Game: Yoku's Island Express
Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Genre: Metroidvania Pinball Platformer
Jens Andersson and Mattias Snygg founded Villa Gorilla in 2013 to create small and unique games, and with their debut game, Yoku’s Island Express, they’ve done just that. Yoku’s Island express is a Metroidvania pinball puzzle platformer bursting with charm and executed brilliantly.
The game follows an intrepid dung beetle named Yoku who has just arrived on the island of Mokumana where he will be taking on the role of postmaster for the now decrepit island express. He soon learns that the island god has been attacked and it’s up to him to deliver a summons to three important figures across the island so they can figure out who or what has caused the island god’s injury. Other than that there’s not much of a story.
There is some exposition later in the form of paintings on the wall of some ruins and an alternate ending for those who collect all of the "Wickerling" collectibles, but neither of these felt very substantial. It’s clear Yoku’s Island Express instead focuses on its gameplay and presentation to get you hooked.
The gameplay loop doesn’t stray too far from that of a standard Metroidvania. You’ll try to go in one direction, realize that you don’t have a certain ability and have to go in another direction, revisiting that area later. The “ability-walls” in the game are also very lenient, most of the time you’ll learn the new move you need to progress very close to where you got stuck, which I found to be a welcome change. For example, eventually you reach an underwater temple, but Yoku can’t dive to get in, nearby there’s a pond with “Divefish” which you can then equip to help you enter the ruins.
There are a number of collectibles to find and side missions to complete, none of these stray too far from "go here and get this" but they did help to make the island paradise of Mokumana a bit more lively and fleshed out. Due to the nature of the game, it was difficult to know when to do these side missions as a lot of the time they would send you back to familiar places, especially if you had already been exploring thoroughly.
With regards to the controls, you don’t really directly move Yoku but rather the ball he’s pushing, you can roll the ball from left to right with the thumbstick and that’s about it. However, and this is where the game comes into its own, there are pinball flippers generously scattered about Mokumana Island which are all controlled by the left and right triggers. You use these flippers to launch Yoku and his ball around the island to achieve his Postmaster goals. The Impact of the flippers and Yoku’s pinball is super satisfying and leveraging Yoku’s momentum to navigate the island was a joy.
Occasionally you’ll reach a more confined area with a fixed camera, two pinball flippers and a pit of thorns at the bottom of the screen. These “Rooms” resemble a more traditional pinball table and although most were well designed, a handful left me feeling frustrated and itching to get back to exploring where the game really shines, (However this could just be because I’m not great at pinball).
Yoku’s Island Express also had one of the most unique fast travel systems I've ever seen in a game. A series of bee-shaped cannons (creatively called the "bee-line") that’d launch Yoku along a mapped-out route of the island without really taking control away from the player. Although there were only certain specific “stops” where you could board a cannon, you could get off at any of them and this flexibility allowed you to reach previously unreachable areas. They ingeniously made fast travel it’s own game mechanic.
Due to the nature of Metroidvanias and the design of the mountainous island of Mokumana, you can sometimes fall off a cliff or down a hole and end up quite far away from where you were. This lead to a few times where I had to backtrack and find one of the few entry points onto the games fast-travel system. That said, shortcuts were constantly opening up so if you ever had to backtrack due to the main story you could do so very quickly.
During my time with the game, around 13 hours (I got 100% completion), there were impressively few bugs for such a small team and such an intricately designed open platforming island. it just worked. Occasionally the ball would get stuck on small obstacles and once or twice it fell through the geometry of the level, but this happened nowhere near enough to cause any sort of problem.
Yoku’s Island express is fantastically presented. The whole island is hand painted beautifully and there's no shortage of stunning backdrops and scenery. Yoku, although small, stands out amongst all this thanks to his charming animations. Whether the ball is being rolled through a cave or hurled through the skies Yoku will be visible, determined to get where he needs to be.
Even with all the handcrafted painterly background and foreground items, key items, such as the games currency (fruit), pop off the screen and never blend into the background. This makes collecting everything as easy as it is satisfying. Conversely, certain collectibles are much harder to spot but do appear on the map later in the game.
On top of all this the soundtrack is delightful and distinctive. With each song suitably matching the area, it was composed for, there are a couple that will stick in your head long after you’re done playing.
Villa Gorilla have made good on their promise to create small, unique innovative games and I can’t wait to see what they release next.