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Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles review

Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles takes cues from a variety of literature and games — then fulfills promises some of those inspirations couldn’t keep.

In 2001, Peter Molyneux promised that in Fable, you could plant an acorn, and later in your character’s life, that acorn would grow into a tree. Famously, that did not happen, nor did it happen in Fable II, some seven years later. Enter Yonder, which while not produced by Peter Molyneux, does in fact let you plant an acorn, only to come back in due time to find a fully sprouted tree.

Fable is only one inspiration for Yonder, a game with a small fleet of influences. It’s immediately recalling Zelda insofar as following the third-person adventure of a lost young child discovering their hidden past. Harvest Moon comes into play — Yonder’s minimalist farming recalls the Natsume-published series. There’s a hint of Animal Crossing too. Interactions with villagers often skew comedic, but never with snark.

Yonder comes from Australian studio Prideful Sloth games. For the developer of Yonder, there’s no better name to represent their output. Yonder won’t pressure anyone when wandering the landscapes of Gemea. Without leveling, without health, without time restrictions, everything you do is free of confinement. Yonder is, plainly, a game of almost nothing where you need do nothing.

In the opening scene, a boat crashes ashore the lost island of Gemea during a storm, probing Arthur Conan Doyle or Jules Verne’s turn-of-the-century novels. But Yonder departs from so many of its gaming contemporaries in its expressed bent towards pacifism. There are no monsters to fight, nothing to kill. The closest thing to combat is splintering wooden crates or knocking on boulders with a hammer.

With gentle orchestration moving the slim storybook-like tale forward, Yonder’s innocence is undeniable. With no “game over” screen or death state, Prideful Sloth instead allows you the autonomy to explore and discover. While Gamea is hardly a realm flush with surprise, seeing the sights, mingling with animals (even befriending them with food), and helping rather than harming this aesthetically delightful world feels right. Planting seeds to grow trees - eventually a game-wide quest - also makes wildlife easier to befriend — and, hopefully, make them part of your farm. Tend to your farm animals and their milk is then available to trade for items.

To be free from frustration with Yonder’s mellowed pacing is a unique gift. Without the tangles of leveling, almost nothing in Yonder ties into anything else; the different elements of story, farming, and random adventuring exist as separate elements. You can gleefully explore without farming, or farm without touching the story (although completing a handful of specific missions does create the opportunity for constructing new building types).

An ambient antagonist, Murk, is an identity-less, purplish dark aura, covering specific locations on the island. It never speaks or harms anything, which for Yonder is a tonally appropriate villain. Knocking it back requires Yonder’s fully customizable (and nameless) protagonist to find fairy-like Sprites. Find enough and the Murk is chased away, uncovering new areas or secrets. Sprites are hidden about, speaking in pun-based dialogs (equivalent to the worst dad jokes) when discovered. Otherwise, they show no personality. In the menu, it’s possible to select a single Sprite to join you, yet this decision changes nothing. The same goes for Yonder’s silent protagonist. All of the dialog is one-sided, a trope that handicaps any sense of character.

Even as you arrive and in spite of the Murk blocking some of their land, as a society, Gemea evolved into a care-free Eden. Glancing around after the crash, it doesn’t appear to need saving. Without taking on any tasks, bouncy wildlife already spreads across gorgeous island greenery, zero conflict has emerged between the various towns, and economies were built on friendly bartering rather than currency. Everyone works toward total restoration of their land, together. Even when dealing with potential destruction of their world, the population of Gemea is affable, charming, and caring.

This existence isn’t particularly exciting, though. Speaking to villagers, their tasks amount to go here, find this and bring it back, usually with the necessary quantity of “it” in hand. It’s the worst of open world busywork, spread out over five hours or more depending on your personal completionist tendencies (stretch this to ten hours to get everything).

Thankfully, some hide their fetch quests well within amusing setups. In one side mission, a woman wished to enter a beard competition, requiring an odd recipe with goofy requirements. Chasing the pieces down offers enough humor to offset the fetch-quest nature of the task in question, if only a little.

Oddly then, completing the story and helping these people is a downer. For as bright, chipper, and harmless as Yonder seems, the final moments spin a fairy tale that says it’s not okay to be who you are. Discovering your family history and why Gemea became infected by Murk feels more like a casualty of identity. Considering the gender-neutral creation options and overarching theme of being anyone, the final uneventful text crawl is crushing instead of inspiring.

Wrap up

In the end, Yonder isn’t inventive, exactly, as the multitude of ideas and cross-media inspirations converge somehow into something infinitely familiar. Missions are cut down to absolute basics to fulfill an open world quota, but it’s possible to forgive this when traipsing through this aesthetically pleasing land and helping these delighted folk. And as importantly, there’s bravery in eliminating things like combat and leveling, allowing Yonder a rare, distinctive brevity.

Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles was reviewed using a pre-release Steam key provided by Prideful Sloth. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.