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July 2019

Yoku's Island Express

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Puzzle
Publisher: Team 17
Developer: Villa Gorilla
Release Date: May 29, 2018


Xbox One Review - 'Yoku's Island Express'

by Cody Medellin on July 24, 2018 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Yoku's Island Express is an open world/metroidvania-style pinball adventure, seamlessly blending platform navigation with pinball mechanics across a large open world.

Buy Yoku's Island Express

The rise of indie game developers has meant a plethora of adventure game variants that used to be quite rare. The case in point is the Metroidvania offshoot, which, like the roguelike, has become more common. As a result, learning that Yoku's Island Express is a Metroidvania title isn't going to excite as many people as it used to years ago. Learning how they put an interesting spin on that genre is exciting, and seeing how well it all comes together is probably the most satisfying part of the experience.

You play the role of Yoku, a dung beetle traveling with his stone to the island of Mokumana. He's there to start a new career as the island's mailman but, as fate would have it, he arrived just as the island is being attacked by a mysterious force. Without any real time to train and get acclimated to the island, your job is to deliver a letter to the three main heads of the island and hopefully get everything back to an idyllic state. This is a very family-friendly tale with only a hint of mystery to keep things interesting.

The hallmarks of the adventure sub-genre are on full display in Yoku's Island Express. There's a big, seamless world to explore and tons of secret areas to uncover. You eventually gain new powers, so you can backtrack through the world and uncover otherwise inaccessible areas. Noisemakers blow away debris to reveal items or wake up people. A vacuum for slugs lets you use their explosive feature to clear obstacles, and you can use a fish to help you go underwater. Collecting all of the game's Wickerlings allows you delve further into the island's secrets. While there is a golden path for progression, you are encouraged to tackle the quests in any order you wish, deciding whether you want to take on the side-quests to power up or hold more fruit, the main form of currency.

At the same time, don't expect a regular suite of moves to be at your disposal. You can walk left or right, but you can't run. There aren't many enemies in the game, but when you do encounter bosses, you can't directly attack them. You don't even have the ability to jump, which seems fundamental to a 2D game. Taking a page from games like Rollers of the Realm or Sonic Spinball, the main mechanic for almost all of your actions is pinball.

The game takes plenty of inspiration from pinball in almost every way imaginable. Most of the world is split into small pinball table chunks, complete with bumpers, pathways and rails. There are targets on the wall that spit out fruit when hit, and flippers adorn the bottom and the sides. Early on, you can get a helper that prevents your ball from entering the failure drop zone at least once. Taking a page from video game pinball, special targets appear in the middle of the field that act as a means to complete objectives, and there are also targets that need multiple hits in order to open more pathways. Minus the score, the only things you'll have to acclimate to are the fact that you have to ignore Yoku and pay attention to his ball instead, and the flippers are color-coded, so your left trigger is always blue, and your right trigger is always orange.

With pinball being the main mechanic, there is worry that failure will come more often than in other Metroidvania titles. Interestingly, that's all wiped out here. Falling into the pit in between flippers either renders no penalty or, at worst, a loss of one or two pieces of fruit. You can damage enemies but not the other way around, and falling from great heights outside of the tables means nothing. There are no bottomless pits and no real fail states, while auto-saving happens almost all of the time. It may sound like it makes things too easy, but in reality, all it's doing is balancing out the game's overall difficulty.

All of this combines to make for a somewhat chaotic but very enjoyable experience from beginning to end. Unless you're an expert, pinball's somewhat unpredictable nature means that you can amass tons of fruit and complete objectives before realizing it, making for lots of pleasant surprise moments. The small tables are built for exciting moment-to-moment action, and the world naturally brings out the desire to explore everything just to see if your hunch was right. The lack of enemies and health means you're encouraged to do just that, and the game does a good job of lowering the barrier of entry for those interested in the sub-genre. The melding of all of those things makes for a title that's so good you can't help but heap more praise on it.

About the only thing you could hold against the game is its backtracking, particularly the involvement of the pinball element. All of the previously conquered tables are still present, and the pinball setup means that finding the exit from the table isn't as simple as walking there. Often, even if you're a master of the flippers, you'll bounce up the wrong path and be propelled forward instead of backward in a stage like you intended. As such, you'll fight against the natural flow of the tables anytime you want to go back to fulfill side-quests.

The presentation is striking. The graphics are done in a hand-painted style that looks absolutely gorgeous both up close and far away. The colors are rich, and the accompanying animations are more expressive due to this style. The frame rate moves smoothly, even when a full suite of effects is on-screen, and there are no instances when things were unintentionally obscured. The soundtrack is a perfect blend of both joy and mystery, where tracks seamlessly blend together. The game does lack voice acting, but it's for the better since the chirps of the inhabitants make them more endearing than full voices ever could.

Yoku's Island Express is a game that you'll encourage others to check out the minute you start playing. Aside from the gorgeous aesthetics, the use of pinball mechanics is inspired, and the execution of the mechanics is done well. It's a relatively short experience, but it feels packed with tons of side-quests if you can deal with the backtracking seeming to go on a little longer than usual due to the pinball mechanics. Overall, Yoku's Island Express is a brilliant game that adventure fans need.

Score: 8.5/10

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