Indie metroidvanias are extremely common, so I am always on the lookout for one that sets itself apart. Yoku’s Island Express is a phenomenal example of a game that exudes creativity. It is a relaxing and charming adventure which is chock full of personality. While being a short adventure, Yoku’s Island Express is a sincerely enjoyable one.
While 2D, indie, platforming metroidvanias are abundant today, Yoku’s Island Express stands out from the crowd by merging platforming and pinball. You play as Yoku, a dung beetle who is tasked with being the mailman on the diverse island of Mokumana. Luckily, instead of rolling around dung, Yoku rolls a ball which come in handy on the island full of conveniently placed pinball paddles. You can only control Yoku by moving left and right, but you can trigger different color pinball paddles to launch Yoku through platforming gauntlets. This is quite a unique take on platforming, and I loved just how different it is to conventional platforming.
Upon arriving to the island of Mokumana, you make your way up to the central hub village where you learn that the protective deity of the island has been injured. It is your job as the postmaster to gather the three chiefs of the island to heal the guardian god and to track down whoever attacked him. First and foremost, Yoku’s Island Express is a wholesome journey. As you traverse the various terrains of the island you encounter numerous species of animals which you cooperate with to achieve your goal. It’s a cute, uplifting story accented by vibrant art and upbeat music.
I was surprised with just how good the metroidvania aspects of the game were. The game points you in a vague direction to where the three chiefs are located. It is for the player to explore and discover how to reach the goal. Despite this, I never felt lost or confused when searching for the path forward. There is not an overwhelming amount of directions to choose from, so as long as you head in the correct general direction you will eventually find the right path. Moreover, backtracking is made quick and easy. Even though there is no fast-travel which teleports the player between major areas, there is a clever alternative. The “Beeline” serves as an unlockable express route which lets the player quickly travel between important locations once unlocked. Furthermore, Yoku’s Island Express has plenty of shortcuts so you rarely have to repeat platforming sections, making backtracking a breeze.
Despite being a fairly short game, Yoku’s Island Express makes up for that by encouraging exploring for collectibles. The main collectible in the game are wickerlings. These little guys have no immediate tangible reward, but the game does a great job at instilling a desire to hunt them down. As you collect them, the game will show that the wickerlings are a progression towards hatching a mysterious egg. The overwhelming desire to know what would happen when all the wickerlings were found, and what was inside the egg drove me to 100% this game.
I rarely 100% games these days as scrounging for collectibles can get excessively tedious, but I never ran into that problem in Yoku’s Island Express. The vast majority of hidden treasures are easily discovered, and the few that I missed were a breeze to find once I beat the game. This is because you can unlock “trackers” that will pinpoint the location of any missing collectibles on the world map, making it a cakewalk to find whatever I missed. I loved this, and I firmly believe that any game which has collectibles should have a similar idea implemented.
The gameplay of Yoku’s Island Express revolves around pinball-platforming. As you roll around the island, you will frequently enter these pinball chambers which you must progress through to move forward. These pinball challenges usually have the player hit specific spots to unlock the way forward. You could be hitting switches, barreling through tunnels, or trying to make precise shots. Of course, as a metroidvania you unlock new upgrades which will make these challenges more and more complex. The developers absolutely nailed the sense of satisfaction of just playing around in these pinball chambers. Flying around at high speed, hitting targets, and being constantly rewarded with this game’s form of currency: fruit. In Yoku’s Island Express there is no combat, there are no enemies, and you cannot die. It’s a comfy game, it’s not meant to be stressful or frustrating.
There is something to be said for the fact that the game managed to be occasionally challenging despite there being no enemies or way to die. Just like real pinball, if you miss the bumpers, you can fall through a crack and have to launch yourself back into the level. Like real pinball, which eats your quarters, you will lose a couple of fruit for failing. Luckily, as you bounce around a pinball chamber like a madman, fruit is constantly flowing. So even if you aren’t hitting your intended target, you end up collecting a swathe of fruit completely unintentionally. This is a great way to keep the game feeling rewarding, and to keep the players from feeling discouraged when they can’t quite make precise shots.
One of my few critiques of the game is how annoying it can be when you are struggling to make a very particular shot. You need to launch off of the correct bumper, at the correct angle, with the correct momentum. A couple of millimeters to the left or right will result in a missed shot. To be clear: this wasn’t a problem in itself, I welcomed the idea of making difficult shots. What grew tiresome was trying to get in position to make these shots in the first place. In some scenarios, transferring from the left bumper to right bumper (or vice versa) is not trivial. Simply getting into a position to make a shot could take a minute or two. Then missing that shot repeats the whole process. This did not happen too often, and it isn’t a big deal, but it highlights why the pinball concept can’t be taken much farther while maintaining the relaxing nature of Yoku’s Island Express.
Pinball can be a little frustrating, like in the scenarios I just described. For the most part, Yoku’s Island Express does a phenomenal job keeping its platforming simple enough that it doesn’t get to be tedious or exasperating. But what that means is that the game has severely limited itself with how far it can take its main concept. The developers couldn’t make anything difficult or anything that required a gauntlet of challenging shots. They couldn’t push the game’s core concept to its limit because the core concept is pinball, and pinball can quickly grow maddening. This is the antithesis of the cute, quirky, and calming game of Yoku’s Island Express. Ultimately, the pinball-platforming was kept simple, and I felt like it was missing some more complex challenges.
Despite my gripes, Yoku’s Island Express is still a triumphant success of upbeat positivity. Even in an oversaturated market, it manages to be a fresh and enjoyable experience. The creativity and unique concept really are what made this game stand out to me. It is for these reasons that I give Yoku’s Island Express an 8.5/10. This is a perfect game to just kickback, relax, and explore the wonderful world lovingly crafted by the game’s creators.