Yoku’s Island Express – Review
PC, Xbox One, Switch, PS4
I cannot begin the describe the odd balance of joy and frustration, guiding a small dung beetle to save an island. But then again, I also cannot begin to fathom how the notion of pinball mechanics and Metroidvania were thrown into a blender together and served up for our enjoyment.
The resulting concoction is Yoku’s Island Express – a game developed by Villa Gorilla for PC and consoles, but that is right at home on the Nintendo Switch.
A great deal of thought has gone into how to keep the story going in a genre where sometimes pure chance results in the unattainable. Thankfully, the story gives enough premise for Yoku’s travels without getting in the way of the challenges. The young dung beetle has washed up on the shore of an island that is being terrorised by a “God-Eater” who has devoured three-quarters of the islands deities. In order to restore their omnipotence, Yoku needs to reach three tribes and request their aid in a ritual of healing.
Despite this heavy burden, Yoku is a character that is blissful about his quests, and umbilically destined for challenge. The adventurous dung beetle can’t jump – instead, Yoku is guided by paddles that are activated by the shoulder buttons on your Joy Cons (or in my case, the Pro Controller). The paddles propel Yoku’s appendage into various paths and chasms to traverse the island, and in turn fling Yoku along with it. Somehow, he is not concerned by this high-velocity momentum, or if he was affected we would have difficulty noticing it.
This could have easily turned into a game comprising of several pinball boards connected by a flimsy narrative thread. Instead, the story made for the horrible realisation that I would need to backtrack to important locations to complete challenges and maintain the relevance and interconnectedness of the island. Early gameplay is rife with this trepidation and accompanied by a need to unlock key progression points with the in-game fruit economy. To infuse even more tedium, the early game limits the amount of fruit that you can carry to facilitate this task.
Thankfully we are reminded that this still is a Metroidvania game. Like any good Metroidvania, Yoku discovers new movement abilities and increases his fruit-carrying capacity to make that inevitable revisiting of past paths more bearable. When the “bee-line” fast travel is unlocked, it is a delightful sigh of relief and a welcome nudge to complete all those odd challenges, unlocking additional rewards.
Villa Gorilla hides the absurdity of these mechanics behind an environment that is vibrant and engaging. The graphics are pristine in their hand-drawn quality and I was so enamoured that I found it hard to forgive the “fog of war” that covers the island during Yoku’s journey. As your jaw locks in annoyance at every paddle pulse that is mistimed, you are soothed by oddly upbeat island tunes to disarm that irritation. If that atmosphere wasn’t enough to delight your senses, the inhabitants that you interact with are downright charming – astronaut frogs, giant turtles, and sentient mushrooms are more than happy to send Yoku on various fetch quests (or potential fungal pandemics).
Despite its charm and ingenuity, there will be enough people turned off by the prospect of a game where a lot of the drive is governed by how well they can direct an Aphodiinae-laden ball around a landscape. There will be plenty of anguish for every missed paddle as Yoku’s exoskeleton is delicately crunched against rocks and debris. However, I feel as if Yoku’s Island Express is more forgiving than most pinball games, and hopefully, the sensational backdrop and cosy challenges will negate this fear.
Yoku’s Island Express is a one-off, and it needs to be – its ingenuity is perfectly contained on its own holm, and well worth the broadening of your gaming experience.