I feel I should start this review off by saying that I actually had no clue what Yoku’s Island Express was. The name sounded funky and the screenshot I saw made it seem like a pretty cute little indie game but gave me no indication of what the game would actually be like. To say I was surprised by the end result is fair. But was I pleasantly surprised, now that my friends, is what you’re about to find out…
So what’s the premise behind Yoku’s Island Express, I hear you cry? Well, prepare for a little headfuck, my friends. You play as the titular Yoku, a little beetle with a boulder for a friend. The first character you meet on Mokumana Island is the disgruntled postmaster who assumes that you’re there to take the postmaster mantle and without any real thought. It’s not actually explained whether this is the case, as Yoku never actually speaks, but he seems to roll (get it, because of the boulder) with it anyway, making his way to Mokumana Village. Upon arriving, Yoku learns of the ominously titled God Slayer. The God Slayer has branded the Islands protector. The only way to cure the brand, apparently, is to gather the three chiefs of the island and have a little musical jam.
Naturally, they’re all at different places on the island and as we’ve come to expect from our plucky little upstart, Yoku, the newly appointed postmaster is tasked with going to meet the chiefs and bringing them together. The first day on the job and already tasked with saving the Island. Yoku didn’t choose the gangster life, the gangster life chose Yoku.
So now we’ve set the scene. We’ve got our story premise. So let’s talk about the core gameplay of Yoku’s Island Express, shall we?
Take the exploration of a Metroidvania, combine it with Pinball and you’ve got the gameplay of Yoku’s Island Express. Reading that probably comes across as a shock, but trust me when I say that, for the most part, it actually works. As Yoku, you navigate around the open world by pushing along your trusty little boulder. Eventually, you’ll come across pads that, with a press of R2 and L2, will shoot you into the air. There’s weight to the ball too, which leads to you relying on the games funky physics.
I guess the physics is where a huge amount of my frustration with Yoku’s Island Express comes from. The sheer amount of times I rolled off an edge for seemingly random reasons took me from being mildly annoyed to be in an all-out rage. I wish I could put it down to my own incompetence and while that could explain some of it, trying to slowly roll off an edge to grab some fruit (which is the game’s currency)and being shot off a ledge with no real rhyme or reason isn’t down to me.
Some of the flipper sections in Yoku’s Island Express are equally hair pulling. If you’re not familiar with the way Pinball works, let me run it down for you. As the pinball (or Yoku and his boulder) roll down the flippers, you can choose to shoot them about to hit or trigger different things. Depending on how far down the flipper the ball is, depends on the angle it’ll be shot off at. Makes sense right? So with such a simple concept, why did this become my main gripe with the game? Probably because it felt massively inconsistent.
Maybe it’s just me and nobody had an actual issue with this apart from me. I’ll be honest, the last time I played a pinball game was back in High School, where you’d sneak on to the pinball game that came packaged in with Windows XP but fuck me if this wasn’t a massive annoyance. The number of times I was at the end of my tether playing Yoku’s Island Express is insane and it’s all because of this.
There’s a mechanic introduced early on in Yoku’s Island Express, where you can pick up exploding slugs that allow you to destroy boulders in your way. After picking up the slugs they have a little internal timer before they just blow up on you anyway, thus giving some sections a pseudo time limit. While that isn’t an issue on its own, the frustration comes from trying to fire yourself into a specific area to grab the slug, to then get over to the rock you need to blow up. Again it’s a simple idea, but the execution is either too loose or too tight. You end up with the feeling of “I literally just fucking did that and now it’s reacting differently”.
This feeling of “why doesn’t it work like I want it to” is only enhanced when you grab the ability to swing from plants. While I won’t explain how you get the ability, as it’s gained in the last quarter of the game, but the way you use the ability is fairly simple. When you’re close to certain flowers (and you’ll definitely have noticed them throughout the game) you’ll be able to swing around them. A concept that’s painfully simple, but it definitely falls short of it’s potential.
The issue arises as you have no control over your momentum, so sometimes you’re swinging around like a madman, while others have you swinging slowly. Later on, you have some fairly precise swings that you have to make to even progress, so you’re relying on something that feels terrible and seemingly random to make your way through the game.
Finishing the main story is more the metaphorical tip of the iceberg, as, during your time with Yoku’s Island Express, you’ll be picking up myriad sidequests. Sometimes you’ll be grabbing stuff you don’t even realize will lead to a sidequest. A prime example of this is when I picked up a lonely little spider, only to discover that I was meant to take him somewhere that he’d belong. It feels like a lot of the meat is put into this side content, as there were areas I hadn’t even explored by the time I finished Yoku’s Island Express.
Graphically, Yoku’s Island Express is actually very pretty. Its color palette is bright and varied. Objects animate in interesting ways and to a certain degree, you do get the sense that it’s a lived-in world and not just a series of areas strung together to give the player something to do. The mountains feel completely different from the desert and even the forest area that you start in. For a small indie title, it certainly does feel large.
So here lies my issue. Did I enjoy Yoku’s Island Express? I think for the most part it’s actually quite a fun little romp with the novelty of most of the movement being placed on pinball flippers being interesting if somewhat poorly executed in some sections. With a little more polish on the controls, I feel like we could’ve had something really special here, but it, unfortunately, falls more than a little flat because of the controls. Yoku’s Island Express is definitely a good game, but unfortunately, it feels like it could have been a great game.