A small island in the middle of the ocean (itself a marvel of geography and global warming) is rocked by a mysterious force and the strange Cthulhu-Esq guardian who protects its tranquil shores is in trouble. The God Slayer has returned, ravaging the island’s once peaceful inhabitants and marking the Guardian with a livid scar that foretells of the approaching armageddon. But have no fear, the postal service is here! Or to be more precise, a small bug that’s inexplicably strapped to a boulder and gets its rocks off by being flung from pillar to post (pardon the pun). These aren’t the psychotic prattlings of Postman Pat as he tries to explain why he has a degree in entomology, but the introduction to Yoku’s Island Express, a charmingly insane pinball-vania game from Villa Gorilla and Team 17.
Yoku’s Island Express mixes classic pinball gameplay with a Metroid style platform adventure, allowing you to explore a gloriously detailed map filled with hidden areas, special items and a myriad of compelling secrets to uncover. However, though the game has marketed itself as Pinball-vania, (tapping into the popular trend of Metroidvania titles synonymous with hardcore, pixel-perfect gameplay that will put your gaming skills and your patience to the test) Yoku’s Island Express is a far more gentile affair, a Pinball-vania lite experience. Though it does have some challenging sections, there is always a certain amount of leeway given to the player and far more emphasis is placed upon your ability to manoeuvre around the map than dodging your way through waves of infuriating enemies. It’s a refreshing change from the deluge of hardcore platformers we’ve been bombarded with over the last few years and I found myself strangely addicted to Yoku’s Island Express in a way I haven’t since TheGentleBros’ CatQuest.
At its core, Yoku’s Island Express is a Pinball game. Traversing through the island’s web of platforms and tunnels, you’ll encounter areas reminiscent of classic pinball machines: boards filled with flippers, bumpers, paddles and holes; rails for your bug to roll along; combinations of buttons to press and lights to illuminate. The whole thing is incredibly well designed and you’ll have to think outside of the box to access some harder to reach areas. Boss fights add interesting mechanics to the playfield creating epic battles reminiscent of Sonic Spinball, and most challenges are made up of classic pinball tropes. None of them are overly complex but they present enough of a challenge that no victory ever feels cheap.
But it’s not the story or the pinball that’ll really suck you into Yoku’s Island Express. It’s not the Boss battles or the eclectic mix of characters that you’ll meet along the way. It’s the spirit of exploration that will awaken within you. I had completed the main story and began scouring the nooks and crannies for the many collectables introduced throughout the campaign. I was expecting a dragged out collectathon that would lead to some generic PlayStation trophies, a couple of hours ‘extra’ content and a rather disappointing end game… how wrong was I. New areas keep opening up to me, filled with hidden caves and characters that are adding more narrative to the adventure and hinting at a dramatic event I still have to unveil. I‘d only got three more chests to collect, a fist full of worms to grab, before I’d have fully lit the glowing orbs around the fetus in the underworld and one parcel to deliver to the Queen Bee before I was sure I’d have found everything – and then I went and uncovered a secret cult who’ve been mocking me with a mysterious number each time I’ve died. What else have I got left to find? What will happen when I light all of the torches? What is the cult up to? I don’t know yet and according to my save I’ve only completed 67% of the game so I can’t wait to uncover more.
With such a wonderfully elaborate world to explore and well-hidden secrets to uncover, the controls have to be pitch perfect. Using only flippers and the bug’s ability to push the ball to explore remote areas is far more taxing than you first realise, so when the ball slips through the edge of a flipper or the bug gets trapped on the opposite sides of a barrier than the ball or if it decides to start rolling the ball (causing it to slow down dramatically) for no reason as you’re trying to pick up momentum, it can become an incredibly irritating experience. The bug has an effect on the movement of the ball as it is being flung around behind the projectile but you have no way of telling how it is going to affect the ball: sometimes the bug will pass through walls, sometimes it’ll hit into them, on occasion the bug will slide across the floor frictionless and then there are times when it’ll act like a handbrake on the ball’s momentum. As a large amount of the game’s thrilling challenge comes from figuring out ways to get to seemingly remote areas, even the smallest delay, awkward movement or change in speed can have a dramatic effect on your trajectory and ability to reach those tantalising areas. Fortunately, these issues were a rare occurrence and though they are magnified at the time by the sheer frustration they cause, it won’t be long before you’re back at the paddles attempting it one more time.
Yoku’s Island Express is a great game, filled with wonderful characters, a multitude of collectables, hidden areas and a story that’ll keep you entertained all the way through. It’s the quintessential example of how a Metroidvania game doesn’t have to be ridiculously hard to be a hell of a lot of fun and it contains one of the best jumps scares I’ve experienced in a very long time. Though I enjoyed rolling around the island on the PS4, Yoku’s Island Express is the perfect game for the Nintendo Switch and I’ll definitely be getting a copy for mine.