Look at images of Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles and it's hard not to fall in love a little. This indie open-world adventure seems to encompass the whimsical, childhood innocence many of us crave. It's a game that allows you to take in a lush environment without the stress of violence or conflict. It's a game of unabashed simplicity, something its contemporaries rarely embrace.
Visually Yonder is stunning, with star-strung galaxies and cherry blossoms reaching into clouds. There's a striking resemblance to Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker - a gorgeous environment with a cartoon twist - but the game dynamics are more like Harvest Moon. This is all about cheery creatures and simulated gathering tasks. I really wanted to like this game.
Your custom character is shipwrecked on the island of Gemea, home to vibrant colours and friendly residents. Unfortunately, the pesky Murk, a foggy looking evil entity, is causing the local residents distress and trying to take over the island. Not exactly the most original storyline. But here's where things are different to your average action-adventure game: there is no combat. None at all. You are going to fight the Murk with your helpfulness, optimism and good spirit. Well, pretty much.
Throughout the game you collect sprites, adorable little creatures with different personalities and names. These banish the Murk, but only if you have enough of them. Each Murk 'cloud' has a certain number of sprites it requires to be defeated, and you find these sprites hidden around the world on your journey. Your main sprite is Lumie, an adorable moth-like creature that remains by your side to offer advice and generally make you smile.
The island of Gemea is made up of eight distinct environments ranging from tropical beaches to snow-kissed mountains, all of which are lush with their own wildlife. As time passes, the seasons change accordingly as does the weather. In winter, you run through flurries of snow and in summertime the sun beats down on your sprite-seeking skin.
However, it's not always sunshine. The day/night cycle, while welcome, can be thoroughly frustrating. Days are too short. I found I would be adventuring for around five real-time minutes before night hit and I was left fumbling in the dark with my lamp. It makes an otherwise relaxing game intermittently stressful. At one point I was feeling engulfed by Gemea. As I searched for a Groffle which had lost its top hat (yup, that's a thing), I was caught in a storm. The incredible realness of the thunder and lightning paired with a simple piano symphony had me enthralled - until the music cut dead. In a game that's all about immersing you in its sense of wonder, stuff like this all too easily - and all too often - ruins the illusion.
For the sake of the animals, I wanted Yonder to be better. The wildlife in Gemea is the stuff of LSD dreams: shrubbery pigs (sprig pig), fabbits and squombles are among the island's resident animals. They look like they've fallen off the anime plushie stall at comic-con. All impossibly adorable and, as in real life, if you feed them they will love and follow you. As you progress, you can build farms where you can keep these animals and care for them, but the options are limited- give them some love or take them on a journey. If this seems like too much pressure, hire a farm hand who also is persuaded by food. My kind of people. These 'critters' can only go so far in making the game interesting however.
Yonder's main issue is its mindless repetition. Its decision to ditch combat is bold, but all that's left afterwards is an average RPG with its heart beating limply. You have the opportunity to take part in farming, gardening and fishing but after a while it seems pointless as you aren't levelling up or achieving much of anything. I consider myself someone who enjoys the inclusion of a farming or gardening sim in a game - never check my Runescape clocked hours - but I couldn't connect to Yonder. There was nothing in it for me. For all its many quests, there's no sense of progress or challenge. We so often play games to feel an accomplishment of sorts, and that's just not present in Yonder. It's all a bit hollow.
Yonder is charming and visually beautiful, but it lacks the fundamental building blocks of any half decent game. As a beginner's introduction to open world games it works, but if you have played the titans of the genre it's severely lacking. There's beauty to be found here, for sure, but don't expect it to be the next big indie title everyone is raving about. It will quickly fall off the radar.