Every thousand years or so, an elephant is born from the stars and placed on the earth as a sort of protector and keeper of the peace. You are Yono, the latest in the this line of noble creatures, but there’s a small problem: you’re young, inexperienced, and have no idea how this whole elephant thing works. Fortunately, you meet up with a girl named Sundara and a monk boy named Kai who you then set out on a journey with.
While this is a fairly simple premise, the story takes place in a world with a rich history. There are two friendly non-human races, the undead Bonewights and the robotic Mekani, which each have their own origin stories; neither could have existed without humans, but they have each become their own distinct races. There are various political machinations discussed and there is the ever-present threat of a race of more savage creatures known as Robgoblins. There’s also a fairly detailed account of the lives and exploits of several elephants that I will discuss in a bit more detail later on.
Unfortunately, not much is done with this premise. The story is simple and seemingly random. You just happen to head to a new town because someone says that you should and that town just happens to have a problem. There’s an end-of-game twist that occurs, as well, but, when it happened, I was more confused than anything. There’s no point at which I felt that the story’s progression was particularly purposeful, which is a shame. There are some really interesting parts, but they never quite come together as a cohesive whole.
There is also very little character development. What little dialogue each individual character has speaks to a largely unchanging disposition. None of the characters really learn anything over the course of the game, nor do they grow at all. The little bit of change that is seen comes about at the very end, when an indeterminate amount of time passes without notice and you get to see the main characters again a ways down the road. Given that this is Yono’s first time in the human realm and he is sort of learning the ways of the world, I was a bit disappointed that the story didn’t show his growth as a character, in particular.
In fact, on the contrary, it is constantly hinted at that it is very possible that nothing that you do over the course of the game will matter and that any and all of your fixes may only be temporary. I have no doubt that this was an intentional choice meant to show that Yono truly was inexperienced in the ways of the world, but it’s a bit of an odd feeling to constantly be told that you may not actually be fixing the problems that you think you are fixing.
The largest problem, however, is that the story just comes off as feeling unfinished. Ultimately, the story of Yono’s first time in the human world is told, but you will still leave the game feeling like it was but one part of a larger story. There are many more tales that could be told about Yono in the centuries of life that he has ahead of him, but you won’t be privy to any of them.
In terms of gameplay, Yono and the Celestial Elephants is probably best described as an action-adventure game. It is largely focused on puzzles, but there is some combat and many puzzles also make use of traps. The game is played from an isometric view and the world is broken into small zones that usually focus on a puzzle or two. Should you fall off of the land in a zone, you will take damage and be placed back at the beginning of that zone. Yono has the ability to perform a headbutt attack, collect water or certain other materials in his trunk, blow air or what he has collected out of his trunk, and interact with NPCs and various objects.
In general, the game plays well and it’s a smooth experience overall. There are a few physics glitches, including one that has thrown me off of ledges while pushing boxes, but these are few and far between.
It’s also a fairly relaxed experience. Puzzles are generally easy, making use of only a few set pieces at any one time. The majority rely on common puzzle game elements like sliding blocks, moving platforms, and buttons and levers of various kinds. They often rely on misdirection and clever use of limited pieces to present a challenge, but, more often than not, the moves that you can make are so limited in number that they are solved fairly quickly. Many puzzles also use visual cues like plates in the ground to subtly designate where a box is supposed to be moved to or a key location of some kind for that puzzle. Later puzzles involving fire and sliding ice blocks become far more interesting, but they are still largely very easy. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy some of the puzzles and remark to myself that several puzzles were particularly clever as I played; I simply didn’t find them challenging.
Part of the reason that the game’s puzzles are so easy is that, while the game is constantly introducing new mechanics at the beginning of each zone, it only rarely mixes in mechanics from previous zones in complex ways. Every time you enter a new zone, the game sort of resets the difficulty level so that it can comfortably introduce the aforementioned new mechanics, but it never gets back to the point where the difficulty level would be if it hadn’t reset at the beginning of the zone in question. In fact, you will usually only see the current zone’s core mechanics and one mechanic from a previous zone used at the same time. This is unfortunate because the game has a varied set of mechanics that could have been used to create some really dastardly puzzles, but are instead used for easily-solved rehashes of the current zone’s mechanics.
Combat doesn’t fare much better. Whether I was against one or four enemies, I simply headbutted whichever enemy was closest, ran in a small circle, and headbutted them again, repeating the process until they were dead. The reason that I handled combat in this manner is that the enemy AI is the same regardless of the enemy; all enemies have but one melee attack at their disposal. They have to be within a certain range of you for a certain amount of time in order to decide that they will attack you. Should they decide to attack you, the attack is fairly slow and easily avoided. Thus, you can easily exploit the AI’s slow response times by repeating the process above, making combat little more than an extremely easy and monotonous process.
There are a three bosses that provide somewhat more satisfying experiences, but they are also meant to be fought indirectly and through more unconventional means. Because of this, these fights end up feeling a bit more like another series of puzzles with more punishing traps than they do proper boss fights. The final boss fight is probably the only one that feels like a proper boss fight and I must admit that the second phase of that fight is rather clever, but they all continue the trend of being fairly easy to beat.
It doesn’t help matters that the game doesn’t have any sense of progression. As you play, you can collect Health Tokens that can be traded in for new diamonds of health at a rate of four Tokens to one diamond, but that is the extent of progression. There is no gear. There are no new abilities to learn. There are no upgrades to the small number of abilities that you have. You can simply earn more health that you largely won’t need.
In addition to Health Tokens, there are two other forms of currency: the game world’s form of money and letters. Money can only be spent on skins. Different towns offer different skins, but that’s the extent of that system. If you’re like me, money will probably be useless except for buying a single skin that you happen to like.
Letters are a form of currency that are used to unlock new passages about past elephants. The amount of letters that each passage cost seems to directly correlate with the amount of letters that are in each passage, but I haven’t counted to be sure. These passages are folktale-style records of different exploits from each elephant that provide a bit more backstory and help to explain why elephants are so revered. They’re fairly interesting reads and it’s clear that a lot of thought was put into them. However, these are also completely optional and, unless you are a completionist or really want to read everything you can about the game world, there’s little reason to unlock all of them. I think I ended the game with something like 31,000 unused letters, which I had intended to use to unlock new passages, but never got around to.
Due to the lack of gear or anything to spend money on, there is no real concept of an inventory. Instead, Yono can hold one item on his back at a time. This includes animals like chickens, hedgehogs, and turtles, which I often carried with me early on before going to place them on the ground so that I could pick up another object and accidentally throwing them into the water below. It’s a clever system that offers a nice enough replacement for an inventory.
In addition to the main story, Yono and the Celestial Elephants has a number of side quests that can be completed for bonus money, letters, and, in some rare cases, Health Tokens. These would have been an excellent place to explore the backstory of the world more, but, instead, you are mostly sent on somewhat meaningless variations of fetch quests. Find my music box. Take this bouquet of flowers to this guy that I can’t bring myself to interact with directly. Water these six flowers that just won’t bloom. A few side quests feign complexity through seemingly unrelated prerequisites, but the grand majority are straightforward. Some of the stories that accompany these tasks give you more of a sense of the people of the world, but they also just don’t feel particularly rewarding, in part because of the lack of progression. Furthermore, as you progress through the game, later towns have fewer and fewer side quests to complete, leaving you ever focused on the main story.
There are also a surprising amount of references hidden within the game. Off the top of my head, I encountered skins that were made to look like Darth Maul from Star Wars: Episode I and Link from the Legend of Zelda, as well as Mekani that seemed to resemble the little robots from the earlier Star Wars movies that darted across the floors of various ships. Some of these are a bit odd to see in the game, but they are appreciated, nonetheless.
Beyond what has been mentioned, there are a few issues. I played through the entire game on Nintendo Switch and then played through the first few areas of the game again on PC so that I could provide a comparison. When playing the Switch version in TV mode, I noticed a significant amount of stuttering that wasn’t present in when playing it in handheld mode. The PC version, however, ran at a smooth 60 frames per second and looked a bit crisper than the Switch version. Unfortunately, the PC version only lets you change the display mode and resolution, so, should the game not run well on your computer, you may be out of luck.
It should also be noted that all forms of text in the game have a number of typos and grammatical errors. They never reach a level where you can’t tell what was said, but their prevalence can be somewhat off-putting.
Despite my criticisms, I did enjoy my time with Yono and the Celestial Elephants. It is a relaxing adventure through a colorful world that provides little challenge, but also demands little of the player. It suffers a bit from a seemingly random story, a lack of character development, and a complete lack of any sort of progression, but the core puzzling experience is largely enjoyable. If you’re looking for a charming game to relax and play for a few hours, this one might be worth checking out. However, if you’re looking for a deep, challenging experience that will last more than five or six hours, you may want to look elsewhere.
Important note: Neckbolt sent us a copy of both the PC version and the Nintendo Switch version of Yono and the Celestial Elephants for the purpose of writing this article.