Despite video game industry trends, gamers from all walks of life can have a thirst for something else besides an epic adventure with an extra-muscular gunner packed with infinite magazines. It can be just as good to relax through exploration and chill activities as it is to slaughter everything in one’s path. Out of this need, comes the niche genre of casual games, which seems to have become increasingly popular despite the stigma that comes with the term “casual”. This genre can be identified across a multitude of titles, from Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing to Night in the Woods and FEZ. The term casual is rather common in games designed to be approached at the player’s pace instead of the developer’s desire, where even though narrative might be present, it isn’t as important as smelling the flowers. Developed and published by Prideful Sloth as their debut title, Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is the pinnacle of casual sandboxes: it has a violence-free seamless open world, tons of corners to explore, a decent amount of collectibles, and even farming. On paper, it’s a dream come true to anyone looking to explore an environment for the sake of it, but in reality, its shortcomings may be a detriment to the most demanding casual game.
In Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles, players take control over a customized character (who can be further customized as the game progresses) who is on their way to the distant land of Gemea, where their ancestors come from. The land, which has a diversity of biomes, flora, and fauna, suffers from the presence of a force simply known as murk, which seems to be destroying the island little by little. Together with sprites—adorable little creatures with the power to disperse the murk—the player must venture through Gemea, rid it of its curse, and help the locals with a variety of tasks that range from catching fish and cooking a “solution for beard growth” to bringing 55 kitties back home and even helping a scarecrow stay fashionable throughout the seasons.
First of all, let’s make something clear: A non-violent sandbox game is nothing new. On the first paragraph alone three such titles were mentioned and we could go through countless others. A game that’s anything but violent can be great if done right, yet the chances of failure are much bigger if its core mechanics aren’t polished enough. FEZ, for instance, succeeded with its gimmick 2D-to-3D mechanic and how it adds to world building and puzzle solving. Whatever people think of developer Phil Fish, his creation is a unique gem that left its mark on video game history. With Animal Crossing, Nintendo managed to keep players entertained in a contained environment with so many collectibles, it would take them hundreds of years to effectively “complete” the game without the use of cheats. Yonder, on the other hand, gives up combat in favor of exploration alone and unfortunately, players pay the price.
When I say “give up combat in favor of exploration alone,” I mean it. Exploration is the keyword when describing Yonder as there isn’t much else to it. As mentioned, everything about it works on paper but the execution leaves a sour taste in the mouth. While there are features such as crafting, farming, and collecting, everything is held back by the world of Gemea and the developers’ desire for players to explore its every corner. The systems and mechanics are dumbed down to benefit exploration and to have players running up and down even though they saw everything they could along the way. For example, to craft, it’s necessary to join a guild by completing a quest set by its guild master. Reasonable enough. That’s nothing other games haven’t done before. However, finding the guild masters requires exploring every nook and cranny for the towns they each reside. Then, one needs to find the required materials either by exploring or looking for vendors who trade them—which, you guessed it, requires exploration. After the quest is complete the player is an effective member of the guild and is free to craft a small selection of recipes, all of which brings us back to exploration in order to gather materials.
Everything in Yonder is connected to exploration in a way or another. Even though there are farms (and you can have multiple farms at once because how else would you adopt animals from determined biomes?), you can’t cultivate anything besides what the animals produce. That means that, in order to trade or craft, you have to find materials in the wild, which is a challenge in and of itself since the game lacks labels and custom map markers. I know, it’s 2017. How come a game doesn’t have custom map markers? If that’s not enough, fast travel is out of the question since the developers want players to explore. There is a collection of sage stones which provide some sort of travelling system (upon accessing one, you are transported to a nexus where you can exit through other sage stones you have unlocked), but they are far from optimal seeing as how there is only one in each biome and they’re nowhere near anything remotely relevant. To top it all, animals that could serve as mount can’t be mounted.
That’s not to say every choice the developers made was arguable. The world they crafted is very pleasing and it sure lives up to the core prospect. Players are rewarded for exploring with a variety of collectibles, from the adorable sprites to cosmetics, materials, quests, and even constellations. Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles could’ve been a far better game if the developers weren’t so concerned with forcing exploration on players whilst sticking to sandbox conventions such as crafting, which only hurt the overall experience since everything links back to running around.
There’s no doubt that the title has a public who loves everything about it, but those expecting something akin to a broader Stardew Valley will be deeply disappointed. It’s clear that Prideful Sloth lived up to its name and neglected its homework (that is, studying games that did exploration better), but at the very least the developers are more than willing to receive feedback and see how they can implement requested features without compromising their vision.
Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is out digitally for Windows PC through Steam and the PlayStation 4.