Review: Yoku’s Island Express

“What’s that you are playing?” I am asked frequently as I work through Yoku’s Island Express’s detailed world. “It looks like you’re a dung beetle.” Correct. Bit of a weird character for a game right? Think that’s weird, listen to this:

You play as You, a dung beetle who arrives on the island of Mokumana to relieve the Posterdactyl (a pterodactyl who is the local postmaster) of his duties. As new postmaster, you discover a few issues on the island and set about helping the locals solve their problems while delivering mail.

At this point, passers-by are hooked. It’s easy to see why. The single (large) world uncovers as you explore it, with new areas unlocking as new skills are learned, and it all looks stunning. Hand-painted, it looks like something out of the Ghibli studio. Care has been taken with all of the detail, creating an incredible looking environment to explore.

The soundtrack matches this, which whilst subtle never gets annoying and if I were to describe it in one word, it would be ‘lovely’. But what really raises eyebrows (in a good way) is as you move about, you encounter pinball flippers.

That’s right, pinball flippers. You see, Yoku’s Island Express is as much a platform game as it is a pinball game. Yoku’s ball – it’s not dung but it’s a ball – enables him to utilise the flippers to navigate the world. Left and right triggers control them, and sections play like classic pinball tables. I’m aware of pinball but not the terminology, so firing Yoku into different lanes, pockets, repeated triggers all give you different things and help progression within the ‘mini tables’ and the world. Story activities are linked with this too.

In one instance, you have to help divert steam by closing some valves. The way to do this is to fire Yoku into certain parts of the table to trigger combinations of valves opening and closing. Often awarded are fruit collectibles which serve as the game’s currency.

The currency is vital to collect, and often I found myself slightly panicked on what to spend it on. Thankfully, this is nothing to worry about – certain flippers have a ‘cost’ to unlock in the game, which opens up different parts of the level. Sometimes I wouldn’t have enough, so would dip into a mini table to earn some but usually I did, so not a problem. This is the only thing to spend on and it’s managed well – the option to buy or find bigger wallets later on is also helpful.

Yoku’s Island Express takes the ‘Metroidvania’ formula, which is essentially one giant world which unlocks over time. It’s clear from early on there are parts you cannot reach, and things like the ability to go under water are obvious – you just have to wait until this becomes available. I really liked the exploring elements, often I feel overwhelmed in games where there is no next clear linear objective, but I didn’t feel that with Yoku. As you zoom out to see the map, it’s clear how big the world is, and thankfully fast travel options open up a bit later as you play.

One thing I did have a few struggles with at points, was where I could see what I wanted or had to do, and lacked the pinball finesse to manage it. These moments were fairly few and far between, but it did make me feel a bit frustrated on a few occasions. You can’t die at least, and whilst having the pinball fall between the flippers on the tables just does a mini-reset of some progress, there are also ways to mitigate this (a helpful sidekick called ‘Kickback’ aids you at points).

Other than the main quests to solve, there are smaller puzzles – post boxes around the island need to be filled with mail, little tree people are to be found (and every 10 you can trigger a totem somewhere on the island) and there’s a few other hidden pieces which you see begin to complete via the closest the game comes to a cutscene…

I was surprised by Yoku’s Island Express. Not in that I enjoyed it – I was expecting to – but just how much I did, and how well the pinball element works. It looks and sounds great, is fun to play, the characters you encounter are funny (and the ambient voice noise is tailored so it doesn’t have Yooka-Laylee annoyance). It’s just a brilliant game, and a great one to play as the evenings are lighter now and the temperature increases – a breath of fresh air.

Reviewed on Xbox One

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