Yoku’s Island Express

Obviously I like Metroidvanias. Two of the top three games on the IGC Leaderboard as of this writing are just that. It’s probably my favorite genre. “Tell us something we didn’t know” you’re saying. Fine, how about the fact that I love pinball? Those who only know me through my reviews and not my Twitter probably wouldn’t guess that. I mean, I have photo-sensitive epilepsy. Pinball isn’t exactly the most epilepsy-friendly pastime out there. It probably ranks just below celebrating the 4th of July on stupid things I do. I don’t even really use fireworks. I just light my parents’ bed on fire. But anyway, pinball. I shouldn’t play it. I do. And yea, we remove the strobe-lights and mute other lights when I play (I have my own collection. Going to something like the Pinball Hall of Fame in Vegas isn’t optional), but still, sometimes I’ll be out and about, run into a pinball table, and have to use every fiber of restraint to not pop a few quarters in and play. If it wasn’t obvious from the cigarettes, the multiple daily energy shots, the frankly absurd amount of soda I consume, and eating habits that would embarrass a five-year-old living out of a candy store, I was apparently born without any survival instinct. So, yea, I play a lot of pinball.

Oh, video pinball? Forget about it. Those are NEVER epilepsy friendly. Oddly enough, the one and only game I’ve ever contributed to a Kickstarter for was The Pinball Arcade, and I got *nothing* out of it. I just felt it was the best way I could contribute to preserving pinball for those out there who can’t afford $4,000 for a used, routed table that the dude selling on Craig’s List SWEARS has been shopped but really he just gave it a quick waxing and it’s ready to fall apart if someone hits a flipper twice on it. Trust me, the pinball enthusiasts reading this review know what I’m talking about and are banging their heads on their desks as we speak. But really, it sucks to be me because it’s a golden age of video pinball and I can’t play the fucking things. (By the way, don’t harass them over it. I’m really good friends with people at Zen Studios of Zen Pinball fame, and I don’t take it personally at all I can’t touch their pinball stuff.)

Well, someone finally made a pinball game I can play.

And it’s a Metroidvania. You bet your sweet ass I came when I heard about this one.

This was pretty much my reaction when we signed Kevin Durant.

Yea, you heard me right. Yoku’s Island Express is a Metroidvania and a pinball game. Which is funny because there’s been a Metroid pinball game and it was NOT a Metroidvania (though it was probably the only video pinball game I ever liked). And it’s mostly epilepsy safe (the bosses weren’t, so I had to take extra-precautions) so, hey, I should like this right?

And I did, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In Yoku’s Island Express, you play as a dung beetle tasked with becoming a postman. I have to say, as a child I wondered what it would be like to put a dung beetle on a pinball table, and now I know without being straight-up evil. Anyway, you traverse the world of Yoku via flippers and kickbacks. No plungers, oddly enough, or at least I didn’t find any. As you make progress you’ll gain a few special abilities like a lasso type thing that lets you swing around specialized pegs, or short-cuts around the sprawling map. Despite being a genre-salad that seems risky on the surface, Yoku’s Island Express (God I hate that name, it makes it sound like a stripped-down mobile version of a bigger game) is shockingly basic.

When I saw what Yoku was, my first concern was the physics. With no jump button and all platforming done via pinball shit, bad physics would kill this game dead. Thankfully, that was never once an issue. Don’t get me wrong: it never feels like real pinball. But it didn’t need to. This wasn’t meant to be a pinball game that plays like a Metroidvania. It’s a Metroidvania that plays like a pinball game. Or wait, should that be reversed? You know, you’re jumping straight to the next sentence, but I spent a solid hour wondering about it. My point is it’s an adventure game with a pinball gimmick. And it works. I never once felt I was screwed by momentum or physics or glitches or anything that the pinball stuff might lead to. Mechanically, it’s the perfect marriage of two concepts, like peanut butter and jelly, or Poptarts with melted garlic butter. Hey, don’t wince until you try it.

Having said all that, it never gets fully exhilarating. That mostly owes to the fact that the level design is very basic. I was never once floored by any section of Yoku’s Island. It feels like they put all the risk in the concept itself and didn’t want to experiment too much with layouts. The purely pinball “stages” play and feel like 60s era electromagnetic tables. A few bumpers, a few chutes, with the only advancement over that style of design being video-gamey pick-ups or enemies that move around.

To be clear: the levels are never boring. Just a bit bland. And it never gets too complex no matter how much progress you’ve made, which means the basic table design takes the zing out of the inspired concept after a while.

I get it. Nothing like Yoku’s Island has been done before (NES fans, no, Pinball Quest couldn’t hold Yoku’s dungball) and they just had to get the damn thing working. Everything connects well and it’s never a full-on chore to navigate it. Still, the truly pinball-based parts of the game feel so limited and safe that it makes Yoku’s Island Express feel like a really good proof of concept instead of something mind-blowingly inspired. I’ve never wanted an indie I’ve played to become a franchise more. That includes SteamWorld or Shovel Knight games. Those were pretty much amazing right from the start. Yoku’s Island feels like its potential is still somewhere off in the distance, waiting to be realized.

And the areas to improve are self-evident. The shortcut system is overly complex and even required me to grind up money for it a few times. It costs too much to use and slows the pace down too much. The writing is bland and the big plot twist final boss would have been a bigger surprise if the game hadn’t fucking outright told me it was going to happen. It hints the chosen one would be betrayed by someone on the adventure with you, and there was literally only one thing that was on the adventure with you. Gee, I wonder who is going to betray me? It was either the thing that did it or the non-sentient ball itself was going to go rogue.

Actually, the coolest part of the game is also its biggest short-coming. Yoku reminds me of an N64 era Rare Ltd game. Like, this is the type of weird, experimental genre mashup they would have cranked out along with Blast Corps or Jet Force Gemini back in the day. It even looks like a Rare game, with lush settings and PBS-ish friendly character designs. And that’s awesome. It totally took me back to being that giggling nine-year-old playing Banjo-Kazooie on my 9th birthday. But, all the warts of a Rare-inspired game are along for the ride, with far too much emphasis on collecting for the sake of collecting. Unlike something like, say, Axiom Verge, where I got excited to stumble upon new guns or weapons, or complete side missions, I was soured on the fetch-questiness (that’s a word now, write it down) of Yoku quickly.

I’ll give you an example: at one point you get three big packages that you have to take from the central hub town and deliver one at a time. I pick up one of them and have to take it to a guy on the left side of the large world map. I get it to him. The dude simply did not want to open his door to take it. It looked like maybe I could try to go through a back door or something, but every time I tried to make my way around, I fell all the way to the bottom of the map, and it took a LONG TIME to work my way back to it. Now, at this point, I was doing that thing I do with a game I’m loving where I knew I was about to finish everything and I was stalling for time because I was enjoying things so much. But after that one bad experience, I was like, fuck it, I’m ready to be done with this game. I instantly lost all interest in all other hidden trinkets and I’m never going back to get them. About twenty minutes later, the end credits were rolling and I was satisfied and happy with the experience. If the developers wanted me to actually have fun finding all the frankly insane amounts of hidden content, I don’t know what to say. Next time actually try making it fun to do it? And not a chore? Just maybe?

Insert Saved by the Bell joke -here-.

Everything else I could say is nit-picky. But fuck it, it’s my job so here we go: the game is too easy (I never died once and as far as I know I never came close to it either), I thought every multiball section was crap, I never once felt a sense of tension or awe in any aspect of exploration, and the explanation for how to use the slug vacuum was so poorly written I almost had a rage-quit trying to get the hang of using it. Having said all that, Yoku’s Island Express is never boring. It only teeters on being a slog when you’re supposed to be high up on some platform, fall down, and have to make your way back up to it. And despite the flaws probably out-numbering the good stuff, Yoku’s Island Express is just plain fun. I want a sequel that goes all Twilight Zone pinball on the layouts and focuses more on clever world building, but what’s here is perfectly entertaining for six hours. And yea, they left a lot on the table, but we can’t expect them to show extra balls on something this different, so I tilt my hat to them.

Seven years writing these things and it’s come to this: closing a review with puns. Why does anyone read me again?

Yoku’s Island Express was developed by Villa Gorilla
Point of Sale: Steam, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Switch

$19.99 honestly asked “wouldn’t the dung beetle have been squished by the flippers?” in the making of this review.

I purchased and played the Xbox One version of the game. Villa Gorilla supplied review copies for members of Indie Gamer Team for XB1, Switch, and PS4. We’re not done talking about Yoku’s Island Express yet.

Yoku’s Island Express is Chick Approved (with the brand-spanking-new Indie Gamer Chick Seal of Approval designed by Kevin Willingham) and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard

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About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

2 Responses to Yoku’s Island Express

  1. Pingback: Slap City | Indie Gamer Team

  2. Pingback: My Reviews are Biased | Indie Gamer Chick

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