There are numerous dichotomies at play Neckbolt Games’ Yono and the Celestial Elephants, and while that very word might turn off those just looking for a nifty little Zelda-like adventure with some cotton-candy visuals and loads of charm, it is the contrasts that make a little game about a young, magical elephant destined to confront the world’s problems so fascinating — and ultimately they are a big part of the quirky fun in an otherwise simplistic experience.
Yono and the Celestial Elephants gives away the basic premise in the title, but for those who must know more, the story revolves around a mystical mammoth descended from the heavens in Stardust-fashion, ready to aid the population of a vast kingdom made up of humans, undead nihilists, and robots. There’s a missing princess, some newly-risen monsters, a potential uprising, and in the middle a queen whose absolute power may have — well, you know the rest. In its essence the scenarios presented are fairly boilerplate in the gaming universe, but what makes them so interesting in Yono is how frankly the intellectual concepts at play among the various societies are delved into, with lines and lines of dialogue boxes devoted to expounding on dueling philosophies, offering objective and in-depth looks at multiple sides of the same issue. The genesis of conflict, the nature of freedom, and the complexity of democracy are all examined in ways not usually expected from such family-friendly gameplay and design where an elephant blows peanuts out his nose.
Amid all this rambling there isn’t really much of a story to speak of, and players will have to actually seek out many of the more detailed opinings by talking to NPCs many multiple times — as what they say continuously evolves — but this choice is an interesting one in context, and certainly enriches what would have otherwise been a shallow, brief experience. Yono himself is also quite engaging, naive optimist he is. Bounding along like a happily oblivious dog, big ears flapping in the breeze, or plump and slowed by having just guzzled a tub of water, he truly is an adorable protagonist. His can-do attitude seems like it might get annoying in a world full of real problems, but it’s surprisingly infectious, and by the end, there is some satisfying development on the self-awareness front. Really, Yono is about as huggable a hero as can be, both in look and spirit, even among gloomy dead people or enraged rebel machines.
He’s helped by visuals that are both rudimentary and pleasant at the same time. Nothing in Yono and the Celestial Elephants will make players stop and smell the roses with that long snout, but nothing should make them cringe either. It’s very kiddy-cute, with the brightly-colored basic geometry often coming across like a toy box play-world sprung to life, which wouldn’t be so noteworthy on a Nintendo console if it weren’t for the discussions of political autonomy, rebellion, and death. Somehow the disparity between the look and the subjects at hand works, as the intent behind the story sneaks up on those just relaxing to the easygoing vibe.
Easy might be a bit of an understatement. As far as puzzles, combat, and exploration go, Yono and the Celestial Elephants is no Zelda. There are some dungeons (three, to be exact) that do contain puzzle rooms, but outside maybe a few of the more clever ideas, the majority of these challenges will be a walk in the park to anyone who has pushed a few blocks in their day. Different items that your elephant can make use of do add some flavor, though how much you enjoy overcoming fairly standard obstacles might depend on whether the cheery music and sight of an elephant snorting hot peppers is winning enough. Those less experienced may very well be stumped a few times, but most challenges are limited to one room and are very accessible.
This applies to combat as well, which is also pared down, limited to essentially a one-button attack where Yono rams opponents with his giant head. Fights don’t happen very often anyway, and it seems like combat, in general, may have been more of an afterthought, brought in to spice up the walking around. Enemies rarely bother attacking back and usually are reeling from Yono’s blows long enough to get in another strike. Only the rare boss encounters actually engage, but while they’re certainly more fun than just going through the motions, there’s nothing overly complex about them either.
There are a few annoying quirks as well, like getting sucked into doorways even when not trying to enter them, but overall these small bothers took a back seat to charm and philosophy. Yono and the Celestial Elephants may not have a deep story, cunning puzzles, or exciting combat, but it has…something. The appeal will rely heavily on whether one is young enough for simple, happy games to still be delightful, or intellectually curious enough to read through text upon text of philosophical musings. The two shouldn’t fit together, but they oddly do, and though Yono‘s dichotomies present a strange time, they also make for a very pleasant way to pass it.