I wish that more games could make me feel as happy as Yoku’s Island Express does. Whether it be the lilting music, painterly hand-drawn art or the chance to become lost in the game’s huge interconnected world, there are many reasons as to why it never failed to raise a smile. But, none more than the game’s pint-sized protagonist, Yoku.
The cheerful dung beetle has been sent to Mokumana Island to relieve Posterodactyl in his role as the resident postmaster, continuing the duties that had seen him deliver letters and parcels all over this tropical paradise. However, after washing ashore, it isn’t long before you learn some troubling news. The ancient island deity Mokuma has been attacked by the God Slayer. The pulsating mark that the deity has been left branded with is slowly draining its strength, and you are sent to deliver letters to the three chiefs who can undo the wicked seal and save it.
Mokumana Island is covered with flippers and bumpers, coloured in blue, orange or both to indicate whether you need to slam the ZL or ZR Button to activate them. That will soon see you flip and bump the minuscule hero around in this open world pinball adventure game, which is so startlingly brilliant and remarkably refreshing that you’re left wondering why we haven’t seen something like it before.
You are given the freedom to explore the island as you wish, Yoku heaving his ivory (pin)ball around as you explore your surroundings. Villa Gorilla has built Yoku’s Island Express to allow for a non-linear approach (some may prefer to use the Metroidvania term), and it is all the better for it. The dung beetle won’t be pulling a whip out at any point, but you will be unable to reach certain areas until you retrieve the item that’s needed to access them.
Eventually, Yoku has more than enough stuffed away in his inventory for you to use. There’s the playfully amusing Noisemaker, you can suck up explosive molluscs to break boulders with the Slug Vacuum, grapple carnivorous plants to swing on with the Sootling On A Leash or swim gracefully underwater with the Dive Fish. None of these items are underused in the game’s entirety and, if you’re like me, you will soon start to honk the Noisemaker simply for your own amusement as you roll about on the island.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the game’s open-ended ambition, the unbelievable scale that’s clearest to appreciate when gawping at the world map and the fluidity with which you can move around Mokumana Island. Every flipper has a clear purpose and has been meticulously placed to the point that they will often hurl you into bumpers that then bounce you on to unexpected places. The fruit that you constantly collect can be used to unlock new flippers that usually lead to secret locations where collectables have been hidden, and, when you soon need to get around more quickly, you can unlock the Beeline – a collection of cannons that can blast you back to Mokumana Village from the island’s outskirts.
The game’s main storyline will challenge you to help Spina calm the Steam Core to stop the Skull Gang’s hideout from being toasted, climb Ivory Peaks to work out what’s preventing the Space Monks from launching their rocket and with slaying the merciless Screetch in the Crystal Deep. But, the quirky islanders don’t hesitate to throw their own dilemmas and requests in your direction. These can simply see you clearing Sootlings, getting the Obtainium mine up and running again or recovering statue pieces for Wondrous Willo, that, even as distractions, push you to explore Mokumana Island’s every nook and cranny.
The developer has even managed to squeeze in some tremendous boss battles that not only came as a complete surprise but work well, often seeing you team up with the islanders for manic multi-ball instances. And, while Yoku’s Island Express is not free from standard pinball-related frustrations like the ball never seemingly wanting to go where you need it to, it has far too calming an influence to ever become angry at.
There are letters to stuff into empty mailboxes, overdue packages to deliver, sprinkle baubles to discover that will let you spray Yoku’s ball with different designs, the chance to carry more fruit thanks to wallet upgrades, and mysterious Wickerlings that promise good fortune to whoever collects a lot of them – but have a far more meaningful purpose. Yoku’s Island Express is crammed with things to do, then, that will see you spending more time with the game beyond the credits to uncover all of the island’s secrets. I wrapped up the game with a 65 percent completion rate, so there’s plenty more for me to uncover.
As you watch Yoku’s ball fling the dung beetle helplessly across Mokumana Island for the hundredth time, it’s hard not to come to the realisation that Yoku’s Island Express is a rare and special treat. This part-open world pinball adventure game, part-Metroidvania likely baffled when the idea was discussed early on but has been created with such careful precision that the end result is nothing short of sensational.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Team17