Last year an indie metroidvania (Hollow Knight) crept into my GOTY list, beating out the likes of Super Mario Odyssey and Resident Evil VII. I shouldn’t feel surprised, then, that this year looks to repeat that upset. Yoku’s Island Express is a charming, inventive entry into a genre that all-too-often rests on the laurels of its formula. In that regard, Yoku’s Island Express refuses to play ball.
You play as Yoku, a tiny little dung beetle tethered to a pinball, as he lands on a remote tropical island to take over the duties as postman. Before long he discovers a nefarious plot to kill the island’s last remaining God, and accepts the task of bringing together the big-wigs of the island in an attempt to stop the God Eater from devouring his last snack.
It’s an endearing, Disney-like set up that sees you traipsing to all the far-flung, beautifully designed corners of the expansive map to recruit a colourful cast of characters and uncover dark secrets lurking below the island’s cutesy exterior.
It’s in its gameplay that Yoku’s Island Express really shifts things up, however. Instead of allowing your character to jump, Yoku’s momentum is entirely dictated by the trajectory of his accompanying pinball. By flicking them both around with conveniently placed paddles across the island, you’re able to fling our poop-obsessed protagonist to higher and higher planes, and even engage in some more traditional pinball-table challenges.
Whilst this would be a cute enough twist on platforming, Yoku further dilutes its gaming DNA with the stylings of the Metroidvania genre. By collecting stacks of fruit littered around the island you can unlock new paddles, gain bigger and better wallets, purchase treasure maps, and even acquire tons of new abilities. These allow you to backtrack to previously explored areas and further plumb their depths for more goodies. It’s an addictive formula, one made infinitely better by the fresh new movement mechanics.
There’s plenty to discover on the island, too, and across my adventure I constantly had two or three map markers that genuinely interested me – and my head was full of little nooks and crannies I hadn’t been able to reach, just waiting for the upgrade that would allow me to pilfer their rewards. It’s a full bodied game that I hadn’t expected when I first sat down with the title, but I was thrilled to be proven wrong on this occasion.
Yoku is also a fantastic looking game, with a beautiful, painterly 2D look that captures the tropical island in all its glory. There’s a depth to the visuals too, and a shifting, three dimensional perspective that belies the game’s otherwise flat look (without fully going for the 2.5D aesthetic) The denizens of the island are all interesting and quirky, and our little protagonist is brimming with life and personality through some simple yet effective animation.
The music didn’t blow me away, but it cast a nice auditory breeze across the proceedings. That lightly-flavoured Hawaiian soundtrack probably isn’t going to win any awards – indeed it blends into the background all too often – but it was pleasant enough. Yoku’s only way of interacting with the world – a birthday themed toot – quickly becomes obnoxious, and I could have done with something slightly less grating, but other than that the sound department doesn’t put a foot wrong.
“Yoku’s Island Express” really surprised me with how far it was able to take its pinball stylings and twist a massive, constantly enjoyable adventure out of this one trick. For any fans of the genre I would say Yoku is an absolute must buy: It’s bursting with neat ideas that will bring a huge grin to your face and boasts a heck of a lot of heart. Don’t sleep on this one.