really takes the wind out of you.

Yonder is not an especially original game — it pulls concepts from so many obvious sources of inspiration and never really iterates on any of them. When you are actually given something to do, it is only the most basic of commands to be carried out. But totally removing mechanics like combat, power creep and income are bold moves, moves I like. Moves that made me think about how many modern game design conceits are simply ingrained whether we actually like them much or not. Short and (mostly) sweet, Yonder is a very pleasant surprise indeed.

Score: 7.5 out of 10
Highlights: Lovely artwork; Interesting design philosophy; Aussie Aussie Aussie!
Lowlights: Zen approach may irritate some players; Dull quests
Developer: Prideful Sloth
Publisher: Prideful Sloth
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Windows PC
Available: Now

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.