“A game, by Villa Gorilla” is the first thing you hear upon booting up Yoku’s Island Express and it surprisingly sets the mood for the game perfectly. I can’t explain why, but that voice followed by the amazing music of the menu screen just screams charm, humour, fun, and above all uniqueness. However, nothing could set me up for what I was about to experience when I started playing the game – think of your favourite Metroidvania game, mix it with the charm and humour of Wuppo, and then add pinball mechanics to the mix. You’ll come up with the core mechanic and feel of Yoku’s Island Express.
Trust me, you won’t have ever played a game like this before.
Our protagonist, Yoku, is a small beetle-like insect who constantly rolls around a ball that is attached to him. Don’t ask – I’ve not figured out why this is the case yet either. He has been appointed the new Postmaster of a faraway island, the island which is soon going to become the source of his big adventure! Upon landing on the beach (he sailed here on his ball), he meets the old Postmaster and received his first quest – go give the Postal Badge back to the Translator in the Village. Personally, the way the old Postmaster was in a rush to leave, it all felt a little fishy…
You make your way to the Village, using the rather unique pinball mechanics (luckily we have this ball we are attached to, otherwise this would be impossible), helping out a few strangers along the way and collecting lots of fruit and even a weapon! Well, I say a ‘weapon’, it’s a party blower. It can be used to wake people up, smash objects (with the sound I guess) and destroy bushes. Once you get into the Village you are given your official task – collect the mail and post it in all of the post boxes you see lying around the island.
You will later get given new tasks, such as delivering special parcels to certain people and also helping out fellow villagers who have found themselves in danger. However, this game isn’t purely about delivering mail as Yoku will find himself quite deep into his adventure before long, where he must rally the major three inhabitants and help save Mokumana Island.
This game is amazing! I just had to get that out of the way before I began. The core gameplay mechanic has an emphasis on pinball. There are numerous panels around the island which are presented as blue, yellow or striped – the blue ones are operated with L2, the yellows are R2, and the striped ones are either. This is not only the core mechanic but it’s also the core puzzle factor as well. You will be using this mechanic to fly around environments, just like in pinball, to hit things, go down certain pathways, collect items, and activate switches. The game really does feel like one big pinball table.
Not everything is as easy as it may sound though, the physics in the game are spot on, so you need to be spot on with your reactions as well. Press the flipper too early and you may end up hitting a slug (which explode) or pressing it too late may cause you to sink into the thorn bush and lose some of your fruit. However, think Sonic Spinball for a minute, you can slightly alter your direction and trajectory whilst in the air by tilting the left stick – so you can regain some control if you’re not going too fast.
These mechanics are also used a lot outside of the ‘pinball’ puzzle areas, as you are a tiny bug who is rolling a rock – how are you expected to jump? You don’t, you get onto a panel and have it thrust you into the air – I’m worried one of these days the rock will splat our poor protagonist though. Due to physics, luck, skill, and the puzzles themselves, you can get frustrated pretty easily whilst playing this game! I had a bit of a rage fit at my TV a few times as I was going round and round in a circle, unable to get the angle just right and exit the section I was in. That’s an issue with my terrible reaction speeds though, not the game – but it can frustrate you if you’re impatient or a bit slow on reactions.
Even though the pinball mechanic is the main gameplay element, it isn’t the only one. This game, at its core, is also a standard Metroidvania platformer. Along with the party blower that you get at the beginning of the game, you will also pick up other items such as the slug sucker which allows you to suck in the slugs (clearly). I know what you’re saying – why would you want to suck a slug? Well, these slugs are explosive! So, if you get a slug to attach itself to your rock, you can hurl yourself at things and cause an explosion that will smash open rocks and passages.
There is also a guy in the village who will decorate your balls and swap them for better ones as you find new items for him. This is where the Metroidvania format comes into play – you won’t be able to reach everything or progress everywhere upon your first discovery of said places/things. You may have to gain a new ability or ball and then come back, later on, to use the new ability at this point. Thankfully, most things are automatically marked off on your map once you find them, your massive map.
This is a frustrating yet also relaxing game. You aren’t going around jumping on enemies and killing them, you are trying to traverse across the vast island and work out how to get to each of the new areas whilst helping people out and delivering your mail. Once you have saved the first ‘boss’ and delivered a special letter to him, you will also gain access to the skyline. This is basically the game’s version of quick travel. You pay 100 fruit to unlock it and then you can shoot yourself to any point along that particular path and drop down wherever you wish. There are three of these in total, from what I can see.
Speaking of fruit, these are the game’s currency. You will find fruit everywhere, in puzzles, under bushes, as you randomly bump into things, and in chests. I also noticed that I lost a few when I landed in the thorn pits during the pinball segments, although that didn’t happen every time. As well as fruit, you are also on the lookout for ‘Wickerlings’ – these are small Groot-like root-based beings who are found sticking out of the ground in various locations. Every time you possess ten of these, you can use them to activate strange statues. What for? I have no idea yet as I’ve not collected them all.
You will find yourself picking up rather random items along your journey as well, such as the Skvader which occasionally makes eggs appear in bubbles which will give you a load of fruit when collected, or the Kickback which is essentially a pufferfish that will block the thorn pits on pinball sections for you. Regarding the bubbles, you all know Little Big Planet right? Think of the bubbles which appear in that game that contain stamps, now imagine them randomly appearing in the pinball sections as items you can bump into and collect – that’s what they are.
Graphically, the game is gorgeous. I know I’ve been saying this a lot recently but it really is. Instead of going for the pixel-art style, Villa Gorilla has gone with an almost watercolour aesthetic which looks simply stunning. If you’ve ever played ‘Silence’ then you’ll see similarities with the above characters. I really can’t falter the graphics, effects, or the design – it all works together perfectly. The performance even remains solid with no obvious drops in framerates or glitches. Each area of the Island also has it’s own unique style and design, from the snowy mountains to the red-hot underground pits. The game is a visual delight.
Sound-wise it’s the same. I love the music the game delivers. Just like usual, I’ve left the game idle as I wrote this review as it’s so calming and majestic. This is another game I’m going to keep an eye out for the soundtrack of. The characters do have the annoying ‘Banjo Kazooie’ style of “blah blah wibble wobble blub blub” kind of noises as the character speaks – but I didn’t mind them as much in this as I did in Yooka Lay-lee. Other than that, everything sounds great, form the pistons on the bumpers, to the exploding slugs – well done!
So, what’s my initial impression? Do I really need to ask that? This game is so much fun, yeah it gets frustrating when you can’t hit the ball just right and exit the pinball area you are currently stuck in, but once you do it feels so good! Well, until you press the wrong button and accidentally fall back into the part you had trouble getting out of! Regardless, the game is a lot of fun and I’m sure anyone of all ages will love the game as it requires luck just as much as skill, and the game is so damn cute!
Yoku’s Island Express is the perfect combination of your favourite Metroidvania game, a watercolour painting and pinball. The majority of your time within the game will be spent flying around the screen as you furiously try and make it through all of the pinball-based enclosed areas, areas that never repeat, never get old, and never overstay their welcome. The rest of your time will be spent interacting with all of the lovable characters, experiencing the humour of the writing, collecting items, and delivering mail. Not bad for the first day on the job for our young protagonist!
I’m not sure who to recommend this game too as there are so many different genres in play – however, if you are reading this review then I recommend it to you. I’m sure there is something within this game that you like, be it the charm, the visual style, the amazing soundtrack, the solid controls, the intriguing story, the beautiful characters, or the setting. Something will tickle your fancy.
Yoku's Island Express£15.99
- - Beautiful art style and music
- - Fun, fast paced action
- - Solid controls and pinball mechanics
- - Intriguing, funny and interesting story
- - So much more than you're standard Metroidvania/platform title
- - Some sections can get very frustrating if you get stuck in a loop
- - It's sometimes a little hard to make out where you are going
- - The fast travel is good, but before geting it (and places that aren't included in it) you need to go through the pinball sections every time in order to backtrack