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Yoku's Island Express: a Pinball Metroidvania


If you’ve ever wanted to play as a dung beetle postman on a small tropical island, bouncing your dung ball up and down while traveling from mailbox to mailbox, here’s your chance. That sounds great, and the alluring premise of the term metroidvania slapped on it sounds even more promising.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite hold up to that promise.

The problem isn’t the lackluster metroidvania mechanics, but the core of the game itself: Yoku’s Island Express is first and foremost a pinball game. With pinball comes a certain amount of randomness, difficult to maneuver pathways, trick shots, multi-balls, difficult to maneuver pathways—did I mention that already? In a metroidvania game, you’re often running around back and forth in the world map, revisiting pieces of the map that were previously inaccessible. In Yoku’s Island, that’s true as well. For instance, late in the game you can swim underwater. But the navigational component, that is heavily used in such a game, is the most mundane and frustrating aspect of the island.

Now how to reach that chest over there?
Now how to reach that chest over there?

In short, getting around is a pain in the ass. You can’t jump and have to rely on blue and orange platforms that act as bouncers or flippers and are operated by a simple flick of the ZL or ZR trigger. Getting out of a section or making haste towards another part of the map requires perfect pinball skills time and time again: taking a shot to move your ball across loops, edges, and so forth. After a while it gets very very very old to have to use those flippers to get where you want to go.

The fast travel system that is unlocked as you make progress doesn’t make things easier: there are too few stops to “hop on”, and by the time you enter the last portion of the game, a teleportation system can be unlocked—that was beyond the point that I cared about getting around town.

The design that makes Yoku’s Island Express unique is the creative combination of both genres—pinball and metroidvania. But in practice, it just doesn’t work well. I ended up wishing Yoku was just either the former or the latter instead, which is a shame, considering there’s a great deal of potential left unexplored.

Yoku faces four bosses along the quest, here's a particularly nasty spider thing.
Yoku faces four bosses along the quest, here's a particularly nasty spider thing.

As I kept fumbling about with my round heap of dung, frantically trying to go left inside some tunnel while my flipper kept on missing the small entry hole, I just wished the game to be over. And it is, sooner than you’d think, clocking in about five hours. The world map is very small (I guess it doesn’t say “express” for nothing), and contrary to other great metroidvanias, there’s little incentive to go back and revisit previous areas. The only thing you can unlock is another color for your ball, a rare root that given enough pieces unlocks another ending that I didn’t care for, and just more fruit.

Yes, you can “connect” areas by pushing away boulders or pressing buttons, making navigation a bit less painful, but those speedier exits were never really used, as the game ushers you towards a certain direction. I know I left a lot of secrets undiscovered so if you’re really digging the pinbally randomness, I guess there’s more to be seen on the island.

A zoomed out view of the waterfall valley using a telescope.
A zoomed out view of the waterfall valley using a telescope.

I might be exaggerating a bit here: Yoku’s Island is a pretty game with a chill vibe thanks to the tropical island, the mellow inhabitants, the fruit you collect, the absence of any real punishment when “losing” a ball, and the laid-back (but ultimately a bit bland) soundtrack by LucasArts veteran Jesse Harlin. Somehow the game scored 91% at OpenCritic, so everyone seems to love it, although TheSixthAxis seems to agree with my gripes:

Yoku’s Island Express is a beauteous, aurally delightful treat that riffs off the Metroidvania template and pinball tables in a smart and playful manner. It’s somewhat tempered by the dual frustrations of the pinball mechanic’s need for constant precision and a lacklustre fast-travel system that leaves you having to cover the same ground over and over, ultimately taking what could have been an amazing game, and making it a good one.

Perhaps it’s because the game is short that most reviewers think it’s good. Or perhaps it’s because most of ‘em haven’t played a great metroidvania before.

TSA continues:

Traversing the world with a clear objective in mind is a key problem, and one that Villa Gorilla has only partially solved. The convoluted set of pinball tracks and rollers, combined with a number of secret or hidden routes, means that getting from A to B is never all that simple, but that’s part of its charm while you’re simply exploring.

Frustration that’s part of a charm is still frustration.

There's some occasional chatter going on.
There's some occasional chatter going on.

Oh yes, the above screenshot proves there’s a story line involving the healing of a chieftain that was branded by an evil god-dragon. The healing process is… gathering three other tribal leaders and having them play a tune on their flute. The story isn’t exactly the thing that’s supposed to lure you in either.

I was torn between rating this 2/5 or 3/5, but then I remembered the amount of times I cursed while my ball missed yet another target. Yoku’s Island Express as a whole is a lovely intermission and a commendable experiment, but ultimately, for a metroidvania fan that’s not knee-deep into the pinball genre, a failed one.

Verdict: 2/5 —Mediocre.

Categorized under: Metroidvania

Me!

I'm Jefklak, a high-level Retro Gamer, and I love the sight of experience points on old and forgotten hardware. I sometimes convince others to join in on the nostalgic grind. Read more about The Codex here.

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