Yono and the Celestial Elephants

February 29, 2020
Developer: Neckbolt
Publisher: Plug In Digital
Platform: Nintendo Switch

Many years ago, I lead the programming & design for a game called LOVE! Starring Maily McMailerson. This game starred a bunch of small, blue elephants, referred to in the game as "Effelants". Yono and the Celestial Elephants also stars a little blue elephant. It looked cute and relaxing, so I picked it up on a whim.

In Yono, you play as the titular elephant and navigate an isometric, somewhat-tile-based world. However, in this world, elephants are a rare occurrence: They are basically played up like deities. Only one elephant comes to their planet every 1,000 years, and it is said that elephants will save everyone in times of darkness. Throughout the adventure you meet three distinct races: the (more-or-less) humans; the Bonewights, who are skeletons risen from the dead and who live forever in a sort of Buddhist zen-state where they have foregone material possessions and wants; and the Mekani, who are a relatively advanced species of robots who try to be as efficient as possible and who at the same time are acting as a resistance against the human dictator, who has claimed the world for herself and seems to be trying to rule forever with an iron fist.

If all of this sounds a little heavy for what looks like a colorful game for children: it is. Yono certainly does have the appearance of such a game. Children would certainly understand the story, and children would definitely be fine with the way the game plays: Combat is incredibly simplistic and involves mashing just one button. Puzzles typically amount to pushing blocks around (slowly), moving platforms, and spitting out water to douse things, peanuts to pop things and trigger switches, and fire to melt ice and light torches. However, I get the feeling someone who is really into narrative wrote this game, as the dialogue sometimes does end up kind of making you think—underneath the childish simplicity and innocence is an unexpectedly compelling narrative.

There are even "letters" which can be collected throughout the game by smashing objects with your one and only attack, a simple headbutt. These can be brought to a particular character to fill out books, which provide you with even more backstory on the events that transpired before your time (and the past elephants, too). You can also collect coins that allow you to buy different color schemes for Yono, as well as items that are basically Pieces of Heart from Zelda (Collect four and permanently receive another hit point). On that note, there is clearly a lot of Zelda inspiration in this game. However, it never feels like a total rip-off, even though it shares many of the same elements from its elders.

The game is not long; I think a few hours would do it for most people; you will pretty much collect everything you need by normal progression through the stories and side-quests, but if you skip a few or decide to collect every outfit/costume for Yono, that may take some time.

Despite its sometimes compelling complexity, the overall plot is nothing particularly outstanding. It has a simple beginning, an obvious villain, and a pretty straightforward and obvious ending. It's the subtext that I think really knocks it out of the park. Normally NPC dialog in a game doesn't concern me all that much, but I felt the relatively unique way that it was written and the interesting thoughts the characters provided made it something special—games just don't feel like they have that much thought put into random NPCs anymore. Of course, the other half of the characters are just random nameless nobodies that only say "Hey Yono!". But still.

Despite it having a few bugs here and there and despite it appearing so simple, I think Yono does it's job well. It's relaxing; never frustrating; and not particularly difficult (I don't believe I ever died once on my playthrough). Something you can just kick back and relax with—and probably share with the family too, who could be charmed by its inviting art style and adorable main character. Give it a try if you are the type of person who just wants to lean back and enjoy a cute game every now and then; especially if you also appreciate decent narrative in games.

Final Rating

Solid