I’d have loved to have been at the brainstorming session that came up with Yoku’s Island Express. “I’ve got this great idea for a character called Yoku!” says one of the three-strong team that is Villa Gorilla. “First off, he’s a dung beetle, but he’s also a postman, and he rolls a little ivory ball along that you can play pinball with!” As elevator pitches go, it doesn’t feel like an immediate yes, but then again, not making Yoku’s Island Express would have undeniably been the wrong choice.
Yoku arrives on Mokumana Island all set to take over as postman from the Posterdactyl – if you’ve got a pterodactyl in a postman’s hat in mind, then well done for being on the right page – and soon enough it becomes clear that this lovely island paradise is in fact besieged with problems of all sorts. There’s misplaced toolboxes, things stuck in tree roots, large hungry creatures with a hankering for mushrooms, oh, and the island’s deity has been attacked by the God Killer, putting the entire place at risk. For whatever reason it falls to Yoku, postman-beetle-pinball-extraordinaire, to sort this palaver out, and that is that.
Yoku’s Island Express isn’t scared to pull ideas from a variety of different genres, but pinball is at the core of the experience. In practice it feels as much like a platform game as anything else as you navigate your way around the island, but on the whole, although you can move left and right at a lackadaisical pace, you’ll need to use flippers and bumpers to really get anywhere. As with all good pinball games there’s a degree of timing and skill required, especially as different interlinked areas become miniature tables, with bumpers, flippers, lanes and ramps coalescing to form one sprawling pinball infused open-world.
It’s all dressed up in some gorgeous 2D painterly visuals, and Villa Gorilla’s self-confessed desire to ape Studio Ghibli has produced some delightful results. There are one or two elements, such as the Sootling creatures, where influence becomes homage – or intellectual property theft if you’re being particularly unkind – but it still draws everything together into a cohesive whole and manages to remain very much its own thing. The simplistic visual language for the flippers themselves – blue for left, yellow for right – also makes wonderful sense, and keeps you moving along nicely.
Challenge is sometimes tough to gauge in games, and none more so than Yoku. Despite its Metroidvania-esque gear gating, I never felt overly stuck, or at a loss of where I was heading to. That’s despite the map being appallingly obtuse and often offering little, if any, help at all. On top of that, I’ve played pinball games since Kirby’s Pinball on the Gameboy got its hooks into me, so I like to think that I’m pretty astute at how to play them and how they work. If I was coming into Yoku without any of that grounding I think that it could be a much tougher game, and possibly much more frustrating thanks to the precision some areas need in order to progress.
Traversing the world with a clear objective in mind is a key problem, and one that Villa Gorilla has only partially solved. The convoluted set of pinball tracks and rollers, combined with a number of secret or hidden routes, means that getting from A to B is never all that simple, but that’s part of its charm while you’re simply exploring. Knowing that you need to get from one end of the island to the other though, even when you know what’s in store, can be deeply annoying. What has been included is a method of fast travel called the Beeline, where you’re shot out of one buzzing beehive to another on a set route.
There are four of these routes to unlock, and they can be invaluable, but only if they’re going where you need to go. You’re flat out of luck if you’re looking for help in getting to any of the underground locations, and when big portions of the later game are set there it feels like a half measure. While you can get off at any beehive, you can’t jump on at all of them, with just a handful allowing you to join the route. It’s a design flaw which you’ll undoubtedly be berating once you’ve manoeuvred your way back through areas you’ve already visited more than a few times.
No matter where you might be in the game, Jesse Harlin’s ditties are delightful. They offer a range of chilled out island tones infused with Hawaiian vibes, choral chants and jazz riffs they may help to quell at least some of your frustrations. There’s certainly no shortage of things to do while you soak in the tunes as well, and besides the main storyline there are plenty of side quests to trundle through. Inevitably though they’re more or less about working out how to get somewhere, and doing a thing when you get there. Variety-packed, this is not.
Yoku’s Island Express is a beauteous, aurally delightful treat that riffs off the Metroidvania template and pinball tables in a smart and playful manner. It’s somewhat tempered by the dual frustrations of the pinball mechanic’s need for constant precision and a lacklustre fast-travel system that leaves you having to cover the same ground over and over, ultimately taking what could have been an amazing game, and making it a good one.
Version Tested: Xbox One X
Also available for PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch & PC