Yoku's Island Express hands-on
Platforming games aren’t hard to come by in today’s video game ecosystem, so it takes a truly unique idea to stand out from the crowd. Yoku’s Island Express, from small Swedish developer Villa Gorilla, decided to approach platforming by mixing it with the unlikeliest of elements: pinball. Not since Sonic Spinball on the Sega Genesis have these two genres meshed so well. With solid platforming and pinball elements that fit perfectly into the game’s world, Island Express could be a smash hit no one sees coming.
Players will take on the role of the titular Yoku, a dung beetle tasked with traveling to the distant Mokumana Island and relieving the resident postman of his duties. Upon arrival, he finds the island’s residents plagued by nightmares, the result of a godlike figure‘s restless slumber. As Yoku is a postman in beetle form, his creed of “neither rain nor sleet nor snow nor unending godly nightmares shall keep the postman from his appointed rounds” takes over and he decides to save the island from its woes.
Mokumana Island is a large place filled with things to explore, and Yoku’s Island Express allows players to do that in a Metroid-esque format. Along the way are tunnels and paths that will turn Yoku’s dung ball into the pinball needed to really get around, and the transition is as easy as walking into a pinball-based area in Sonic the Hedgehog. The pinball and platforming sections are seamlessly integrated into one another, most of the time one leads right into the other naturally with no loss of momentum, and seeing it in action is truly impressive. Yoku bounces along with his dung ball through the tunnels collecting fruit knocked loose from the “bumpers” in the world, which the player can use as currency to open paths and progress. It’s truly a novel approach to platforming, and it’s executed so effectively it’s a wonder other developers haven’t tried it before.
There were a few snags in the E3 demo, however, which might give some players pause before diving in. A few times I would get stuck in a pinball cavern at the mercy of the flippers, always shooting toward the platform I needed to advance but never landing on it. What started as a simple mistake soon bled into frustration as repeated attempts to get onto this platform failed me each time. Eventually I got Yoku to land where he needed to be, but the success seemed more random than earned even though many of the previous flips had been right on course. The lack of precise aim could derail the Yoku experience for less patient players expecting quick success, but luckily this only happened one time in a 15-minute demo so hopefully these trouble spots are few and far between.
Even at its most frustrating points, the graphics style of Yoku’s Island Express filled the screen with colorful beauty. The beaches and forests of this island paradise are beautifully drawn, hand-painted by the team at Villa Gorilla. The attention to detail is impressive, with trees swaying in the breeze and the ground moving and shifting below Yoku’s dung ball. Even the underground areas sporting darker, gloomier colors still pop with life, which is a good sign that every part of the main game will be as carefully and painstakingly crafted as this demo.
Yoku’s Island Express has likely flown under a lot of radars amidst the hustle and bustle of E3 2017, but overlooking it may prove to be a big mistake. The game’s pinball platforming is truly unique, putting a new spin on an established franchise. Some of the pinball moments aren’t as crisp as others, but careening through tunnels and shooting out into the wild is still a lot of fun. There’s still a bit of time to wait, but Yoku’s Island Express has the potential to be the next indie darling when it launches in 2018 on all major consoles and PC.