If there’s one thing that gets my juices flowing, it’s a quirky genre mashup. Take Crypt of the Necrodancer, for instance, a rogue-lite rhythm action game. Or Hand of Fate, a roleplaying card game brawler. Hell, only last week we had a great shopkeeping sim with rogue-lite action RPG elements.
Imagine my excitement, then, at Yoku’s Island Express: an open-world platformer with a dash of Metroidvania and full-on pinball mechanics. Oh boy, that hits the spot! And this exuberant paradisiacal pinballer not only ties its contrasting influences together surprisingly well, it’s a pure joy to boot.
Right from the off, Yoku’s Island Express hits you with its charming style and chilled soundtrack of tropical tunes and jazz. It’s tropical escapism at its finest, the saturated beaches and jungles welcoming you with open arms. I found the vibrant world reminiscent of recent Rayman platformers, which is no small compliment.
You play Yoku as he travels to Mokumana Island to take a position as the new postmaster. With little warning or justification, however, he’s soon elected as the hero of the island. An ominously-titled God Slayer has attacked the island’s deity and it’s up to Yoku to put a stop to them wreaking havoc.
As a dung beetle postie, Yoku’s an unlikely protagonist. But by pushing around an orb tethered to his body, he’s transformed into a makeshift pinball ball. This is where the genius of Yoku’s Island Express reveals itself. The world is structured of labyrinthine pinball mazes, navigable via flippers and bumpers. It’s such a great idea, I can’t believe it hasn’t been done before.
Granted, it’s not the most accurate pinball sim going. Physics are simplified and the pinball flippers don’t have as much precision as you’d hope. You can’t tap a ball backwards off the back of a flipper like a real pinball wizard. Likewise, input is binary with no regard for button pressure – possibly because some systems, like the Switch, lack analogue triggers.
Compensating for this lack of fine control is that you’ll rarely experience any real threat. You can’t die and levels let you take as long as you need, with no time limits. This makes for a delightfully laid-back experience which may challenge at times, but with a bit of persistence you’ll always get there in the end.
What’s impressive is that not only is this an open world, but you’re given a surprising amount of freedom in where you can go and the order in which you tackle objectives. Light Metroidvania sensibilities restrict access to certain areas via abilities, but these are all attainable before you reach said areas.
The introduction of new mechanics and ways to explore does peter out by the end. A recurring challenge in many of the pinball mazes, for example, is to spawn a bunch of orbs and collect them in order to open a gate to the next area. Repetition can also set in from having to revisit areas multiple times. A nifty ‘beeline’ transport system helps alleviate this by firing you across the island as if out of Donkey Kong barrels, but the entry points for this are frustratingly few and far between.
Yoku’s Island Express doesn’t outstay its welcome, however. If anything, the main mission is actually quite short and ends rather abruptly. But you’re free to carry on collecting and uncovering secrets long after the credits roll if you’re not ready to end your stay at Mokumana Island. Exploration is rewarded with the discovery of collectibles like fruit, mandrakes, treasure chests and ancient relics.
Yoku is a little cutie, scampering around with reckless enthusiasm. But he actually takes a backseat when compared to some of the wonderful chums he makes on the island. A motley crew of creatures from the recognisable to the mythical and nonsensical, making their acquaintance is always a pleasure. Even if they can be a little demanding in terms of the tasks they want you to carry out while they lazily sun themselves.
If anything could convey the glee of playing Yoku’s Island Express in a nutshell, it’s that the main action button results in Yoku blowing a party horn, with a spray of confetti and a suitably daft noise to accompany it. Any game in which you get shit done with a party blower is a damn good one, in my eyes.