Posted on January 4th 2019
One day, Rosy happened to stumble upon a photoset on Tumblr for a game called Yono and the Celestial Elephants. Her first reaction was to melt at how adorable the elephant running around in the gifs looked. When she could stop squealing over the elephant, she then noticed that the gameplay seemed to be full of puzzles, which further piqued her interest. We then looked this game up, since neither of us had heard about it before. It turned out that the game was brand new at the time. Our backlog of games to play is immense, so we usually don't play brand new games, but the cute elephant convinced us, so we bought it and started playing.
We went in thinking this would be simply a cute game with a cute elephant and some puzzles... and Yono and the Celestial Elephants blew our expectations utterly out of the water. It turned out to have a well-written, intelligent plot, dealing with the ideals of non-attachment and when it is possible at all to attain them, what it means to make positive changes in the world, and the dilemma between keeping things static in the name of temporary safety, or stirring up a lot of trouble in the hope of a major positive change.
The puzzles featured in the game also turned out to be well-crafted brain-teasers the likes of which we've been starved for, which ramped up in difficulty in a reasonable and well-designed way, and which made us feel good about solving them.
We couldn't help but notice that the Steam reviews for this game were full of jerks saying that this game is for babies, looks too cute, and is too easy. Even the positive reviews have to mention that this game is easy and for small children only. We think these people don't know how to appreciate a well-crafted puzzle that doesn't make you want to tear your hair out in agony. While playing this game, you never get to a point where you're hating the experience and you want to throw the game out of the window. Is that a bad thing? Only if you're playing games with the goal of suffering, so that other people can know how hardcore you are because you suffered through the game. And, besides, many of the games that brodudes idolize are easy as pie, but have just enough blood in them so that they can feel validated in their masculinity.
Just because Yono is the most adorable elephant ever doesn't mean that this is a game for babies. First of all, the cute elephant was what initially sparked our interest, and we must say that playing a game as an elephant gave us some happy nostalgia for the Genesis-era, when playing a game as a cartoony critter was totally the norm, and not something that would bring some dude's masculinity or gamer cred into question. Sonic was considered cool by all the boys and girls and everyone, and that's Sonic in his 1991 design, all rounded and cartoony and cuddly - directly inspired by Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse. Yono doesn't have the attitude of Sonic, but he surely is rounded and cartoony and cuddly, and we are so glad for that.
Besides, what's wrong with there being games for babies? There should be more games for babies! Just... this game isn't really one of them. The writing of this game has nothing childish about it. Maybe a precocious baby would get this game, but it's clearly above the average brodude.
Considering the off-base negative reviews and underhanded positive reviews, we especially wanted to write a real positive review for this game here on Staircase Spirit ever since we first played it, but we've been having trouble writing about it exactly because it is so good. This is one of those games where the most important thing we have to say about it is: if you can, try to experience it yourself. It's readily available on Steam and for Switch, it's not expensive, it's lightweight on the technical requirements, and it's not a major time investment either - we finished it in about 7 hours, doing every sidequest and taking our sweet time to take screenshots for this article.
We'll do our best to tell you why we recommend it and to explain why it so delightful. But if we've convinced you already, just stop reading and go enjoy. :)
Yono and the world
The game begins with a small blue elephant named Yono arriving to earth like a falling star. He meets a girl named Sundara who is able to determine that Yono is a Celestial Elephant, the latest in a line of mystical beings who come to Earth to end one era and begin the next, and are seen as solvers of the world's problems.
Yono decides to learn about the Elephants that have come before so that he can understand what he must do. Everyone expects great deeds from Yono, but Yono is not sure he is able to meet their expectations. As he tries to discover his grand goal as an Elephant, he simply does his best to help those around him in whatever small ways he can.
This game puts a meta-spotlight on doing seemingly minor sidequests to find something or deliver something or water the flowers. Yono does these things through the course of the plot, thinking they are small and insignificant in comparison to what an Elephant is supposed to be doing. And if you have played other games, you yourself might be thinking of them the same way. How often are we playing a video game as a hero who is supposed to save the world from certain doom, except we are off wasting time catching fish for some random NPC, without a care for the doomsday clock that is supposedly ticking down.
However, the point of this game is that the big problems of the world are complicated and multi-faceted, and no single person alone can just arrive and do some grand action to save the world, not even a divine Elephant. Instead, Yono does his seemingly small and insignificant actions to help the people around him be happy, and those are not extraneous side quests that are completely at odds with the main quest - he both makes the world that much better through each individual's happiness, and he also indirectly does set in motion exactly what was needed to change the world in big ways.
For example, as you will quickly realize, Sundara is actually the Princess of Knightingale City, destined to become the next ruler of the world. She's run away from the castle because she's tired of being cooped up inside, wearing dresses and not being able to do somersaults.
She insists that she accompanies Yono as he journeys the world in search of his purpose. Because Yono agrees, Sundara is able to learn about all the different peoples she will be soon ruling, and she gains a first-hand understanding of their unique needs that are currently being ignored. In addition, the fact that Sundara accompanied Yono lets him be able to help the current Queen Sintharya address her own problems. The ripples of this small kindness indeed set into motion great changes for the better of the whole world.
Yono's other companion is Kai, a young monk of the Elephant Temple, where the great deeds of the Elephants are recorded and remembered. However, Kai is both the newest monk and, despite the fact that the other monks love him, he is seen as a bit of a bother, since he tends to bungle things. They sent him out on a duty, mostly just to get him out from under their feet, and, because he was failing to even do this task and fell asleep in the road, lo and behold, he gets to be the first monk to meet the next Celestial Elephant, who woke him up to be able to pass by.
Just by bumping into Kai, Yono changed his life. This coincidence gives Kai renewed confidence that he can indeed succeed at being a monk, and it elevates those who bungle things to being seen as favored by the Elephant Yono. Because of this, Kai is able to become a great sage in the Elephant Temple.
We love the spiritual aspect of this game. In this world, human civilization has been influenced by the Elephants since the Stone Age and at several critical points in history. However, it has been so long since the last Elephant that many humans no longer give them much thought. But still, because the previous Elephants had such a profound impact on the world, although they are gone, their presence remains. We can glimpse a rich polytheism through the worldbuilding of the game.
Each Elephant is venerated for the characteristics they exemplified in both their words and their actions, and people honor each one of them in the appropriate situations. Despite the religion around each Elephant, when we uncover their stories, we learn that each one was just an individual doing their best. For how much they're regarded as being powerful and wise, each one struggled with their own dilemmas just like Yono, and did the right thing almost by accident.
The Elephant we hear the most about is the previous one, Naga, who came to Earth one thousand years ago. You'll see her statue in the town square of Knightingale City, and hear about how revered she is.
However, it turns out that her greatest deed happened because of failure. She was the advisor to a king, and helped him rule with great justice and peace for many years. When the king died, his twin sons both contested the throne. Despite Naga's attempts to dissuade the princes from going to war, they refused to listen, and Naga could not prevent the bloodshed, which ended in total annihilation of both sides. After the event, she spent days on the battlefield in mourning, guarding the corpses, and eventually her tears brought forth new life when the dead rose again in the form of the Bonewights.
The Bonewights are not the same people that died in the war, but rather new individuals born from a mix of bones from the mass grave. They are undead and immortal, with no need to eat or drink. They honor Naga by living their lives peacefully in the war fields that are now a beautiful garden, although most humans find them creepy. The Bonewights tend to value their lack of ties to the material world, but this non-attachment comes easy for them, as they have no needs and unlimited time to achieve anything they wish to do.
Another race that exists in the world at the time of Yono's appearance is the Mekani. The Mekani are mechanical lifeforms that have gained sentience - and, with that, the ability to identify themselves as a people. The Mekani now build themselves and live in their own city of Freehaven, but they struggle to be recognized by humans as living beings in their own right. Now the Mekani are on the verge of starting a revolution to gain independence from the human kingdom, even though they are outnumbered and suspect such a revolt would destroy them. Since the singularity happened sometime after Naga's departure from Earth, Yono is the first Elephant to meet the Mekani, and he will play a pivotal role in their struggle.
Yes, this world has zombies, and is post-singularity. It's fantasy and cyber-punk! While still being colorful and cute! We love it.
In general, the world is well-thought-out, subtly but clearly explained, and even goes to the point of addressing gameplay conventions we would otherwise take for granted. Beyond the meta-treatment of the sidequests, during the game, you can meet the Mekani responsible for making the Health Tokens, you can see the workshop where all the signs are painted, and you will go through the factory that mass-produces the vases you've been breaking all game, Yono being the proverbial elephant in the china shop.
All the NPCs are saying something interesting, and can be spoken to multiple times. The dialogue of this game is wonderful, and everyone has so much of it. There's no throwaway NPC saying some throwaway line about working for Belethor, at the general goods store. Despite this game being only 7 hours long, the writing is such that we feel like we know and understand the world of this game better than even much longer games. This game is on point.
We said in the beginning that this game is full of puzzles. The structure of the game is that in town you can talk to people and help them with their problems, mostly by finding the right item and carrying it to the right person. Between plotpoints, Yono must navigate a path full of puzzles by activating elevators, moving blocks, toggling magnets, throwing dynamite, and so on. Being an elephant, Yono can also use his trunk to carry and shoot water, peanuts, or other things.
These are good puzzles that are well-designed and extremely resistant to glitching. We went through them with intention, knowing what we wanted to achieve, and figuring out how to do so. We never were just flipping switches at random because it was the only option and oh, look, we solved it. And we didn't get frustrated ever. The most we ever got stuck was maybe for a few minutes, and even then, we were there appreciating how well-crafted the puzzle was. This is a good thing. We were enjoying the game. What a concept.
The elements of the puzzles are presented simply, one by one. By the end of each dungeon, and especially the final dungeon, all the elements introduced along the way come into play, and it's very satisfying to solve a puzzle that makes use of all the mechanics introduced through the game.
The greatest reward is finding loose alphabetic letters scattered through the world. These serve as a "currency" to unlock stories about the other Elephants. Each story is told in a different format suiting each Elephant's era. For example, Naga's story is a fairytale, but Gaia's is told as a sonnet, and Ronin's is told as a dialogue, and Agra is so ancient that her story is lost, and what is known of her is told as a historical thesis. Wonderful!
If the creator of this game is reading this (hello!), we have one critique for you to keep in mind for the sequel (please make a sequel!):
Most of the obstacles throughout the game are things like, a fire that needs to be doused to pass through, a gate that needs to be opened, gears that need to be fixed. Even the bosses are defeated by solving a puzzle. Yet sometimes, you'll find yourself in a room where you must defeat all of the enemies to open the door, à la The Legend of Zelda. There's no way around it, pacifist Yono must bash these enemies until they fall down and poof away.
It's explained that these enemies are called Robgoblins, and they steal shiny things, so you'll have to fight your way through them. But what are the Robgoblins? Where did they come from? Why aren't they seen as a sentient race that should come under the protection of the Celestial Elephants? What terrible sin have they done to not deserve mercy? Because they like shiny things? Just like crows? We don't hate them for that, and certainly don't want to bash them until they poof away.
Not only are the Robgoblins at odds with the worldbuilding and seem counter to the messages of the game, they weren't even fun to fight. For the most part, you just headbutt them. You can explode them or set them on fire too if the supplies are available and you're feeling particularly cruel, but it's easier to just headbutt them. So there's nothing creative or interesting about fighting them, and they were mostly a distraction from the puzzles we were having fun solving.
It made sense to fight the bosses in the creative puzzly way, and it made sense to encounter the corrupted Bonewights as enemies in the crypt of the Sundergarden - it was even specifically pointed out that Yono should not worry about bashing them, since they will reform into proper Bonewights once the problem is solved. But what about the Robgoblins?
Don't be afraid to leave behind the convention of video games that you need to have some enemy to fight. Besides, if you are there trying to please the violence-loving brodudes... they can't get over the fact that the playable character is an adorable blue elephant. Just forget about them -- the people that are going to support your game don't care about needing to knock out a Robgoblin. The people who care about your game will want to read more quatrains about peace-loving elephant deities and solve more clever puzzles.
Anyway, not that this is a huge problem. The Robgoblins were relatively rare in the game, to the point where we would forget they existed, until we encountered one again, so this doesn't affect much of anything. Just, a bit of an inconsistency with the world. Maybe in future adventures the Robgoblins can gain the respect they deserve as sentient beings, with the help of an Elephant.
Are you still here? Go play this game! It's cute, fun, intelligently written and designed, and it's got discussions on democracy, monarchy, religion, the ideal of non-attachment, the source of law, election fraud, the weight of responsibility, the importance of small actions, the value of things, existential dread, sentience, the meaning of life, the cutest elephant ever, and barrels. Wait, no, there are no barrels here. None at all. What gave you that idea?