Yono and the Celestial Elephants is both delightful and insightful.
I imagine the conversation that became Yono and the Celestial Elephants started out like this:
Developer 1: You know what would make this Zelda game better?
Developer 2: What?
Developer 1: If Link was a freaking elephant man!
Developer 2: Oh man! Let’s do it!
…followed by an epic high five.
I heard of Yono and the Celestial Elephants like many others did. It was during the ‘Nindies’ event where they showed a bunch of indie games heading to the Switch. Yono and the Celestial Elephants immediately caught my attention with its bright colors and adorable main character. I don’t think I had ever wanted to play as an elephant so badly in my entire life. The idea of any game having Zelda themes is always going to get my attention, but an elephant, too? What sorcery was this?
So, seven hours and one tiny, elephant-sized adventure later, it’s time to share my experiences and thoughts on Yono. This leads me into a immediate disclaimer: Yono and the Celestial Elephants is a very, very easy game. To the point where I was confused about two hours in and had to stop to do some research. My conclusion is that Yono as a game is extremely family friendly. I would border on saying that this game was purely meant for kids. That isn’t a bad thing, though, and doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of the game. Just expect a smooth and easy-to-play experience.
Secondly, while Yono wears its inspirations on its sleeve, this is more of a Zelda-lite game. Forgive the terminology but it fits. There are a bazillion destructible pots in this game which should satisfy any Zelda fan. There are some health upgrades but that’s where it kind of ends. I found Yono to be more a puzzle game than an actual adventure game. Why? Well, it’s about boxes.
Imagine if between every major city, someone set up elaborate box puzzles.
That kind of sums up about eighty percent of Yono‘s gameplay: boxes and switches. Now obviously, there are a few more intricacies than that and the game does a fantastic job of ramping up complexity. However this is primarily a puzzle game, without a doubt.
You start your adventure in a small town and make your way from area to area. Yono is a mythical, almost godlike creature that people regard in high esteem. Any time a Celestial Elephant arrives on the planet it is usually is due to a crisis, except at the time of Yono’s appearance, there isn’t any crisis at all. This is the reason behind your adventure and traveling all over the kingdoms. You find people who need help and help them, meeting an assortment of characters, peoples, and philosophies along the way (more on this later).
The controls are simple; you can move, blow your trunk, charge, and suck things up with your trunk like water or peanuts. The only power-ups are for your health, which you usually find after completing tasks or solving puzzles. There is a currency that you can collect from smashing pots, used solely to purchase adorable skins for Yono. You can also find random letters in pots and chests. These are used to decipher the history of the Celestial Elephants and give you more insight into the world.
Speaking of the costumes, Yono has an adorable number of elephant costumes for you to enjoy. From spooky skeleton elephant to the green tunic and cap of ‘A Link to the Pedigree’, it’s these little things that really charm you and keep you playing as you want to see more and more.
Combat is by far the weakest area in the game and the one I wish had more polish. Occasionally you might find a goblin or two blocking a path in the game, but charging pretty much takes care of anybody and anything. Enemies are super slow to attack and telegraph way in advance that they are going to hit you. If you die in this game, it’s because you tried to die.
The other half of combat is bosses. There are three bosses in total and most of them involve some sort of puzzle work to defeat them. Compared to normal enemies, I loved the bosses. They were thought-out, fun and even challenging at times. The combat is fine and I wasn’t expecting him to pick up people with his trunk and smash them, although I feel like something akin to Spyro‘s combat system would’ve fit well in this universe.
That brings me to the puzzles. Most puzzles involve you getting a key and opening a door to progress deeper, either getting to one of the three bosses or making it into the next city. Each puzzle mostly involves moving boxes or navigating the terrain. Every area you enter usually has some sort of theme to it. As an example, the Sundegarden is blanketed in darkness and requires sliding ice blocks into the correct position. Another area might have you blowing up blocks with a TNT plant and moving boxes around that. The robot city of Mechani has magnets that attract and propel metal objects.
None of the puzzles are that difficult, though. I did get stuck on one or two occasionally, but that was because I have the mind of a seven-year-old. Overall, I did have quite a bit of fun with everything mixed together, even if the combat was a bit weak. What I liked most about the puzzles is how they would compound on to the next area and add more elements. Eventually you get hot chili peppers and blow fire, and peanuts can pop balloons. It’s because the game ramps things up in every area, in such a smooth fashion, that Yono and the Celestial Elephants kept me playing until the credits rolled.
While the gameplay is overall enjoyable and anyone can pick up and play this game, there is a part of me that wished maybe Yono had starred a young, silent elfboy protagonist. The reason being that the writing for Yono is fantastic, albeit slightly confusing for the targeted age group.
The backbone of Yono and the Celestial Elephants’ story is philosophy.
If you read between the lines of Yono’s story, the history of the Celestial Elephants, and what certain characters say, you quickly will realize, like me, that Yono has a deep message to send. From the Bonewights of the Sundergarten who live a life with nothing because the dead care for nothing, to the Mechani who grow frustrated with their human overlords and want to be seen as equals, Yono really tries to slip in some deep philosophical thoughts and issues into its cutesy dialogue and bright colors.
It is no surprise that the game takes quite a bit from Buddhism and Hinduism in its themes. I mean, Yono and the rest of the elephants were divine beings who were sought out for knowledge, wisdom, and guidance. Sounds slightly familiar. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not heavy handed — quite the contrary. I really loved the world-building that the developer did here. So much so that I wanted the world to take itself a bit more seriously because of how much awesome potential there was.
The game tackles democracy, monarchies and many other issues from racism to war. The thing is, you wouldn’t really notice all those subtle things embedded in the dialogue if you were a kid. Kids are smart these days, but they aren’t going to get the ‘Dialogs of Ronin’ which explore what truly brings one pleasure in life: the pursuit of the materialistic or one’s own actions. I mean, that’s some deep stuff for a kid to get. The main story itself is simple to chew, but if you happen to be an adult playing this game there is more to the story for you to indulge in.
Yono‘s ending is one of those things that isn’t really an ending. It’s more of a message, I mean, you helped people out, but what impact will that have in the long term? These are questions that Yono literally asks. You never get the answers you really want, but then again, maybe the answers don’t matter. It’s this type of thinking that pervades the entire game.
One area that does hold true to form is the graphics.
Yono has a very cute palette of colors, themes, and aesthetics. Every city, enemy, and character design is all adorable in its own way. Yono does quite a bit with its simple designs and each area has its own flavor — aside from many other aspects, this is what kept me moving forward. I wanted to see the Sundergarden as much as our companions did. Then I wanted to know what Freehaven looked like. Then I laughed when I found the train system which serves as a fast travel system with the robot conductor who kept you informed on the game’s events.
Everything Yono has to offer just oozes charm and is endearing. This holds true with the graphics, music and sound effects. Every time Yono gets hit by a trap or baddie he lets out a tiny trumpet sound that makes you laugh. The music is fun and adventurous, matching the tone of the overall aesthetic. I have heard better soundtracks, mind you, but Yono‘s does what it needs to get the job done.
Ultimately, Yono and the Celestial Elephants is a fun game, but could it have been more?
Like I mentioned earlier, I got a solid seven hours out of the game. I did all of the quests and fixed up all the books for lore. I missed only one heart container but to be honest, I didn’t really need it or feel the need to go back for it. Yono sadly has no Steam achievements, but it does have Steam cards. Replay value is a tricky one here, because I could see a kid playing this over and over. An adult? Probably not.
Yono and the Celestial Elephants is well-made overall and I didn’t really find any game breaking bugs, so I can recommend it to just about anyone. However, it doesn’t rock the innovation boat and could do more to distinguish itself from all the other indie games out there. Just keep in mind that the game is not super difficult when you make your purchase. I really hope there is a sequel to Yono, as the world-building was done very well. Maybe just polish up the combat a bit and who knows what this series will be capable of doing?
This review is based off the PC version, available on Steam.