Yono and the Celestial Elephants review

So we herd you like elephants.

Yono and the Celestial Elephants is a Nintendo Switch game by Neckbolt Studios. It's a one-man production: with the exception of the music composition, everything is the creation of one individual, Niklas Hallin.

It shows in the details. The game has the sort of idiosyncrasies that can only result from a singular vision. That's good, because it allows for weirdness that would never pass a committee of developers. But the flipside to this level of creative control is that a game can be mired in a single person's biases.

Fortunately, in Yono and the Celestial Elephants, the good far outweighs the bad. The game takes some time to find its footing, but once it does, it's great. It also tackles far bigger questions than one might expect, discussing existence, purpose, life, and death. That these heavy themes are delivered through the eyes and ears of Yono, an adorable baby elephant, is a striking yet effective juxtaposition.

In this game's world, elephants are sacred idols; they often appear in times of great crisis, and they are looked upon as saviors. When Yono lands in this world via comet, he finds himself surrounded by the legacy of his forefathers. Massive stone idols of elephants dot the landscape. Elephant tapestries hang on the walls. Meanwhile, Yono has an innate need to help, but he doesn't know where to direct that need or how. So he wanders, looking for direction.

Unfortunately, Yono's struggle becomes the player's struggle. Until about one third through the game—around the time that Yono explores a Bonewight cemetery—the narrative is confusing. The player is given a lot of exposition in a short amount of time, and it's fed through optional conversations with scattered characters. Several times, I found myself accomplishing tasks but not understanding how they led to a larger goal. It's fine for Yono to feel that way, but the player shouldn't.

At the game's towns and outposts, Yono meets one of three distinct races: Humans, the aforementioned Bonewights (undead Humans who fell in battle), and Mekani (advanced robots who gained sentience and liberated themselves from Humans). They send Yono to restore peace to their respective homes—each race has its own city—usually by exploring a dungeon-type labyrinth filled with enemies and physics puzzles.

Yono's small moveset is flexible to a variety of situations. He can headbutt, which defeats enemies and breaks rocks. He uses his trunk, which, depending on the task at hand, can blow air, squirt water, shoot peanuts, or blow fire. And he can pick up items and throw them; near the end of the game, there's a flower that looks suspiciously like dynamite. Hold onto it for too long, and Yono will have to restart at the last checkpoint.

The puzzles are fun, but nothing groundbreaking—It's a lot of 'move the blocks to get the key, which triggers the door' type stuff. Tricky, but not challenging; most of the puzzles can be solved through trial and error, if all else fails.

And that's the weird thing about this game: at first glance, Yono is a puzzle game. But Hallin seems less interested in the actual gameplay, which is acceptable if typical, and more interested in building this sprawling, mythical universe. In fact, during the leadup to the game, Hallin released several YouTube videos exclusively dissecting its backstory. There are five videos in total; this one discusses the Bonewights, my personal favorite:

The game's dialogue is the most exceptional thing about Yono. Check out the dialogue bit a little ways above. It's tossed off, almost casually, by a single character. There are tons of these little, evocative tidbits sprinkled throughout the game.

Or look at this bit of dialogue, which veers political. In fact, the entire narrative has an underlying subtext, which wrestles with matters of discrimination and autonomy:

The supporting elements of the game are so much stronger than its core. You get this beautiful, elegant monologue about mortality, and it's placed right next to a mindless battle, where you headbutt three enemies to death by jamming on the A button nine times. The puzzles don't seem to be the point of the game; rather, they seem like a means to an end. I wonder what Yono would be like as an exploratory adventure game--more in the line of a King's Quest--rather than being saddled with 'traditional' game mechanics that do not suit it well.

I recommend Yono and the Celestial Elephants with a simple caveat: this game is not what it looks like. If you're into puzzles—complex, Rube Goldberg contraptions that will keep you engrossed for hours—this is not the game for you. But if you're willing to play this more like an RPG—to explore for a bit and talk to everyone, even multiple times (the characters have lots of funny, interesting things to say, and they mix it up), then give it a try.

Verdict: Yes