If there’s one type of game I never thought I’d be praising to the high heavens in 2018, it’s a 2D Metroidvania-esque puzzle pinball platformer featuring a Dung Beetle as its protagonist. Even those words written together make very little sense to me, and on paper Yoku’s Island Express should be an absolute trainwreck. Keeping as many genre balls the air as developer Villa Gorilla are doing here Yoku feels like somewhat of a herculean task, and yet here we are. Yoku’s Island Express is my favourite platformer of 2018 so far, and I’m not even sure it’s a platformer at all.
The Metroidvania genre has had a huge resurgence this generation, with the likes of the might Axiom Verge proving there is a still a mainstream audience that still desires (or demands) excellent level design and an intriguing story that ties it all together whilst challenging even the most hardcore of gamers. Yoku adding the pinball mechanic turns the genre on its head once again, allowing brisk movement throughout whilst exploring multi-layered levels, keeping a sharp eye on those hidden locales and secret items as you tear it around thanks to deftly placed flippers throughout the world.
That’s the crux of a good Metroidvania, the intricate level design, the precise timing and unlockables all over the single world you’re given to explore. You don’t really have to be a huge fan of the genre to fall for the charm of Yoku. It expands the idea of a Metroidvania to incorporate a wholly original way of traversing the world, allowing you to backtrack and explore certain areas with little fuss. Correct timing is essential, as you can very easily tear down a tunnel you didn’t want to with the incorrect kick of a flipper(blue flippers you control with left trigger, orange flippers with right trigger).
Yoku embraces the Metroidvania of it all with open arms but sprinkles its own magic on top, which makes it stand on its own two feet without much to compare it to.
Yoku’s secret weapon is his ball of dung which is connected to him at all times. This allows him to use the flippers to get to different areas, activating switches or picking up fruits or an assortment of collectables you gather on your travels. As mentioned above your location on the flipper will determine where in the area you end up so good timing is essential in every area. As in any aspect of pinball, timing is everything and as you progress you’ll find yourself in locations which offer tricky solutions, scanning the area you’re in first is paramount as you’re going to want to know where you’re going quickly and the best route to get there without flipping at the wrong time and ending up in the thorns that lay beneath certain flippers, which can kill if landing there too often.
Building levels around pinball based mechanics makes each area look tremendous, as if Yoku has built his own roller coaster playground to explore at every turn. At times it can be hectic but the camera will always keep up with you in the faster sequences, you’ll always know where you are. Even if you end up there 100 times because of a badly timed flip.
As you explore you can unlock power-ups and friends that can help you along the way (including a mate that will appear out of nowhere to protect you from the aforementioned killer thorns). In the early moments you’ll unlock a Slug Hoover, which is one of the coolest named weapons in gaming and works an absolute treat. The Slug Hoover allows you to, um, hoover up slugs and then use them as projectiles towards barricades to reveal a new part of the track to get you to new locations. It’s very handy and funny, particularly the animation that kicks in when you go to suck up a Slug.
So what on earth is actually going on in Yoku’s Island Express? Well, you play as Yoku, the jolliest of all the Dung Beetles and we meet him as he begins his first day as the new postmaster of Mokumanu Island. The gig is to essentially find postboxes, mail a bunch of letters and deliver special packages to characters spread across the world along with doing the odd bit of collecting for those who seemingly are unable to flip around as deftly as you.
Throughout you’ll be collecting fruit which is effectively your currency, allowing you to unlock hidden flippers to get you new locations. There is plenty of fruit abound so you’ll never really run out, the more you collect the more areas you can unlock which can quickly refill your wallet (your wallet expands throughout the game so ensure you’re always stacked).
You’re constantly learning new mechanics as the game progresses, offering plenty of intrigue as to what special ability you’ll be able to unlock next. Do you see a chest that above or below you that you can’t reach just yet? Never fear, the game will circle you around with the tools you need eventually. You’re persistently rewarded for exploration and that game does an excellent job of ensuring it’s worth it.
Fortunately for the Metroidvania fan there are puzzles and pinball sequences that can be challenging, and will require a couple (or more) failed attempts to get correct. They naturally only get more difficult as the game progresses (including sequences where you simply can’t get it wrong otherwise you’re locked out of that puzzle), but are never so that you throw your controller out of the window in frustration. There aren’t enemies in the more traditional sense, but you’re going to have to keep your wits about you the more you play as Yoku will throw moments at you that will throw you for a loop. In some cases, quite literally.
In terms of narrative there’s not really much going on and serves as the game weakest link, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing when so much attention has been paid elsewhere. You need to be keeping the inhabitants of Mokumanu Island happy as daisies, all the while keeping an eye on an ever looming darkness that threatens to spread over the land. There are darker areas that Yoku must explore which are bleaker than the jolly brightness of the higher levels, but visually still very much part of the same island. It’s all rather beautiful and runs silky smooth.
It’s a definite highlight of Yoku’s Island Express. It’s a stunning game to look at with delightful music and some fun dialogue bubbles that will keep that stupid grin on your face throughout. There was nary a bug or issue that I came across. It’s polished within an inch of its life and plays as such, drawing you in with its sumptuous watercolour visuals and keeping you around for its wonderful pinball mechanic that makes exploring a delight. It’s part Rayman Legends and part Ori and the Blind Forest, combining to create a game that’s just as great (if not better) than both of them.
What a wonderful game Yoku’s Island Express is.
Developer: Villa Gorilla
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were sent a review code from the publishers. For our full review policy, please go here.