*Free review copy provided by the publisher*
Genre mashups are a tricky thing. When they work, they can be some of the most memorable games ever made, taking players by surprise and making you wonder why no-one thought of doing it before. Portal is a good example, melding first-person shooting with puzzles in a way that few had seen before. Even though Portal 2 is generally considered the better game, many people—myself included—name the original as their favorite due to the magic that comes with a new experience. Mashups don’t always work out this well. Darksiders combines Zelda-style dungeons with God of War combat and even imitates Portal at one stage. While Darksiders is a good game, it feels like a tribute to the games it takes inspiration from, rather than being its own thing.
I’m pleased to say that Yoku’s Island Express falls into Portal‘s category. Its genre mash-up of metroidvania and pinball is something I didn’t realize I needed in my life until now. It’s been 25 years since I got hooked on Sonic Spinball, but Yoku’s Island Express brought back all that joy and more. (Sonic Spinball has a bit of dubious reputation, so to be clear, I mean this as a compliment).
In Yoku’s Island Express, you play as the titular beetle Yoku on his first day as postmaster on Mokumana Island. The island’s deity is trapped in an endless sleep and it’s Yoku’s job to deliver letters requesting help from the island’s leaders. It’s a thin excuse to have you explore the island but it works for me. The characters are charming and the writing is short and to the point. Less can definitely be more, and I ended up surprisingly attached to the characters and the island’s history. Developer Villa Gorilla tells a decent story and doesn’t let it get in the way of the fun.
Given the unusual concept, it’s surprising how quickly the controls become intuitive. You can only move Yoku left and right and you can’t jump at all. Movement around the stages is done by using flippers and bumpers which you operate much like you would those on a pinball table. There were a few minutes at the start where the lack of mid-air control felt a touch weird, however bouncing Yoku around with the flippers soon became second nature.
Mokumana island is one connected world, however there are distinct stages covering the usual weather-based themes of forest, snow, water, and desert. Each area feels like a separate pinball table and, in turn, each table is broken up into small sections with light puzzles to solve before moving on.
The stages all look stunning. There are a surprising amount of art layers in both the foreground and the background, many of them moving independently, giving a sense of scale to the world not often found in 2D side-scrollers. There’s also a watercolor effect to much of the art which makes it look like a painting when there are no flippers or collectibles on screen.
The characters are immediately charming, looking like they’ve come straight out of a children’s picture book. Games often make an immediate visual impression which then fades as you start to take it for granted. With Yoku’s Island Express, it was almost the opposite. I appreciated the visuals more at the end than at the beginning. It’s a feast for the eyes that improves upon closer inspection.
The visuals complement the gameplay perfectly. Pinball is usually a stressful game. You’re constantly reacting with a split-second’s notice as you desperately try to maintain combos and rack up high scores. Yoku’s Island Express isn’t your typical pinball game and it ends up being a really chill experience. My initial six-hour playthrough was relaxing and rarely frustrating. Most of the puzzles are fairly obvious and you don’t need to be a skilled pinball player to get through the story. There’s a decent amount of leeway with the physics. If you want Yoku and his dung ball to shoot up a tube, you just need to make contact with the entrance and the game will do the rest.
Yoku’s Island Express has a few boss battles scattered around although I found these rather disappointing. Villa Gorilla didn’t seem to know how to incorporate bosses into the pinball structure. Each boss requires you to perform specific actions on the table but given the hectic nature of pinball, you can accomplish this without ever really understanding it. I found myself doing damage and triggering new phases in boss encounters without knowing what I’d done. They’re also rather easy. The lack of any punishment for death means that you don’t have to pay attention to the boss itself. One boss took me a while to beat, but that was only because I had a tendency to regularly drop down to a lower level as I tried to pull off the exact move required.
The levels (or “tables,” if you prefer) are constructed in such a way that it’s rare to lose progress by falling back to the bottom. This did happen to me once but getting back wasn’t too painful. You’re constantly unlocking shortcuts and, once you’ve cleared a path, retracing your steps is relatively straightforward.
It’s worth revisiting the earlier locations anyway because Yoku regularly acquires new abilities such as swimming underwater and swinging from plants to make previously unreachable areas accessible. Yoku can also complete side quests for island residents and there are thirty collectible Wickerlings that’ll you need for a secret ending. You should also keep an eye out for treasure chests which contain loads of the fruit-based currency you use to buy upgrades. I completed Yoku’s Island Express in six hours, however there’s plenty more to do after beating the story. I haven’t reached 100% yet, but it’s likely to take around ten hours, possibly more.
Yoku’s quest takes him all over the island, although navigation can be a touch confusing at times. Early on, you’re given three letters to deliver to people at extreme ends of the island. It looks like you can complete these deliveries in any order, however there’s actually a fixed order which you might not realize until you’ve banged your head against a wall for fifteen minutes.
Quest design could have been improved slightly all round. There were a few times when I was given what I thought was an optional side quest only to find out it was a mandatory part of the main mission. After a conversation with an NPC, I wasted ten minutes looking for the way forward because I hadn’t noticed there was someone off-screen I needed to talk to before progressing. These are all minor issues and didn’t impact my experience much.
Once you’ve opened up the map, you can use the beehive travel system to get from one end to the other. This helps cut out some backtracking and is especially useful for collectible hunting. The beehive system doesn’t take you everywhere, though, and there are only a handful of locations where you can jump on.
Yoku’s Island Express is a beautiful combination of pinball and metroidvania. It doesn’t require you to be particularly skilled at either and lacks the challenge often associated with both of those genres. However, I thoroughly enjoyed bouncing Yoku and his dungball around Mokumana Island and the collectibles are rewarding enough to have me working towards 100% completion.