Every once in a while, a game comes along that presents a new idea. It might be a new twist on a classic. It might be a melding of two genres. It might be something exceptionally unique and unheard of. Yoku’s Island Express manages all of these by tilting the table and flipping the metroidvania genre on its head. With pinball.
It’s actually not quite clear where Yoku’s Island Express originates from. Both the metroidvania and pinball aspects are so well represented and expanded upon that it could just as easily be a pinball game that’s been given the open-world treatment. That’s a great feeling when playing because the whole game constantly manages to feel new and exciting. Power-ups mean re-exploring old areas for new hidden secrets and collectibles, but pinball sections throughout the world require the same kind of pinball wizardry The Who sang about all those years ago.
Yoku is a dung beetle, newly arrived to the island of Mokumana to serve as its postmaster. Rolling his little white ball around the island to deliver mail, Yoku quickly discovers a great darkness that threatens the existence of the island and all its inhabitants. The entire island of Mokumana functions as a series of pinball tables to solve puzzles and get to the next area, but enough platforming exists in between the table sections to allow it not to feel like a series of pinball tables simply strung together. Yoku’s Island Express constantly wants you to forget whether this is a pinball game or a side-scrolling adventure, and it does so in a way that makes the game feel ever endearing. There’s a natural flow from each moment to the next, and no load times means Yoku’s is impossible to put down.
Exploring the Island
The secret paths, bumpers, platforms, and other elements that connect the entirety of the map really call to mind the best metroidvania games, sometimes hiding the greatest secrets right under your nose in the early moments of the game. Yoku will be revisiting locations and tables regularly, while also unlocking shortcuts that allow him to zip easily from one side of the island to the other. Various side quests will send Yoku back and forth all over the map, and I never got tired of the different environments that make up Mokumana island.
Much of that charm comes from the hand painted art style that reminded me a lot of Rayman–specifically the two most recent games, Rayman Legends and Origins. The bright and sunny beach is awash in vibrant blues and greens. The thick of the forest grows darker with deeper greens bringing out the feeling of being deep in a jungle. The windswept and snowy slopes of the mountain feel threatening as I crested the jagged rocks before emerging onto a calm and cold peak overlooking the rest of the island. It’s a beautiful and rewarding moment after the arduous task of scaling the hazards to reach the top.
Embracing its metroidvania side, Yoku’s Island Express ensures that there are plenty of mysteries and secrets to solve and objects to collect on the island. New abilities will open up entirely new paths and reveal new ways to play some of the tables, which in turn offer access to new places. New characters will provide Yoku with new goals and tasks. From the deepest depths of the Underdark to the peaks of the mountain, there was plenty to discover even after the story was complete. There were a few elements introduced that the game never seemed to do much with, such as the ability to change ball colors. For most of my time playing I thought this was simply cosmetic, until a single puzzle required me to change the appearance of my ball. I wondered why more puzzles hadn’t utilized this kind of clever mechanic.
There are still plenty of brilliant puzzles with fun solutions and “aha!” moments spread throughout the game. Limited use of some mechanics makes me hopeful that the idea of an open-world metroidvania pinball puzzler hasn’t been played out yet. I think the team at Villa Gorilla could explore this idea a lot more and continue to iterate on it. In fact, Villa Gorilla is made up of three people, and I’m more than impressed that a game as expansive and polished as Yoku’s Island Express came from such a small team.
He Sure Plays a Mean Pinball
A great pinball game is only as good as its physics, and Yoku’s Island Express gets this right. It’s difficult to say if I would call the physics completely realistic, but the ball has a good amount of weight to it. Some of the more complicated tables can be as tough as you might expect an actual pinball table to be, complete with narrow and difficult shots. Yoku can’t die or truly fail, but falling through the thorny brambles between the two flippers causes Yoku to lose fruit, a currency on the island. It also increases a counter in a secret area, affecting something in one of the post-game quests.
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It’s this part of Yoku’s Island Express that may frustrate some people. The tables are naturally worked into the environment–never really feeling like a “table” but rather a platforming area with flippers. While the art is stunning and beautiful, it’s not always obvious what you need to hit or where you need to aim next. Very occasionally the path can either be quite occluded or at a really tough angle. My personal frustration came in the form of purple flowers you can swing around on. Getting the dismount trajectory just right was always an exercise in patience. While I appreciated the level of difficulty some of the sections of Yoku’s provided, I’m sure there will be those that get stuck and frustrated on certain pinball-focused sections. It’s a game that will test both your metroidvania smarts and pinball skills in the best ways.
If there’s one major downside to Yoku’s adventure, it’s that I wanted more. As expansive as Mokumana island is, I simply couldn’t stop playing once I had completed everything the island had to offer me. I was constantly in awe of the clever designs throughout the world, whether it was a simple bit of platforming using bumpers and flippers, or a complex boss battle using a multi-tier pinball table and a clever take on the “extra ball” mechanic. Yup, there are pinball boss battles in Yoku’s Island Express. I only want to see what other clever things Villa Gorilla can come up with to expand on the brilliant and addcitive ideas in play.
Yoku’s Island Express is the open-world pinball adventure you never knew you wanted, but that you desperately need to play. The vibrant art, expansive world, and fun story come together with the best elements of metroidvania and pinball games to create a new experience unlike anything else out there.
Yoku’s Island Express review code provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on Standard PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.