A gamer and writer at heart who wants to combine his hobbies into one. I am 25 years old and I'm from the Netherlands. Having played many games over the years, I wanted to express my love for them, however obscure they may be!
This is a very unique game so I can’t say I’ve had experience with anything similar former to this playthrough, but I am very familiar with both the Metroidvania genre and how Pinball works. I’ll use this knowledge to construct my arguments, but I will judge this game on its own merits of course. Before I started writing this review, I made sure to 100% complete the game to see everything the game has to offer. Unrelated to this review, but I also finished a randomizer run very shortly after beating the game, so I feel I know the whole game in and out.
There has been a multitude of games with a combination of genres that you normally wouldn’t see. I’ve already covered a few myself, like a Typing Bullet-Hell Shooter or a Roguelike Combat Racer. I love discovering these games myself because they are so much different from the rest, and often I could imagine how these would work out. But when I heard there was going to be a Pinball Metroidvania… I had no idea what to expect or imagine. I love both genres don’t get me wrong, but what could they possibly do with a white ball and a few flippers to make it a Metroidvania? Without too much thinking, I just had to try it out. A fire burning within me was telling me–no, begging me to try this out. And that’s exactly what I did quite quickly after purchasing it! Let’s not postpone it any longer since I can bet you are also highly curious, so time to dive in!
Yoku’s Island Express was the debut game of Swedish indie studio Villa Gorilla, founded by Jens Andersson and Mattias Snygg in 2013. Their goal is to create beautiful and innovative games, having experience from working together at Starbreeze on titles such as The Darkness, but also being veterans elsewhere in the industry such as LucasArts and freelance work at the bigger companies like Electronic Arts. Yoku’s Island Express uses the studios’ own engine, with the focus to create something that you would not see from AAA companies. This is also shown in the theme, taking inspiration from Studio Ghibli films with the driving motivation comparable to a young child discovering something like a secret garden, full of mysterious stuff. The game has been nominated multiple times for awards, of which is also won several including the ”Family game” at the National Academy of Video Game Trade Reviewers Awards and the ”Debut game” at the National Academy of Video Game Trade Reviewers Awards. No future plans have yet been announced from the studio, but I’m looking forward to what more we will see!
There is something that I can say instantly from opening the game, and that is how truly awesome the atmosphere is. The music, graphics and theme all feel like I’m on a faraway island only inhabited by animals, and it’s something that persists throughout the entire game. I honestly would compare this to a quality Pixar movie and if they ever decide to make an animated movie out of this game, I would be the first to watch it. Unless there are more die-hard fans out there than me which means I have to fight hard to be the first.
We are introduced to the main protagonist Yoku right away, who is… a dung beetle! No no, don’t leave yet, this dung beetle is special! Normally having a dung beetle of all insects as the main protagonist would be far down the list of potential candidates, but Yoku is adorable and I will not hear otherwise. That, and we won’t be seeing any dung throughout the game because Yoku’s trusted ally is a white pinball! …That can be coloured like a dung ball optionally but let’s not do that and just turn it into a strawberry instead.
Normally having a dung beetle of all insects as the main protagonist would be far down the list of potential candidates, but Yoku is adorable and I will not hear otherwise.
This is a pretty brilliant idea though because unless the ball is sentient or possessed by a ghost, it wouldn’t be able to move on its own when there are no flippers around. After all, it is not like the entire island is a pinball table, but an island that has pinball challenges. There are a lot of horizontal planes, so it would be weird to see a ball just rolling around like no one else’s business. And Yoku apparently has no problem with being pinballed around everywhere so good on him!
But of course, neither the pinball nor Yoku can jump. He already is close to being a god of the dung beetle variety with all his skills; we can’t give him too much power. Just a bit further from where you start, it shows how this is handled: flippers and bumpers! These usually have to be unlocked with the main currency fruits, but they are literally everywhere so that won’t be too much of a problem. My wallet has been full at all times, making me beg for wallet upgrades… just to have it full again after a short amount of time, repeating the cycle all over again.
Fruits are especially easy to get in the pinball sections, and here I’m gonna try and explain how the pinball gameplay is integrated into the world of Yoku’s Island Express. This game is one-of-a-kind after all, and I only have a few pictures and my own words to describe how it works.
It was already shown at the start a bit, but your normal movement is rolling around and that works perfectly fine, with bumpers getting you up vertically. After reaching a sea eel with a flower on his nose who is the equivalent of a prehistoric Gandalf, you have to traverse up to get him some food before he allows you to pass. Make sure to poison it by the way (which you actually can depending on your sense for secrets). Anyhow, this is where the pinballing truly starts. Pinball sections are usually placed between where you currently are and your destination, with multiple sections connecting between each other until you reach the end.
There’s not really a lot to say about the pinball gameplay itself since well… it’s pinball. Position yourself on either of the flippers and shoot yourself in a direction depending on where you are placed on the flipper. Go into specific ramps and gates to gain lots of fruits and… that’s about it. The main difference is that, since this is an adventure game, there is not just one or a few tables to play pinball on. Every pinball section is uniquely shaped with different objectives, bonus categories and everything else.
The other major difference is that Yoku does not have a health bar, and there is no life system of course due to the nature of the game. Therefore, there is no sense of dread since you can’t get a game over like you would in a normal pinball game. You do lose a minimal amount of fruits as a penalty when falling through the thorns in the middle, but fruits are very easy to get so this should pose no problem unless you just really can’t survive in pinball for a single second. Maybe you should play a different game in that case. Since the penalty for failure in pinball is minimal and there exist no enemies to fight either, this does make Yoku’s Island Express a very, very easy game. I have absolutely no issue with this as the pinball- and Metroidvania gameplay themselves more than make up for it, but it’s something that I have to mention regardless.
Since the penalty for failure in pinball is minimal and there exist no enemies to fight either, this does make Yoku’s Island Express a very, very easy game.
Oh yeah, Metroidvania! Let’s actually talk about that part. There is one destination that you have to reach right from the get-go and that’s the main village. It’s a short trip up there and upon arrival, the whole game opens up for you. There are three major objectives in new territories, and you can do them in any order! This is definitely one of the strong points of the game as it is unlikely that you will go through the game using the same route multiple times. But how exactly does the game make this work?
Yoku has a few upgrades that he gets before going to the village, which include the Noisemaker that makes a delicious spammable TOOT TOOT sound and is mostly used to break soft blocks, and the Slug Vacuum 9000 that sucks up… explosive slugs? For whatever reason, the pinball now becomes a bomb that can be used to break hard blocks as well as functioning as a platforming tool. Don’t ask me how this works; just accept. I have given up my sanity long ago. Two other upgrades, the whip leash and the divefish that allows Yoku to dive, are only required in their own territory for the main progression. So you can technically go anywhere without needing to worry that you don’t have an upgrade available, unless you’re a completionist of course.
Yoku’s Island Express is very laidback in that regard as you can beat the game pretty easily by just focussing on the main objectives. But of course, just beating a game does not exist in my vocabulary and Yoku certainly delivers on the optional side content. The leash and divefish unlock quite a lot of the world to the point it easily doubles the length of the game. There are skins for the ball, and specific combinations of skins are also requirements to enter some areas. And let us not forget that Yoku’s occupation is a postman, so there’s a lot of mail to deliver around the island! Finding all the optional content won’t be too much of a problem either since the map works very well, with the entire island being displayed on it and the ability to zoom in anywhere. And of course, there are optional items that point you in the direction of collectables.
Due to there being no combat involved and all upgrades being handed to you pretty quickly, this does mean that all of the optional side content doesn’t necessarily make Yoku grow as a playable character. Most of the optional items you can get either upgrade already existing items, or increase the limit of the wallet. I can’t say any of those upgrades were really noticeable to me except for the ones that make Yoku faster, so completion feels more like something you would like to do just because you enjoy doing so.
I feel like I’m mostly being nitpicky now with mentioning a few negatives because honestly… I had a ton of fun with Yoku’s Island Express. It was absolutely no problem for me that I didn’t get any major upgrades anymore because exploring this island already was satisfying enough. It is packed with content, and the island is easy to move through with beelines all throughout the map that connect to the main hub, with multiple ”stations” to drop from. There’s a good amount of shortcuts to unlock as well, making areas even more accessible. This interconnected island is definitely one that will stay with me, both for the atmosphere and the enjoyment of exploration.
While combining two completely different genres into one sounds like a hefty task, development studio Villa Gorilla have done an excellent job at bringing this beautiful project to life. And let me put an emphasis on beautiful here because boy, do I love how much charm this game has when it comes to graphics and the soundtrack to make it truly feel like I’m on a mysterious island. The island was very fun to explore as well, giving the player freedom to go wherever they want to with only the optional side-content requiring specific upgrades. That said, I must also admit that there isn’t much motivation to go exploring besides your own desire, which was high for me due to how easy it was for me to travel everywhere but I can also understand that people looking for character improvement will be slightly disappointed. The pinball gameplay was very enjoyable for me and integrated well into the world. The only real loss here is that there is almost no difficulty attached to the pinball gameplay because you don’t lose anything upon failure aside from a few fruits that are very easy to collect, but the different amount of objectives and layouts of the ”pinball tables” compensate for it very well.
- Very unique blend of genres that works surprisingly well.
- Highly charming with the presentation.
- Very fun to explore, giving you the freedom to go wherever you wish very quickly.
- Exploration is fueled mostly by own desire due to Yoku not improving over the course of the game.
- Very easy due to there being no penalty for failure.
Thank you for reading! I hope I emphasised it enough in the review, but Yoku’s Island Express was a lot of fun for me. The fact that I was in the mood to play a randomizer run right after and still had a lot of fun with that as well should probably say enough, and I will definitely do more randomizer runs in the future as well. This game was a very pleasant surprise for me, and one that will stay with me for a long time.
The review train is not stopping yet, as we’ll be back with a review of Cosmic Star Heroine next time! Hope to see you then and have a great day!
What other genre do you think Pinball could work well with?
I’m going for an answer that’s probably obvious, but I’d say an RPG where the battle system and/or movement uses the pinball gameplay. Sorry for robbing that easy answer but hey, RPG works with almost anything after all. They can even make the ball sentient or turn it into a ball-like creature or something. Though funnily enough, a Pinball-Shmup hybrid would also be something I’d like to see someday.