Yoku’s Island Express blends together two elements that I never thought would mash-up so well; pinball and metroidvania. I’ll confess, I’ve never really had much love for pinball, either in game form or physical form, but Yoku’s Island Express’ compelling foundation makes for one hell of an endearing experience. Players take on the role of Yoku, a dung beetle that’s taking over as postmaster on the lush island of Mokumana. It’s a role that’s seemingly tranquil and relaxing, something that Yoku is very much looking forward to fulfilling.
That is, until a dark evil takes form and sees it fit to dampen the journey by ruining this tranquil locale and in-turn, its inhabitants. It falls to Yoku and his dung-ball to save the day via travelling the entire island of Mokumana, solving puzzles and helping its inhabitants along the way. Mokumana is essentially a collection of pinball tables, embedded in a rich and diverse range of sectioned locations. Yoku can travel on foot with his dung-ball following in succession. This is achieved through using the left stick to move left or right.
Mokumana is littered with pads that are colored either blue, yellow or a mixture of both. These pads serve as the game’s pinball mechanic, being that they’ll spring when the left or right triggers are pressed. When Yoku is positioned on top of a pad, his dung-ball will be sent flying in the desired direction with Yoku following in tow. This blend of traditional movement and pinball-ing allows the game its unique identity, an identity that sounds bizarre on paper, but the polar opposite in practice. Seriously, it’s so much fun it’s unreal.
Each isolated location usually brings with it its own challenge or task; break this barrier, collect a set amount of fruit and so on and so forth. The game’s complexity begins to rise as progression is made, offering up an excellent difficulty curve in tandem with its learning curve. To begin with players will be tasked with little more than reaching (or feeding) an NPC, before gradually being tasked to locate specific items elsewhere on Mokumana. It’s an excellent way for such a unique experience to remain accessible to a wide target audience.
That’s not to say that Yoku’s Island Express is an easy ride. On the contrary I found myself stumped and stuck on some puzzles and tables, respectively, throughout. Though, thanks to how fluid and engaging the gameplay remains from the on-set, I was constantly encouraged to continue onward. Each location, or table to be more specific, is tethered to another location in one way or form, ultimately presenting the elaborate and interwoven island of Mokumana. The game’s most impressive aspect is how well this all feeds the adventure.
Not a single location feels like filler, slapped on for the sake of it. Everything connects together wonderfully and makes sense, providing a compelling and beautifully crafted range of innovative locations. Starting out, these locations are often presented on a single-screen, though it’s not too long before Yoku will be flinging through a collection of towering multi-tiered layouts, utilizing gathered skills as he makes his way to his objective. The ever-evolving functionality, grouped with the visual diversity, keeps the game feeling fresh.
Momentum plays an integral part in the game too, being that Yoku will often need to be going at a certain speed to reach specific platforms or items. Progression is, at times, gated by skills that Yoku wont unlock or earn early on. Though, even with that in mind, the game never truly feels like its restricting you. By and large, you’re free to go where you like, when you like, how you like. Mokumana is stuffed with hidden collectibles and upgrades that will benefit you in one way or another, encouraging player’s to leave no stone unturned.
The game will constantly tease you with items that are either “just” out of reach or are blocked off by something that you know you cant overcome. Metroidvania fans will know full and well that there’s some backtracking involved, but it never feels like a chore here. Sure, it can be a bit confusing to navigate to and from certain locations given the game’s design, but a fast-travel system unlocked later in the game, greatly alleviates this minor frustration. In fairness, it’s the physics of pinball that will often trip your traversal up.
The aim of the game largely revolves around pleasing NPCs, overcoming tricky tables and taking on some interesting boss encounters. The game controls precisely and magnificently well, bolstered by its fluid pacing. This is further upheld by its warm-hearted story, its endearing cast of colorful lovable characters and of course, its beautiful presentation and its solid soundtrack. Whether you’re navigating Mokumana’s lush surroundings or seeking out hidden pathways or secrets, you’ll be constantly treated by its gorgeous foundation.
I didn’t expect to enjoy Yoku’s Island Express as much as I have done, especially considering that I have no love whatsoever for pinball or anything remotely pinball-related. Yoku’s Island Express is an achievement in itself. Effortlessly mashing together two genres that I never would have thought would go together so well and so seamlessly. It helps, of course, that the entire journey, with some minor frustrations regarding traversal to the side, remains satisfying, invigorating and captivating from start to finish. This isn’t one to overlook.
Yoku’s Island Express is an achievement in itself, effortlessly mashing up two polar-opposite genres that ultimately goes hand in glove to wonderful effect. This excellent foundation is upheld by its endearing, well developed and interwoven locations, bolstered further by a cast of lovable characters and a warming story. Minor frustrations regarding traversal to the side, this is a perfect example of meaningful innovation.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.