A dung beetle isn’t the most obvious choice to become an island’s new postmaster. Sure, they’re industrious little creatures, but letters aren’t usually in an easily rollable sphere, and I honestly can’t imagine a diminutive beetle being able to complete his daily route by 1PM. And yet here we are, as Yoku arrives on his new island, rolls his ball up the beach and meets the outgoing Posteradactyl – he’s a postman who’s also a Pterodactyl .
Posteradactyl’s actually getting out just in time, passing the buck to the young kid and heading off to enjoy his retirement just as the entire island finds itself in danger. Mokuma, the ancient god that lends Mokunuma Island its name – thankfully not Monokuma – is having a bad time of it after being marked for death by The God Slayer, and it falls to little Yoku to rescue the island and all its inhabitants.
Of course, everyone you bump into seems to either be terribly stubborn or have something important for you to do. A water snake demands that you retrieve a mushroom, for example, and once you reach the main town, you discover that you’ll need the services of the Slug Gardeners to get any further. Yup, it’s a fairly classic metroidvania set up of then needing to detour and come back around with a new ability in order to progress, but it’s been wrapped up with cute characters and interactions. Of course, Yoku is the most adorable of all, which isn’t something I’d really thought I’d ever write about a dung beetle, pushing his rock around and with a little postman’s bag in tow.
Villa Gorilla co-founder Mattias Snygg said, “I don’t know how we arrived at the dung beetle, but we talked about maybe the obvious thing being to have the ball be the character, where maybe you roll the character up into a ball and play with it, and that’s been attempted a couple of times, but this felt a little bit different. Yoku sort of tags along with his little rope and looks goofy, and we like that.”
Getting around the island is part platforming, part metroidvania, part pinball. Yoku can’t jump, but is tied with a little bit of string to the ball which he pushes around. That comes in handy more often than you might expect, and Yoku’s clearly a hardly little beetle, considering just how often it is that he’s being flung around the world. The colour coded yellow and blue bumpers and flippers correspond to the shoulder buttons on your controller, and it’s using these that lets you bounce Yoku up to a higher level or fling him through a twisting and turning set of pipes and tunnels through the world. It’s actually a little reminiscent of the 2D Sonic games at those points, and there’s some clear similarities to Sonic Spinball.
Yoku shows its pinball credentials quite regularly, as you’re dropped into environmental pinballing puzzles. You have to use the flippers and bumpers on these screens to knock the ball through the right channels to trigger switches, hit things blocking your way, and work to open up a new path forward for Yoku. You do need to have an ounce of skill with pinball, but thankfully these segments are nice and forgiving. You’re aided by the flippers having a slight highlight wherever the ball is, so you can better see and try to take the shot you want, and while there is a main pair of flippers which protect a drain, but where you’d lose a life on a pinball table, but are simply reset.
Mattias explained, “We remove a little bit of fruit – the currency of the game, which you use to unlock flippers throughout the island – and that sets you back a little bit, but there’s no other punishment beyond that. When we started prototyping, we had the more traditional punitive measures from a pinball game, but we scaled that down continuously.
“A design principle that we had when we started was that my mum – particularly my mum – had to be able to play it. I think we’re still there, but maybe it’s a little too text heavy for her now, since it’s got all these characters, and I don’t think she’d have the patience for that, but I think she’ll manage to get through the game. We worked a lot on eliminating all the unnecessarily hard trick shots, though it ramps up in difficulty as you progress.”
However, dropping into the drain does strip you of whatever pickups Yoku might have, and it’s here that we start to see some of the metroidvania-style progression coming up. With certain types of rock blocking various paths across the island, a visit to the Slug Gardener earns you the ability to then use the volatile and explosive slugs to destroy certain rocks blocking your path, both in the pinball puzzles and platforming exploration.
“You get an upgrade that’s a vacuum to suck in the slugs, and you can detonate them across the island,” Mattias said. “It’s just one of those things where we had a gameplay idea that works both in action areas and in adventure areas. It’s nice to have as a mini-puzzle in how you time it, but beyond that I think it’s a nice natural fit for action gameplay and also gives you options for unlocking things in the more adventure type areas as well.”
The one thing about pinball is that you don’t just need accuracy, but you need to be able to show you can do something several times. If there’s one potential stumbling block for those who aren’t pinball aficionados or simply aren’t great at it, it’s this, and the pinball puzzle segments take their time to build and have you hit a particular route three or four times, hit several targets, and collect items that build up until they open the way forward. A scattershot approach can work early on, but you do need the accuracy to avoid spending ages on a particular puzzle.
The game does look gorgeous though. There’s a painterly style to the 2D art work, and plenty of charm in the characterisation of those that you meet, and even the way that Yoku will hop up onto his ball to talk to people. It’s fast and fluid as well, with 60fps gameplay that you’d expect, that’s matched by the Nintendo Switch version to boot.
“My co-founder of Villa Gorilla, Jens [Andersson], was also from Starbreeze,” Mattias said, “and we ended up in a place where it felt natural to do something together. This was one of three or four concepts we were really interested in, to figure out and hopefully find a new style of gameplay that had never been attempted before.
“We were both kind of fed up with the gloomy dark stuff we’d been doing. You always yearn for the opposite, and right now I’d love to do a gritty, gory, messy game,” he laughed.
Yoku’s Island Express is one of those combinations that sounds barmy on paper – how can you make a pinball platformer metroidvania? – but Villa Gorilla have brought them together with style, creating something that’s strikingly individual and just plain delightful.
Yoku’s Island Express is coming to PS4, Xbox One, Switch & PC on 29th May.