Born from the stars once every millennium, elephants are revered creatures that have become mighty protectors of the world. But, when Yono falls from the celestial skies, the young elephant is overwhelmed with the task that he has been given, finding himself in a world that he’s never seen before, and unsure whether he can actually help those in need.
I expected to fall head over heels for Yono and the Celestial Elephants, a 30-second glimpse in the Nindies Showcase Summer 2017 showing it to be an adorable game with puzzles, treasure chests to whack open with your trunk, water to spray everywhere, enemies to headbutt, and explosives to haphazardly hurl. But, while this courageous tale has plenty of heart, it doesn’t quite come together as developer Neckbolt had perhaps hoped.
Waking in the room that he crashed upon the world in, Sundara is the first human that Yono encounters. Similarly young, energetic, and in search of adventure, she leads you to Windhill – a small village that is nearby. It does not take long to stumble on the nods to The Legend of Zelda series in this elephantine action-adventure, whether that be signs that politely ask you not to break pots or a shop that will sell you the ‘A Link to the Pedigree’ outfit for 128 coins – cladding the young hero in a familiar green get-up.
Yono and the Celestial Elephants doesn’t shy away from its inspiration, then, but it is a game that can often feel misguided in places. There is fun to be had in stomping around as Yono, an elephant that can suck up water, spew fire, blow air, and shoot peanuts at balloons from his trunk. But, when there aren’t puzzles waiting to be solved, the experience falls flat.
The plight of the world sees Yono called upon to help its people: the Humans, whose young princess has disappeared without a trace from Knightingale City; the immortal Bonewights that live in the Sundergarden, who have become afraid as they are unable to produce more of their kind; and the robotic Mekani in Freehaven, who are caught up in starting a revolution.
It is impressive that you can natter to the characters that are littered in each region, but the dialogue is uneven in execution. These interactions help to pad out the world, reflecting on the people that live there, their cultures, and how they feel about one another. But, too often, you will engage in conversations in Yono and the Celestial Elephants that often feel wholly misplaced. These are proudly listed in the game’s features, too, which boast about how the player can “discuss ascetic virtue ethics with the undead, existentialism and freedom of will with the robots, and political philosophy and the roots of power and authority with the humans.”
I am glad that developers continue to see games as a medium that can raise awareness around such areas, but, especially in one with such a cute exterior that stars an elephant who is trying his hardest to restore balance to the world, it jarred against the charm that Yono and the Celestial Elephants otherwise has in abundance. It’s a game with distinctly adult themes wrapped up in a family-friendly appeal, and I am still not sure how I am expected to really feel about that.
This confliction is an undoubted shame, too, seeing as the puzzles that the developer throws at you are often clever, whether using water to cool down switches that are too hot to touch, headbutting enormous chess pieces to raise and lower platforms, or playfully sliding ice blocks around a room. The combat, though, is largely diabolical, as are the numerous side quests, that will simply see you watering plants and carrying lost belongings back and forth between characters.
A neat idea that Yono and the Celestial Elephants has, is that the letters and glyphs from ancient texts have slipped off their pages and been scattered in the wind. The player will collect these over their time with the game, and, once enough have been gathered, they can be used to reveal the lost chapters to learn more about the elephants that preceded Yono. Unlike the bizarrely highbrow approach to everything else, these are interesting.
But, broadly speaking, Yono and the Celestial Elephants needed a little more polish. It is a bug-ridden experience that can see your attacks or puzzle interactions not registering, and the enemy targeting mechanic fail to work altogether. Graphically it’s quaint but forgettable, and the soundtrack, too, is unremarkable – with a special shoutout to the carousel box melody that was a moment where I immediately muted the Nintendo Switch.
That largely sums up my experience with Yono and the Celestial Elephants, a passion project that wearily falls short from the potential that it clearly had. It is probably best that you wait for another millennium to see what adventures await the next elephant, which, we can hope, will be far more exciting than this one.