Yoku’s Island Express review: Platforming, pinball and a dung beetle make for a perfect team
Here’s a charming thing: a hand-painted island populated by owls, pterodactyls and sentient lumps of soot, all set up like a giant pinball machine. Yoku’s Island Express is a platformer game that pulls on classic Metroidvania tropes, but ricochets it into something original with a winning mechanic.
Villa Gorilla’s game casts you as a dung beetle, Yoku, employed as Mokumana Island’s new postmaster. Rather than shoveling faeces into postboxes, you’re tied to a sphere that acts as a pinball. Yoku pushes his burden, but the core of Island Express comes from controlling the paddles dotted around the landscape to send the little beetle flying. Within a few minutes, it becomes apparent that there are bigger tasks at hand than delivering letters, and you’re left to navigate the island and track down various characters to save an ancient deity.
There’s a welcome lack of handholding in directing you to objectives. Icons show where Yoku should be travelling, but how you get there is the player’s job to discover. Much of this will involve caroming around the landscape, segueing between open zones and more contained areas that resemble pinball machines. Fruit is the currency of the island, and a short jolt through one of these pinballing areas will keep Yoku stocked up with bananas and pineapples, which can be used to unlock paddles across the island. Like Sumo Digital’s Snake Pass, it takes the familiar platformer genre and transforms it into something novel by paying attention to how the protagonist moves.
Whether or not you have fond memories of 3D Pinball for Windows, you’ll quickly settle into the rhythm of bounding Yoku’s ball around the island. The game does an outstanding job at creating a sense of flow, with paddles flinging your postmaster dung beetle across deserts, mountains and subterranean caverns. All this is designed around a single, continuous map, and a button press will zoom out from Yoku’s location to bring the entire island in view – or at least the parts you’ve discovered. Given the speed you’ll be shooting between areas, it gives the world of Mokumana Island a useful sense of cohesion.
Like Metroidvania games, you’ll spend a lot of time in Yoku’s Island Express returning to previously explored areas, unlocking paths with the help of new powers. An underwater route into a cavern may be impenetrable when you first encounter it, for example, but come back with your handy fish-suit and you’ll be able to explore its depths. The game teases these areas well, dangling treasure chests that are often just out of reach. And with a landscape that only takes a few minutes to traverse, backtracking never feels like a chore.
If there’s a criticism to be had with Yoku’s Island Express, it’s that the story comes across as slight. The main game can be finished in around five to six hours, but this feels shorter due to a somewhat abrupt final act. There are a number of side quests to mop up after the credits role, and a longer collecting task that points towards another ending for the inhabitants of Mokumana Island, but the main game feels like it could have done with an extra hour or two to cap it off. The characters too, whilst illustrated with kaleidoscopic cuteness, are largely forgettable mouthpieces for the game’s various fetch quests.
The time spent with Yoku is a delight, however, and Villa Gorilla has succeeded in crafting a gem of a pinball machine. I played the game on Nintendo’s Switch, and the console’s portable mode is a perfect fit for intermittent flipping and bumping on the go. There are few games that tempt me to linger after the main story is done, but I feel like I’ll be shooting Yoku around his island for some time to come.