Over the weekend I decided to pick up Yoku’s Island Express. Developed by the excellently named Villa Gorilla, it touts itself as a ‘pinball Metroidvania’, which, honestly, was too odd of a concept for me to ignore. There was only really one title that I could think of that had tried this thing before, the mediocre Sonic Spinball for the Mega Drive, released all the way back in 1993. Yoku’s Island Express, then, doesn’t exactly have a great legacy to follow – does it manage to succeed it’s singular retro peer, or does it bathe in mediocrity soup?
The game starts with you, the titular Yoku, getting washed up on the fictional shores of an island called Mokumana. You’re quickly thrust into the role of postmaster for the island, since the current postie, Posteradactyl (ha) can’t be bothered anymore. Cue the stakes getting raised dramatically as the island’s deity figure has been attacked by the God Killer, leaving him injured. As the new post master, it’s your job to deliver letters to the three clan masters requesting their aid in healing the great beast.
The only issue with this is that Yoku is a dung beetle. Whilst he doesn’t roll around a ball of poo, he does roll around a ball of white something, which he’s tethered to by a tiny piece of rope. And this is where the pinball mechanic comes into play. The island of Mokumana is conveniently filled with pinball flippers and bumpers, allowing you to compensate for Yoku’s inability to jump. Mokumana, then, is essentially one giant pinball table – and a glorious one at that.
You can go after which ever of the three clan leaders that you want – the game essentially progresses in a non-linear order – and along the way, you’re essentially playing through several mini pinball tables, complete with bonuses and secrets for you to find. These usually come in the form of fruit, the games currency, which allows you to unlock frozen bumpers and purchase upgrades and maps from vendors that you’ll find along the way.
Speaking of upgrades – it is a ‘pinballvania’, after all – there are three noteworthy ones and a few that are more minor. None of them alter the gameplay a ton, but they do give you abilities open up areas throughout the campaign. You find one on the way to each clan leader. Whilst you only need the one that you find in order to reach your goal, the others can be used to uncover treasures and further unlockables. For example, one upgrade allows you to dive into bodies of water, allowing you to get sunken treasures, or access new areas entirely.
The pinball gameplay itself is exactly what you’d want and expect – it’s great fun bouncing Yoku around the various caves, mountains, hills and temples that make up the islands beautifully drawn locales. It’s responsive, it works, and the physics always felt spot on to me – never once did I feel gypped out by a dodgy bumper. The game is remarkably forgiving, too – there’s no way to actually die. Falling off the board usually pushes you through some thorns, which take a piece or two of fruit from you, and nothing more than that. Getting back onto the board in question is a simple case of bouncing yourself back up there.
It’s a nice, relaxing game, reflected by it’s cheery music, bright graphics, and a lack of any ability to die. I’m no pinball wizard, but I didn’t struggle for too long against any of the games various challenges, and I managed to beat the games campaign in a fairly respectable six hours or so. Honestly, I hoped for more – the game understayed it’s welcome a slight in this regard – so it’s fortunate that Yoku’s Island Express has an absolute ton of secrets to find within it’s vibrant landscapes. If you’re a completionist, there’s tons to be had here. Without a guide, I’d say that you could easily push your playtime into the double digits exploring every nook and cranny.
It can be a wee bit annoying to explore every nook and cranny, thogh. It can be a bit difficult, through the campaign and otherwise, to know exactly where you’re backtracking to. There is an in game map, but because of the nature of the game with it’s twisty, windy pinball passages, it’s not particularly easy to find out exactly where you want to go. What would’ve been nice is the ability to add some clearly drawn lines on the map which show you how to get from area to area, provided that you’ve already been to them.
There’s a few bosses that are fairly rote affairs too. Without the threat of death or damage, they simply feel a wee bit pointless and completely unchallenging. They do have fun multi-ball mechanics to them, though, so it’s not all bad news.
Overall, Yoku’s Island Express is a game that I can recommend to anyone who’s a fan of pinball games or, indeed, Metroidvania style games. While I’d struggle to call it a proper Metroidvania, it certainly has elements of them which make further exploration into previous areas tantalising. There’s a lot of game here for a completionist, though I could’ve done with a touch more length to the main campaign. Still, it’s an expertly put together pinball platformer that manages to be entertaining throughout and beyond. For £15.99 / $20.00, though, the amount of content and how wonderfully it’s all put together, sound, graphics, and gameplay wise more than justifies the asking price.
When you use the word ‘charm’ to describe a game, Yoku’s Island Express is the epitome of it. Easily recommended to just about anyone, and I can’t wait to see what Villa Gorilla come up with next. Sorry, I just needed an excuse to type Villa Gorilla again. Villa Gorilla.
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Unlike more fortunate folk, I paid £15.99 for this, so you can rest assured, the review above is unbiased, or whatever. Not that it wouldn’t be if I did it with a review code.