Yoku’s Island Express Preview — A Pinball Adventure (PS4)
From physical cabinets to digital tables, I absolutely love pinball. I’ve spent far too many hours trying to trigger multiballs in order to get my name on the high score leaderboard. This love of pinball is exactly why I was drawn to Yoku’s Island Express, an adventure game by developer Villa Gorilla that takes standard pinball mechanics and ties them to another genre. It’s definitely a cool idea, but can they execute upon it where others have failed?
The controls in Yoku’s Island Express will feel instantly familiar to anyone that has played a pinball game before. The left and right triggers of the controller will control the corresponding blue and yellow flippers, and it’s up to the player to hit them at the correct timing so they can pick up various items around the island. These range from tasty fruits to quest-essential items that players will have to collect and then use in the environment. Where it differs from a standard pinball game is that players can also slightly control where the “ball” moves by using the analog stick. This is useful to explore the environment, but it’s a bit awkward to use while actually trying to play pinball.
The general flow to the game is that players explore a connected environment that is connected together by a series of pinball challenges. Typically the player will have to shoot their way into a tube that’ll transition them to the next part of the level. There’s some backtracking involved with getting around, but thankfully players can unlock shortcuts that make getting around less of a hassle.
In the first level I played, I had to get past a fearsome beast that would attack me if I came near it. In order to get past it, I had to find a particular fruit that was hidden in the stage. This meant that I had to make my way through a handful of different pinball challenges, solve some very light puzzles that mainly revolve around collecting objects, and eventually I was able to make it back to the beast with the fruit in my inventory. After fumbling around in the options, I eventually got the beast to eat my gift offering, and he promptly passed out afterwards.
The second level of the demo was much more complex. There were two different goals for me to accomplish, and in the first one I had to find a handful of creatures called Sootlings that were hiding in a house. In order to find these rascals, I had to bump into plenty of objects inside the house (done by shooting myself into them), and I eventually was able to find the whole crew. It was relatively easy, and I was wondering if the puzzle solving would get more involved.
It did. The next task introduced a bunch of new mechanics, where I had to lure slug-type creatures onto my “ball,” and then hit destructible areas in the environment to pass through them. It also had me triggering a bunch of mechanical devices in order to restore power to a factory. All of this had to be done in a short amount of time, though, and it resulted in gameplay that was heavy in trial and error.
It was at this point that Yoku’s Island Express ventured across the line from challenging to annoying. Constantly being forced to hit the same skill shots to make my way up an area since I didn’t trigger the machines in the right order was an exercise in tedium. It doesn’t help that there’s very little feedback given to the player as to what they’re doing wrong, and I eventually ended the session without completing the level. I’m sure I could’ve figured it out if I hit my head against the wall some more, but I had stopped having fun at that point.
Despite running into some less than enjoyable puzzle design, I still think Yoku’s Island Express has a lot of potential to be something special. It’s a really unique spin on the pinball genre, and it features a lovely art style. As long as the bulk of the puzzles are fun to engage with, it looks like Villa Gorilla has a winner. There’s still plenty of time before its 2018 release to work out some rough edges and add in some better feedback to the player, and I’m excited to see what adventures the final release will hold.
Yokus Island Express preview conducted at PAX West 2017. Previewed on PC.