Yoku's Island Express review
I’ve never been a fan of pinball. As a child I’d check out the machines in arcades and down at the local fish and chip shop, or I’d plug a dollar into whichever machine happened to be inside the pubs my family would often have lunch at on the weekend. I can’t say that I ever particularly enjoyed them; I simply identified as a gamer at that age, and playing a wide variety of games seemed like an obligation that had to be fulfilled. I’ve never felt like I have enough control over the ball as it whizzes around; an expert player knows exactly where the ball needs to go at any moment and the timing needed on the flippers and bumpers to send it there, but I always find myself frustrated whenever the ball sails right through the dead zone between the two flippers, my dollar barely buying me a few minutes of action.
Yoku’s Island Express takes the mechanics of pinball – the ‘smacking a ball around with flippers’ mechanics, anyway - and mixes them with the progression system of a Metroidvania. As it turns out, stripping away board complexity and providing a clear path forward turns pinball into something that I enjoy. You play as Yoku, a dung beetle who spends the entire game rolling around and teethered to a big ol’ white ball (presumably of dung, although it’s never exactly clarified). Yoku is the new postmaster of Mokumana Island, and arrives expecting an easy, sunbaked life, only for things to immediately go awry when it turns out that the island’s guardian has been attacked. It’s up to Yoku to travel the map, alerting the leaders of each sector that their help is needed in restoring the guardian’s strength. The plot isn’t particularly deep or interesting, and it’s easy to lose track of what purpose your actions serve at any given point, but Yoku’s Island Express is so fixated on the pleasures of exploration that this ends up not mattering too much.
The eponymous island that Yoku must explore and chart is beautifully designed, rendered with a gorgeous art style that gives the game a light, breezy tone. Slowly uncovering the whole island, making the cloud cover on the map screen dissipate as you discover each new location, is a pleasure. This is the kind of game that leaves you marveling at how clever the team must have been to fit it all together in a way that works, especially with so much of the map being designed around the game’s ambitious gimmick – while you can wander around much of the map by foot, you’ll spend more time whacking Yoku around what are, essentially, pinball tables built into the island’s architecture.
Enter one of the map’s numerous pinball sections and you’ll find yourself smacking Yoku’s ball around with flippers and bumpers, working out the timing to flick him around loops, into holes, and through into other sections of the ‘table.’ This is pinball stripped back to its most easily readable elements – you’re not playing for a high score, or to figure out the mechanics of different objects on the board, or even dealing with any real consequences for missing shots. You need to progress, which usually means clearing an obstacle and smacking Yoku through whichever hole subsequently opens up. Over time you’ll get better at smacking the ball at the exact right moment, tapping one of the triggers as the ball lines up just right on a flipper to sail where it needs to go, although if you’re anything like me you’ll also find yourself occasionally hitting the ball through the same route over and over, wishing you were a bit better at this.
Smacking Yoku around is a delight for most of the game’s brief runtime. The physics cheat a bit – a softer hit will sometimes send you flying just as far as a harder hit, and Yoku isn’t affected by inertia if he’s already travelling through a loop or path you’ve shot him into – but there’s a pleasant sense of mischief to the game and the way it will throw Yoku around. When the game asks you to chain together different flipper and bumper presses to move Yoku through an area, solving simple little timing puzzles to get Yoku to a specific part of the map, seeing him flung perfectly through lanes and up curved walls before shooting out onto land again is always satisfying. A huge pinball fan isn’t going to get much, necessarily, out of any of the ‘table’ designs, but they’re intended to be navigated rather than mastered, and it’s never too difficult to work out how to get Yoku where he needs to go.
Yoku starts off with very few abilities, and only gains a few extra during the game. By the end you can swim underwater, vacuum up explosive slugs that you encounter, and swing from certain flowers – all powers that make the world easier to move through. As with any good game within this broad genre, new abilities will unlock old pathways in other parts of the world, although Yoku isn’t quite as intricate as the very best Metroids or Castlevanias. This is a more casual, gentle game, one in which you’ll rarely find yourself stuck for where to go next, and there’s never any chance of dying and needing to repeat a section.
By the end of the game, Yoku is a little more versatile than he was when the game started, but aside from a bigger ‘fruit’ wallet (a currency used to unlock various shortcuts and bumpers throughout the world) and three new movement abilities, there aren’t many things you can find that will actually help you through the game. When the end credits rolled I still had a few optional sidequests available to me, as well as a bunch of collectables, but they are not particularly incentivized – if there’s a reward for completing them that extends the game in any meaningful way, that’s not made clear. This is perhaps a setback of the game’s relaxed tone, but then it’s hard to imagine a version of Yoku’s Island Express that wasn’t fairly chilled out.
Above all else, Yoku’s Island Express is charming. It’s not just charming because you’re a cute little beetle rolling around an ambiguous pile of poop, either – it’s just such a cool concept, and it’s executed so well, that you want to write the developers a card of congratulations when you’re done with it. If only more pinball tables made you feel this way.