Do you like pinball? How about Metroidvania games? Even if the answer to both of those is no, Yoku’s Island Express is still the game for you. Seamlessly merging pinball and 2D Metroidvanias, Yoku’s Island Express was an absolute delight to play and kept me hooked throughout its quirky story and compelling gameplay loop. And honestly, if the idea of merging those two genres gets you excited, then you are more than welcome to skip the rest of this review and spend that time playing Yoku’s Island Express.
Before we delve into the rest of the review, I just want to say that I have a mild obsession with postal services. My favourite Terry Pratchet book is Going Postal, I unironically enjoy Kevin Costner’s The Postman and derive a strange pleasure from packing things and popping them in a letterbox. I think it’s the act of connecting people over large distances via analogue means. Plus, it’s always exciting to get something in the post (even if you later realise it’s only a bill). Anyway, with that out of the way just keep in mind this bias.
It might come as a surprise but I’ve never put pinball and Metroidvania together in a sentence before playing Yoku’s Island Express. Yet now that I have, I can’t wait for a sequel. The two work together perfectly. As Yoku, you are exploring this island, delivering packages and letters while rocketing through the environment collecting fruit, exploding slugs and finding secrets. In classic Metroidvania style, the further you progress the more abilities you unlock. This includes the ability to dive underwater, slingshot your ball onto specific locations and stick exploding slugs to yourself. All of which ties seamlessly into the games narrative, the island and the game’s genre.
As you traverse the environment you will occasionally come across what I’m going to call pinball rooms where you have to use the flippers to complete some kind of challenge to continue. This might mean utilising the exploding slugs to destroy rocks, flip Yoku to a certain location or a myriad of other puzzle elements. And this includes boss fights. I didn’t know I needed pinball boss fights in my life, but now I can’t stop thinking about them. While they are sparsely spread throughout the game, they are the highlights of the adventure as you utilise your new skills to overcome a thematic pinball challenge to progress the narrative. This is because each boss is at the end of a particular area and, much like other Metroidvania’s, requires the new ability you just gain to be defeated. And it all just works. At no point did I find the idea of pinballing my character across the screen or against enemies caused any ludonarrative dissonance. This is just a world where it’s normal to pinball across the world and I’m still astounded by how well the developers tied every element in this game together.
Another comparison to certain parts of Yoku’s Island Express are the classic 2D Sonic The Hedgehog games. You know how amazing it feels in Green Hill Zone to constantly move forward, jumping over obstacles, bouncing on springs and doing the loop-de-loops? Well, travelling around Yoku’s Island Express has that same feeling. Except unlike Sonic, you aren’t suddenly brought to a halt and asked to do some slow, boring platforming. Instead, everything is done via some kind of pinball or mechanic that you’ve unlocked throughout the game. This means that you are constantly moving and even when you aren’t Yoku starts pushing the ball around in the cutest way that you simply take a moment to enjoy the change in pace.
Yoku’s Island Express was the best kind of surprise. I’d heard positive things about it but never expected it to charm in as much as it did. The characters, the world, the gameplay, all of it knits together to form a perfect whole. I honestly don’t have anything negative to say about this game. Even the soundtrack is brilliant. Rather than taking focus, it works as part of a whole – although I can easily listen to the Yoku Taidua and The Village and What Lies Beneath tracks by themselves. The soundtrack is an unusual blend of jazz and traditional North Pacific/tropic beats, and it works perfectly with this odd little world about a beetle post officer.
If anything I’ve said has you intrigued, then I encourage you to pick up Yoku’s Island Express. It’s on basically every platform. I played it on my Switch Lite and had a blast. If the developers are reading this, then I hope you are working on a sequel because I need more Yoku in my life.
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