Yono and the Celestial Elephants is an intriguing game from a design standpoint. While it looks the part of an educational cartoon meant for toddlers, within it hides a tale with a deep context meant for adults. The action feels like it belongs somewhere in-between these conflicting ideals. But does it work as a whole?
Yono and the Celestial Elephants is the story of the eponymous pachyderm finding his way into a world where he soon discovers he is something of a deity. His appearance forces the folk of the world to take what they thought were fairy tales and legends and put weight behind them, and prophecies foretold. Yono doesn’t completely understand this, but finds that helping people can be his modus operandi.
The visuals of Yono and the Celestial Elephants belie the heavy themes within the plot. There are tales of racial tension between the robotic Mekani, Day of the Dead inspired Bonewights and humans as well as exposition about unfair taxation, the ethics of power and straight up existentialism hidden within its bouncy veneer. None of it is heavy-handed nor ever overstays its welcome, but it’s weirdly powerful for such a quaint looking game.
As philosophical as its plot can get, Yono and the Celestial Elephants is a rather stock adventure game, and for those curious it has more in common with the obscure puzzle game Solstice than The Legend of Zelda. As Yono travels between towns he’s met with a plethora of obstructions on his journey; you reveal paths through environmental manipulation. You must push blocks to open new routes, crack rocks and set up Rube Goldberg-like contraptions to move along. It’s very basic yet endearing, because even though the solution isn’t hard to come by it's still satisfying to overcome. For those hoping for a deep and rewarding combat system, meanwhile, there’s nothing of the sort here. Yono has a charging attack that feels clumsy, but the amount you actually use it is meager, making it easy to overlook.
While Yono and the Celestial Elephants is odd in its prose, the aesthetics are blatantly adorable. This may turn off a lot of gamers and admittedly the degree of challenge follows suit, but there should definitely be a place in the Switch library for such a game. The world feels billowy and soft, with round trees, soft grass and cuddly enemies. The music is very low-key and not remarkable at all, but at least it doesn’t distract from the game as a whole. The saccharine presentation is an interesting juxtaposition from the constant puzzling and abstract plot.
The game does a great job of filling itself out with extra things to do when you aren’t pushing Yono to the next realm. There’s a currency you can collect that unlocks fun new skins for Yono, from making him look as if he’s made of corduroy, to being covered by a constellation or even having him dress like Link, which adds to the charm. There’s a plethora of side quests that often devolve into either using Yono’s small stable of abilities or arbitrary fetch quests, and while they lack any kind of punchy design they often reward you with thought-provoking conversations that really dig deep into the lore of the world or the aforementioned heady social conversations.
Rounding out the extras are some letters that will spill out from vases and pots; you can then take them to a mystic who will reveal more of the history of Yono’s world. Again, nothing out of the ordinary for a video game, but welcome in its ability to bring life to Yono and the Celestial Elephants.
Yono and the Celestial Elephants, while simplistic in design, hides a curiously metaphysical tale behind it. Those looking for a Zelda-lite adventure might be disappointed by its straightforward approach and lack of upgradability, but those who are willing to give its lighthearted and deliriously cute tale a spin will find a worthy game to play.