Yoku’s Island Express Review
Yoku’s Island Express is the answer to the question: “What would a Metroidvania pinball game look like?”. It’s a unique debut from tiny three-person studio Villa Gorilla, which embeds silver ball antics in a sprawling world of platforms, side quests and unstoppable cuteness. Yoku is a dung beetle, arriving on an island for his first day as a Postmaster. Attached to him is a ball — a bit more robust than dung, thankfully — which he needs to use to navigate a multitude of platforms, bumpers, springs and chutes. An evil god is terrorising the island, threatening not just Yoku’s delivery schedule but the lives of all living creatures. It’s up to the plucky beetle to deliver a letter to three of the big chiefs on the island and get them to attend a meeting to try and seal away the big bad forever.
Doing so takes some getting used to. For one thing, Yoku can’t jump. He can walk around, but anything more requires the use of your pad’s shoulder buttons to activate the colour-coordinated bumpers to push him up, down and along platforms. It’s a pinball game with breathing space, and for the most part it works seamlessly, once you’ve become accustomed to the navigation.
There is a lot of back-and-forth, at least to begin with. The fast travel Beeline system is introduced only after you’ve spent a few hours plodding this way and that to get to the next main plot character, and the lack of jumping ability and reliance on bumpers to move about makes traversing the island less fun than a normal platform game. The Express office dishes out side quests which are invariably dropping off letters at some remote location, and I found that leaving these until much later on when most of the map’s Beelines were unlocked made delivery far less annoying.
While there’s no score like a standard pinball game, Yoku instead uses fruit as currency, which is used to unlock new areas, buy useful items from the inhabitants, or make fast travel paths available. While early on you may struggle to find enough fruit to get to the next zone and end up scouring the environment for the golden glow of likely sources, after a couple of hours you’ll end up with a wallet full of the stuff. Your wallet can also be upgraded at certain points, to let you buy rarer items and open gated areas in a Metroidvania approach
The pinball elements outside of navigation are often housed in their own mini areas, providing self-contained “tables” for you to tackle. These share the mechanics you may expect from normal pinball tables, albeit with a slightly weightier ball tempered by Yoku’s ability to actually walk it around if required. As challenges go, the biggest hurdles come from timing as with normal pinball. However, Yoku doesn’t have lives and there's no fail state, making this great for anyone who tires of returning to checkpoints.
That said, unlike traditional pinball games — such as those honed to a slick gleam, like the Pinball FX series — placing the large, sluggish ball in one of numerous rails or vents can often prove frustrating at times. Environmental elements like exploding slugs are used to add variety and give you destructible targets to aim at, while purple gems can be collected to unlock exits or a different portion of the table. They’re colourful and twisty, but soon become a bit repetitive. We’d have loved to have seen more boss encounters as they are a highlight of the game, a combination of creativity and puzzle mechanics which invoked strong memories of Sonic Spinball.
The story, while lightweight, is upbeat and even when you’re occasionally cursing some of the more unforgiving table segments, it’s hard not to stay too mad. The cast of characters is diverse and their gibbering will make you smile, if not laugh out loud. Even without the fetch quests, there are upgraded balls to find, tiny Wickerlings to collect, chests to discover and numerous secret areas to find, including one which may surprise you given it goes against the nature of most game mechanics. Here, "failure" can sometimes open new doors.
The game looks delightful too, splitting up Yoku’s world into icy realms, dense forests, fiery caves and more. Even the water sections are bearable, which in a platform game is a huge positive. The real icing on the cake is the soundtrack from Jesse Harlin which mingles island beats, panpipes and steel drums with more modern ambient electronica. Some of the tracks are real earworms, but they never become irritating.
At around six to ten hours long dependent on how thorough you are at collecting every secret, Yoku’s Island Express is an enjoyable and occasionally irksome fusion of genres which can be enjoyed by all the family. Its flaws are overcome by the studio’s unique brand of charm, and while hardened silver ball enthusiasts may scoff at its lack of scoring or proper challenge, there’s still plenty for the less supple-wristed to enjoy.