Yoku’s Island Express
Release Date: May 29th, 2018
Platform: Windows, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Switch (Played on Windows)
Developer: Villa Gorilla
Publisher: Team 17
Considered by many to be an overpopulated genre, Metroidvanias have exploded recently, and that has brought us Yoku’s Island Express. Developed by Villa Gorilla, Yoku’s Island Express puts players in control of the eponymous Yoku: the new postmaster of Mokumana island. The game distinguishes itself by having a unique pinball mechanic that will see you bumping around a ball attached to Yoku to help with traversal of the island. The use of pinball over standard platforming puts a new twist on exploration and works to a degree throughout the experience.
Despite the novelty of the pinball mechanics, I would be lying if I said it didn’t get frustrating. Due to my lack of ability at pinball, I found I would repeatedly get stuck for extended periods, which brought the game’s pace to a crawl. This is exacerbated by the game frequently requiring a task to be completed three to five times before allowing players to advance. While initially fun, the somewhat cumbersome nature of using pinball can turn what would be a simple task into an arduous affair. For seasoned pinball players, I’d hazard a guess that Yoku’s will be a breeze, but I found the mechanics outstayed their welcome, especially toward the end of the game.
While the pinball mechanic wore on my nerves, the various pinball elements are integrated well into the game’s art design. Each area feels meticulously crafted to have small contained pinball tables seamless blend into the environment. The various pinball elements that are used to traverse the world are never intrusive, which allows each of the beautiful environments to be displayed to the fullest. Nothing feels out of place, and transitions are smartly utilized to move players through the world smoothly. How Villa Gorilla was able to make everything feel like it belongs in the game’s world is a true testament to Yoku’s excellent art design.
The music is also quite pleasant. Many of the game’s tracks feature a somewhat tribal sound making the island feel untamed and wild. Some of the tracks are more upbeat, while others have deeper, relaxing tones. The music not only mirrors the environment, but also the design of the various obstacles you encounter. A wild set of looping tracks in the sky have a much more upbeat tune to mirror the quick pace at which you’re darting through the air, where a mellow tune is played as you scurry through the rain on the jungle floor. Tying the music to all elements of the game makes the sound design in Yoku’s really stand out.
Aesthetics aren’t the only area where Yoku’s Island Express shines; the game is excellent at encouraging organic exploration. As the resident postmaster, you’re tasked with delivering letters and packages throughout the island. While the rewards for doing your job are superfluous in the long run, having a reason to explore every nook and cranny of the island via delivering the mail provides players with an incentive to, and context for why they’re exploring.
In addition to delivering mail, there are collectibles throughout the island known as wickerlings. At first glance, these appear to be throw-away collectibles that are simply used to flesh out the world. However, after collecting ten and sacrificing them to one of many totems scattered throughout the island, the player will be teased with a scene showing one of eight lights igniting around a large egg. This instills a sense of intrigue while providing a reason beyond completion for collecting all of the wickerlings. Not knowing exactly what will happen when all eight lights are lit is a perfect carrot to motivate players to hunt down every last one. The combination of both delivering the mail and the mystery of what the wickerlings will lead to makes exploring every inch of Yoku’s Island Express compelling.
The other area the game does quite well is quest design. The player’s intuition and curiosity are relied upon to carry them through several of the game’s sidequests, which makes them feel organic. Having some quests designed in this way breathes a sense of life into the island of Mokumana that wouldn’t exist otherwise.
Despite its many positive elements, most of the boss encounters are a little flat. Similar to my eventual frustration with the pinball mechanics, I imagine my lack of skill led to the boss encounters having a distinct lack of urgency. Repeatedly missing a shot, while epic music blasts in the background, as you fight a larger than life creature eventually becomes mundane. This is furthered by a lack of stakes for repeated failure, so any sense of urgency is entirely undermined.
The other big negative was how superfluous many of the upgrades feel. Most of the game’s items are capacity upgrades for Yoku’s wallet. While at first the extra carrying space is welcomed, it soon becomes unnecessarily large as there is never a use for all of the currency collected. I’d have appreciated upgrades that were more useful, so rewards didn’t feel like they have diminished value later in the game.
Despite my lack of skill at pinball I’d still recommend giving Yoku’s Island Express a look if you’re into Metroidvanias. The art, music, exploration, and quests all make for a very enjoyable game, and the pinball concept is novel enough to distinguish the game from other members of the genre. The bosses and a large number of underwhelming upgrades don’t manage to overshadow what the game does well. While I found the pinball mechanics frustrating, your mileage may vary depending on your skill at pinball, and I still believe Yoku’s Island Express is worth a look in spite of this.