I don’t know who looked at a metroidvania and thought “you know what this needs? More pinball”. I don’t know why they thought it. I don’t know how they managed to convince the people around them it was a good idea. I don’t know how this continued for the entirety of a game’s development and people not realise a pinball/metroidvania mash-up was absolutely bizarre.
I’m glad they did, though, because Yoku’s Island Express is an adorable, if tad unchallenging, take on the genre that I’ve been unable to put down the last few days.
Yoku’s Island Express puts you in the (many) legs of Yoku, a tiny dung beetle sent to become Mokumana Island’s newest Post Master. His arrival isn’t without problem, though, as the god keeping the island alive is struck down, and it is Yoku’s job to assemble the chiefs who can save it.
To do this, Yoku has to travel around the island through a mix of platforming, swinging and… pinball. Beautifully hand-drawn dungeons, caves, forests and mountains all play host to pinball boards that offer up everything from straight pinball keepie-uppie to more cerebral puzzles and delicate trick shot challenges.
Pinball boards that offer up everything from straight pinball keepie-uppie to more cerebral puzzles and delicate trick shot challenges.
I’ve never been a massive pinball aficionado, but the ways in which Yoku’s Island Express is able to constantly reinvent the ol’ paddles-and-balls to fit the situation is seriously impressive. It doesn’t have a particularly long runtime – it took me approximately five hours to finish the main story – but at the same time it never once outstayed its welcome. Fresh ideas, clever bosses, and gorgeous environments all help make the already solid pinball footing just seamlessly work with its more metroidvania-y exploration elements.
It’s obvious there is a lot more going on beneath its saccharine exterior.
Surrounding these puzzles is an engrossing and, at times, surprisingly dark backstory. For all the world’s cute characters and colourful landscapes, there’s something slightly ominous about it. Whether it’s the elder gods, disconcerting number of skeletons, subtle hints of darker magics, or even throwaway-lines such as how Yoku isn’t rolling dung ‘like his ancestors’, it’s obvious there is a lot more going on beneath its saccharine exterior.
There is one big, glaring problem with Yoku, though: it’s so, so easy. Yoku is invincible and only loses a handful of fruit (the currency) with each time he falls between the paddles, and getting back to where you were before falling takes a matter of seconds at most.
The pinball boards are amazing, the wider world’s platforming is sublime, but it all means pretty much nothing when there’s no underlying threat. Every hurdle is reduced to a test of patience when Yoku can be thrown at them again and again and again with no fear of failure.
But even just taking Yoku back to the nearest of the numerous checkpoints after a few failures would’ve added a level of tension the game currently lacks.
It doesn’t need to be a Dark Souls-levels of punishment where it takes you back hours, punches you in the face and razes your crops for the smallest of mistakes, as this is ultimately a game also aimed for younger players. But even just taking Yoku back to the nearest of the numerous checkpoints after a few failures would’ve added a level of tension the game currently lacks.
Yoku’s Island Express has a lot of fantastic ideas. It plays with its pinball formula enough to keep what could’ve been repetitive endlessly new and engaging, and it wraps all that up in its beautiful and unexpectedly deep world. Unfortunately, every good idea is slightly undermined by its glaring lack of real challenge, turning its otherwise fantastic design into more of a chore than it really should have been. It’s a nice change of pace from the likes of Hollow Knight and Steamworld Dig 2, but I don’t think Yoku quite has what it takes to stand up as equals alongside them.
A review copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch (Reviewed)
Developer/Publisher: Villa Gorilla/Team17
Release date: May 29, 2018