Time condensed: 58 minutes
Sponsored By: A review code from Certis
Imagine if Mass Effect were set in Hyrule, and there were no enemies to fight or party members to manage.
Can you imagine not buying it? I bet you can't. That's good, because “not buying Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles” is something that should only exist in your imagination, if at all.
Non-violent, narrative games are difficult to do well. Usually, they're light on mechanics and have to lean on their narrative to hold the player's interest, like The Stanley Parable. Even when they're not light on mechanics, they tend to go with a non-violent combat-substitute, which is like faux-fu for the tofu intolerant, in that it's a fake version of a fake version of a thing. For example, Splatoon, which gets to be called non-violent because your guns shoot paint, or Undertale, where the non-violent encounters are basically just harder versions of the violent ones, except the opponent doesn’t die at the end.
(Note that I added the caveat that the games were narrative-based games. This was to avoid spending another thousand words talking about Farming Simulator. To DJ Dostoyevski: I'm sorry. To the rest of you: You're welcome.)
Any good vegetarian chef, though, knows that the secret to making a good meal isn't pretending you're not vegetarian, but to make something that is vegetarian taste good. So instead of providing a combat-substitute, Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles simply removes combat from the classic RPG formula and mixes in lots of other interesting, well-seasoned ingredients.
Sure, there's your basic fetch-quest, which is the broccoli of videogame mechanics, and there's also some base-management, and light animal husbandry, and crafting, which are the pasta, tomato sauce and crusty garlic bread of video games. Suddenly you have a full, satisfying meal on your plate, and not a speck of combat in it.
None of this would be very appealing at all if the ingredients weren't well prepared, but they are exquisitely prepared here. Even the fetch quests, which you'll recall I likened to broccoli, are wonderful and satisfying, so they're more like roasted broccoli, which you really should try if you haven't, because it's delicious.
A good example comes along when you are first setting up your farm. There are (adorable) cattle-like animals roaming the plains, and you have to tame one and bring it back to the farm. Simple enough, and usually handled by building some structure that lures the creature in question to your barn. Well, after you build the barn for the not-cows, you have to go find one and lure it back to the farm yourself by feeding it a flower it likes to eat. This makes it love you unconditionally, so it follows you with fluffy pink hearts trailing behind it. Of course, unconditional love doesn't last like it used to, and the not-cows will need their love refreshed by feeding them another flower. And don't try to get clever by running really fast back to the farm. If you get too far ahead of the not-cow, it will forget about you can wander back whence it came. If you run out of flowers, you’ll have to plant some and grow more.
To sum up, the fetch quests are nested within other fetch quests, which are integrated with the other systems in the game. Sure, it's been done before, but it's done very well, and so far I haven't had my usual reaction to nested quests, which is “oh, not more of this.” This is because the developers don't treat the fetch quests as mere filler so they can plausibly claim a hundred hours of gameplay, but rather treat the fetching as the main course, striving to make it enjoyable. And boy howdy did they succeed.
Another thing that a good chef knows is that presentation is important. The world of Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is rendered in a simple, cartoon style that is a feast for the eyes. I'm trying to remember the last game I played that looked this good, and I'm coming up dry. Everything is beautiful, with the exception of the humans, which appear to be the answer to the question “what if we took the character design from Wind Waker and removed all of the personality?” It pains me to say it, given how happy I am with everything else about the graphical design, but they remind me of the sort of wooden dolls you get from toy catalogs that start with a three-page “about us” section that complains about how toys used to be better before people invented electrons. You know the type. They’re the ones that aspire to be Melissa and Doug without the market penetration or quality control.
Nevertheless, Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is a beautiful, vibrant and, above all, fun game that deserves a bigger audience than it is likely to get. Like a skilled chef, it removes what many would consider the core staple of the gaming diet and proves that it's possible to make something not merely edible, but a veritable feast
Will I Keep Playing?
Occasionally, I'll answer this question in the affirmative if I honestly want to play more, even if I suspect I won't. Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is one that I will definitely play more of, provided it doesn't get buried in the current gaming glut.
Is if the Dark Souls of games without combat?
It’s hard to say, with a game like this, whether it can be the Dark Souls of its genre. What would the Dark Souls of a game like this look like? It would have to have timed quests and no map, maybe throwing in free-roaming quest givers who can, on occasion, fall off of cliffs without warning or notice.
Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles has none of those things. What it delivers is a simple and, above all, stress-free experience for people who are willing to take it for what it is. It’s about as far from Dark Souls as you can get without being a different hobby completely, probably one involving yarn and lots of counting.
If anything is the Dark Souls of its genre here, it’s the marketing. How do you sell an RPG without combat to a mass-market audience? I can only hope they figure it out, because Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles is worth your time. I recommend going the Dark Souls multiplayer route and proselytizing for this game as much as possible. The developers earned it.