Hours spent invested in 1994’s Psycho Pinball on my family’s old PC; a child-like fascination with a TV ad that was there purely to sell kids yogurt but had one of the most elaborate pinball machines ever created; the infamous Space Cadet game which was often a staple of any Windows OS and was played far more than Solitaire could ever dream of. Needless to say, pinball — and its many licensed variations — had struck quite a chord with yours truly from a young age and only really beginning to subside at around the adolescent point. Momentarily returning, albeit in that usual nostalgia-reminiscent poignancy, that so often has gifted many a smaller/independent studio with enough public interest for their own ideas to take center stage and in some cases, prosper into delightful, enjoyable outings.
But even if you lack the personal history and fascination with one of arcade’s most prominent (and vampiric in the case of those many coins you held) past-times, Stockholm-based, Swedish developer Villa Gorilla were always going to have many an eye cast upon their own platformer entrant. An open world, pinball adventure game, as the studio describes it, by the name of Yoku’s Island Express. For sure, smaller studios always tend to appear open (or at least more open) to the idea of novelty and quirkiness, be that relating to the gameplay mechanics, world, narrative or overall aesthetic. For a game that has you play as a dung beetle — a newly-appointed postman for an island of eclectic beings of both animalistic and plant-like variety, lest we forget — Villa Gorilla are ticking all the required, charismatic boxes. And with an art-style that resembles the soft, pastoral, hand-drawn/hand-painted illustrations of old children’s stories, Yoku’s Island Express may not have the grand, brash personality of something like Cuphead, but as I discovered on a recent trip to London to go hands-on with the game, what it does have, above all else, is a winning formula.
So you might be asking: OK, but how does pinball actually factor into the established forte that a “platformer” usually entails? Does it impede on the idea of platforming itself, given the very nature of pinball, has you crazily (perhaps randomly) flung from one position to the next all the while making sure to time that flick of a flipper or two so as to have the ball go down the right track or hit the correct node? Yoku carries these main gameplay loops when it comes to traversing the world itself, yet still comes across as methodical and with clear purpose at the same time. Rather than jumping or hopping to and fro, the titular dung beetle together with his trustee ball make use of the very many bounce pads and flippers that populate the island. Executed with a simple tap of either shoulder button, depending on the designated color, Yoku’s Island Express puts the very challenge of platforming — of getting from A to B, on reaching your end point some countless floors above you — back to the forefront.
Yoku himself isn’t necessarily powerful or born with a platforming-aided ability, meaning that one of the main challenges that underscores most of the run-time, lies in mastering elements like momentum and in-game physics so as to get through perhaps a particular region of the map where the routes in and out are obvious, but fortunately, hide a much more challenging (and at times sinister) curve of difficulty. There are momentary obstructions to clear at points — boulders to smash, gates that require a certain number of glowing orbs, objects that can only be destroyed by an indirect use of an enemy. Not all of the solutions (albeit those I found during the opening hour) are as easy to deduce or work out; a member of the development team, whom was sat nearby, having to indicate that one particular device requires you to hit it a certain number of times in a constant loop. Thus, to offer some balance, there are unfortunately the momentary occasions where an inevitable dead end hits you in the face with no clear route to progress in sight.
But the accompaniment to that — and one that helps initial opinion fall comfortably into that of optimism — is that, as an open world game, you’re free to explore the island with the main quest route seldom forcing itself as an immediate priority. And this, as a result, means the game is free to invite a more organic sense of discovery and exploration as you curiously tumble into another cave or lake or mere section of the overworld and curiously wonder what would happen if you use this flipper or this bumper…as opposed to that flipper or that bumper. Some will jettison you to a far-away corner, some will merely let you leap to a higher part of the map. Not all devices can be used at first go, however, and it’s here where the supposed currency of Yoku’s Island Express, the collectible fruit items, come into play.
Though there are upgrades and tools to acquire that will allow you to expand your travels, the main bulk of the Metroidvania-inspired progression lies in the ability to spend your allotted fruit on unlocking additional flippers or bounce pads — in turn granting you access to even more tucked-away sections of the world. Some of course are critical to the story, but even when you find yourself low on currency, the added ease in collecting and racking up a sufficient amount of fruit, means players will rarely struggle to pay the required toll so to speak. And with the aforementioned freedom to explore and branching paths that always carry an enticing curiosity to their potential end point — without even mentioning the side-quests that characters can give you, as well as the option to upgrade your “ball” along the way — the further in you progress, the clearer it becomes that Villa Gorilla have managed, successfully, to avoid the trap of focusing squarely on a gameplay mechanic’s novelty…and not on its implementation.
From what I’ve played of the game, Yoku’s Island Express is of course a wonderfully-orchestrated adventure-platformer full of brief but charming interactions. The highlight: helping a family of fungal spores
infect populate some nearby spots of land, subsequently lifting a smirk in what was a largely smile-induced introduction to the game. Above all else though, it’s a unique and inventive spin on the genre; there will likely be countless moments of repetition on not getting the trajectory or angle of shot right — seeing poor Yoku tumbling down all the way back to ground level to restart that particular sequence/segment all over again — Villa Gorilla appear to have found the treasured middle-ground where such things as challenge and difficulty get ingrained enough to master, but not frustrating to the point of putting you off entirely. There are few platformers at present that manage to encapsulate a sense of mastery as much discovery with its world’s very design and structure. From early impressions, Villa Gorilla are on course to deliver something special here. Yoku’s Island Express releases across PS4, Xbox One, Switch and PC on May 29.