Yono is a (subjectively) little elephant with a big mission. I want to thank NeckBolt and Plug in Digital for sending us a copy of this game to review.
Release date: Out Now
Systems: Nintendo Switch, Steam
Earlier this month we were given a review code for a recently released indie game on the Switch called Yono the Celestial Elephant. I apologize at how long it took to get this review done, October has been a hectic month for us all. However, this gave me time to really sit down and get through the title and really establish my thoughts, as they went back and forth constantly and I couldn’t make up my mind whether Yono was truly another legendary indie title or something that should go extinct, like the elephants in this game. And with that…
This Zelda-like game has you star as a cute elephant named Yono who travels to various locales in this elephant-free world. See, elephants here are creatures of legends, bringers of peace and protectors of the world. Every hundreds of years an elephant is said to appear and change the world and Yono is the latest one in the line. After falling from the sky, Yono meets Sundara, a runaway girl, and Kai, a clumsy monk, and together the three of them go out to discover Yono’s purpose in the world.
For a cutesy looking game there are some very serious tones going on here in a weird clash. You have a race of skeletons who can’t feel, die and have no needs, who all came from a cataclysmic war. You have a race of robots who are treated like lesser beings and slaves, who dream of an uprising they know they can’t win. Finally you have a queen so paranoid she’s willing to execute all who get in her way.
This might make the story sound deep but it is actually rather streamlined and things get resolved almost instantly. Characters who might be villains totally take a 180 stance after a chat with Yono, which ends up making them far less complex characters than at first glance. The game never really spends time developing the ideas it presents and instead just outright tells you something disturbingly real that you weren’t expecting.
Yono himself as a character is also rather bland. Sundara and Kai are slightly more interesting but Yono just comes off as ultimately very polite and kind who is never sure if he is doing the right thing. He never gets angry or aggressive or confident. He is just always very stoic and calm, which does fit a celestial being but gets boring fast.
Overall, this definitely is not the story I was expecting from this game but it has a message to tell and it is concise about it.
Yono is played from an isometric, top-down, camera angle. The player runs around in various rooms and solve puzzles to advance. All of these puzzles revolve around abilities that Yono has, like picking up items, pushing blocks, bashing things and using his trunk to suck in and spit out different elements, like fire, or peanuts. The puzzles get progressively harder and require some thinking to solve which is good. Although the majority are still block puzzles, the game throws in some twists and turns that stop them from feeling stale, at least most of the time.
Combat is a very different story though. I greatly appreciate what this developer wanted to do. He set out to make a game where you played as a cute elephant and he succeeded. But, this also makes the combat in Yono is repetitive and dull. Outside of the dungeon bosses, who feel more like puzzles, the combat sections are all the same. Tap the attack button and watch Yono headbutt his foes. Rinse and repeat until they all disappear. It’s dull and while Yono’s trunk abilities can be used instead there is no benefit to doing so as it is a lot slower and very situational.
Yono also never feels like he is getting stronger. More health can be gained by collecting four health cogs, this game’s version of heart containers, but those are the only upgrades Yono himself receives. Any new ability is external and can only be done in certain areas.
Yono also has the ability to pick-up and throw objects and the amount of objects this involves is vast. There is an issue though and that is the button placement. The button to lift and throw is the same as the interact and talk button. This lead to instances where I might accidentally throw a key item off a cliff or in an area I can’t reach all because I was trying to see if I could interact with something. It’s also not possible to simply drop an object. They are always thrown which means some objects may require some fumbling to get in the right position. This is also the only ability ever used in side-quests, which basically all consist of fetch quests in one of the games kingdoms.
In the end, Yono has some good puzzles and good ideas around the concept of being an elephant, but has just as many design problems that end up making the game feel cumbersome. It is also a fairly easy game all things considered.
The presentation in this game is for the most part pretty good. Some of the character models have weird, unmoving facial expressions. This is most notable on Sundara who always looks off to me. However, most of the other models are really charming and well designed. The boneweights are a particularly cool looking race for a bunch of gothic skeletons. The world is incredibly cutesy and there are little things thrown in to make it cuter, like carrying small animals on your back.
Each area is very distinct looking, ranging from a forest to a city to a snowy mountain, and each kingdom feels distinct in its architecture and style. The music matches every situation and knows when to be calming or when to be energetic. It mixes really well, although the sound effects can be a bit generic, almost like they were taken from a public domain website.
One nice addition is the storybook and costumes. Yono can gather money and letters throughout his adventure that can be used for optional areas of the game. There are the tales of the previous elephants which expand on all of the game’s lore and history, then there are the plethora of costumes Yono can purchase to customize his look. My favourite was the obvious Link costume and the Hannibal costume. There is a lot of variety here so there is definitely something for everyone.
In the end, the presentation is probably Yono’s best feature. It looks adorable and distinctive with pleasures to both the eyes and ears.
Yono the Celestial Elephant is not a difficult game and it is not a very complex game. Despite having dialogue that asks some of the most thought-provoking questions about politics and the way the world works, it is all treated like a simple tale of a magical elephant. It is almost like a children’s story book in game format and I think that is is the best analogy for this game. It looks and sounds very charming and can be played by anyone, even really young children. If I wanted to get a small child into 2D Zelda and I was worried games like a Link Between Worlds might be too complex then this is the game I would give them instead. For more veteran gamers it all depends on if you just want to enjoy some cute visuals and characters because that is what this game has in spades.