There have been attempts before to create a video game that mixes pinball mechanics with platforming (Mario Pinball Land, Sonic Spinball), but the genre has never really stuck. However, Yoku’s Island Express, the debut effort from developer Villa Gorilla, is the exception, as it successfully combines pinball with metroidvania mechanics wrapped around bubbly visuals and sound.
Yoku is an adorable beetle who arrives on Mokumana Island, a tropical and diverse paradise, ready to take on the duties of the island’s Postmaster. Yoku’s job becomes complicated very quickly though, as the island’s deity is subdued by a mysterious curse. To rid Mokumana of it’s illness, Yoku must reach the island’s chiefs and aid them in saving their beloved home.
Yoku’s Island Express shines through it’s sharp pinball-inspired design. The player controls Yoku, who travels with a big customizable ball, but traversing the island requires using your control’s trigger buttons to activate left blue flippers and yellow right flippers found throughout different areas of the island. This makes each area a micro pinball table, usually accompanied by bumpers and lanes to knock around the big ball tethered to Yoku, allowing the player access new areas. Each new area is woven together like a Metorid or Castlevania game, but the player must the same skill set as getting a high score in pinball to progress through the game.
At first this combination is jarring, but you’ll quickly get the hang of it, and it works. Exploring the island by figuring out which flippers to use, how hard to hit the ball, or where to hit the ball are fun considerations and never really hinder progression. It instead makes for a fun and breezy take on exploring a 2D open world environment.
Also much like a Metroid or Castlevania game, you’ll unlock abilities allowing Yoku to travel to previously inaccessible areas through means including using a fish to swim under water, or a Spirited Away-esque soot ball that allows Yoku to grapple onto flowers and swing to new heights. The soot grapple requires pretty precise timing, and often I would fling the wrong way and get extremely frustrated.
The pinball mechanics alone work well, but the game shines because these mechanics mesh so well with it’s gorgeous aesthetic. Yoku’s Island Express is absolutely adorable. The beautiful hand-painted background spanning a dense jungle, snowy peaks, and damps caves, all seamlessly blend together. Beaming character designs and some charmingly goofy NPC interactions complement the visuals well, but music ties it all together. The tracks are earworms, I’m not going to get the title or beach theme out of my head anytime soon.
All these elements work together to make for a very fun, if not pretty short adventure. One of the biggest shortcomings of Yoku’s Island Express is that it doesn’t iterate on it’s pinball mechanics in very expansive or meaningful ways. You get a couple of boss fights where companions join Yoku, effectively giving the player ‘multiball,’ but I would have liked to see bigger environments that really emulate playing on a themed pinball board. The game’s difficulty (outside of finding collectables) is pretty low, and so are the stakes. You lose some currency if your ball falls beneath the flippers, but you never get a game over or anything like that. It’s reminiscent in tone and difficulty to a Kirby game, which isn’t a bad thing, but should be considered when diving in.
Yoku’s Island Express succeeds in combining pinball with exploration platforming, proving this subgenre can work if the mechanics and heart is there. Overall, I’m very excited for Yoku’s next adventure.
Yoku’s Island Express is available for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch.
PS4 review copy provided by publisher Team 17