Developer: Villa Gorilla
Rating: E for Everyone
Standing out from the crowd of platforming and Metroidvania types of titles is a necessity nowadays for developers to be successful. Developer Villa Gorilla is trying to do just that with their experimental pinball title, Yoku’s Island Express, which features a decently large open-world, but not in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s a pinball game with a weird and obscure setup for certain, but one that kept me smiling the whole time I was playing.
Spiritual Content: Your goal is to awaken an ancient island deity from his slumber to prevent bad dreams from startling the island residents. The deity’s backstory is not touched upon with no real fantastical elements other than talking bugs.
Violence: The only real violence is when you gather or destroy these slug creatures to get them to explode obstacles. Flinging Yoku around the environment with the pinball flippers looks harmless, and even Yoku chirps out his enjoyment of being flipped into the air.
Positive Content: Yoku is always trying to help his fellow island dwellers and everyone is appreciative of his efforts.
Yoku’s Island Express starts off as you playing Yoku the dung beetle, a tiny but adorable bug. You’ve come to the Mokumana Island as a replacement for the pterodactyl mailman. The story is the perfect setup for Yoku on a big and relaxing tropical island for him to spend his days as a mail bug. The only problem is that his relaxation quickly falls apart when the ancient island deity is having restless nightmare that are affecting the island inhabitants.
Through a series of side-quests and an elaborate interconnected pinball system, its up to Yoku to save the day. Throughout your adventure you’ll come across quirky, weird, and generally fun personalities. One of them is a parrot that delivers recorded messages and another is a gang of hard-headed bugs just to name a few. They all populate the island and take you across the various corners of it in side-quests that play in parts of this happy tone Metroidvania pinball crossover. The lighthearted narrative really sets the tone for this positive and heartwarming adventure.
Yoku is certainly an interesting collaboration between game genres that typically don’t go together. While the entire game consists of a relatively large open-world, it’s presented in a giant elaborate pinball machine. There are moments where you can manually move around as Yoku when he tries to drive the ball around, but primarily you’ll be navigating blue and orange pinball-like bumpers with the shoulder buttons on your controller.
The pinball system helps you navigate around the island that’s all interconnected by it. Each section of the island is themed after the type of terrain, from the beautiful tropical beaches, to the vibrant lush jungles. It’s all just not looks though as each of these terrains has their own gameplay elements, as well as island citizens to interact with.
This is where the pinball system is more convoluted as the paths aren’t all just straightforward. Yoku’s Island Express is actually a Metroidvania video game in disguise. Like other Metroidvania games before it, you’ll discover new sections of the open-world that you won’t have access to immediately. It’s not explained to you directly, but as you continue exploring, it’ll come across in your abilities. For example, early on you are introduced to an explosive slug that can clear out obstacles that once stood. There’s plenty of other examples just like this that will open up the world for you to explore.
The Metroidvania system is what really carries Yoku’s Island Express forward and it works nearly flawlessly. You’ll keep on exploring the island clearing out clouds on your map only to meet and discover new locations and NPCs. There, you’ll find your side quests and missions for you to that will lead you on to more quests and abilities for further opening the branches you can take. It’s a collaboration of systems that I personally never thought would work well together, but it pairs surprisingly well and just works.
Now, as previously mentioned, there are plenty of side quests for you to do and collectables to find. Throughout the world are pieces of fruit that act as a type of currency and this currency can be used to open up new pinball bumpers that can send you in any direction on the island. Additionally, certain NPC characters will offer upgrades to your wallet so you can store more fruit at once. Other collectables will activate shrines giving you treasures in return. I really appreciated it felt like I had control over the path I wanted to take as long as I had all the necessary collectables.
Yoku’s Island Express has a beautiful art aesthetic that looks like a painting very reminiscent of Ori and the Blind Forest. It’s captivating to look at and a marvel to play through. The small amount of animation that is in the environments, such as the confetti that comes out of treasure chests or leaves being blown in the wind are gorgeous. I wish there was more animations in the overall environments though, and I would have loved to see more through the movement of the backgrounds. With that said, once you do get into more of the environments, you do see more of a layered background effect.
The music in Yoku’s Island Express is, as you would probably guess, very tropical and upbeat. It’s a happy type of listening music for a generally cute and positive game. Though the songs can repeat often, especially when you’re stuck trying to find where to go next, I didn’t mind it too much as the songs were catchy and easy to relax to. While the characters themselves don’t actually speak dialogue, they make these adorable little critter sounds that goes along with the text conversations. Each voice matches the physical appearance of the NPC you’re talking to and it all works together in this good vibes and happy-go-lucky attitude that Yoku’s Island Express nails.
Overall, Yoku’s Island Express had me smiling the whole time I was playing, even when I got stumped trying to find the next correct step in my path. It has a lot of heart and charm that’s present in almost every aspect of its design. I wasn’t expecting much, as I don’t play too many pinball-like games, however, Yoku genuinely surprised me. The addition of a Metroidvania system works brilliantly with the open-world pinball design to create a fun and unique take on the genre.
Review code generously provided by Team17.
The Bottom Line
Yoku’s Island Express is a wondrous adventure that blends the Metroidvania genre and pinball in a satisfying way. This is one title to keep your eye on, even for those thinking that pinball is not for them as it certainly won me over.