An open-world, pinball Metroidvania game? It’s not just a mouthful, it’s confusing to boot. Surely those words don’t go together when describing a genre? Yet that was the pitch indie developer Villa Gorilla and publisher Team 17 (of Worms fame) threw in our direction alongside a copy of Yoku’s Island Express.
But now we get it; now we’ve played it. And not only is the developer’s description accurate, but Villa Gorilla has turned the humble Metroidvania experience on its head to deliver something fresh, layered, and gorgeously rendered.
Yoku’s Island Express Gameplay is Solid
No doubt like us, you’ve long dreamed of experiencing life as a dung beetle, and Yoku’s Island Express finally gives you that chance. The titular Yoku arrives on the island of Mokumana ready to take over from a pterodactyl (naturally) as the new postie. Deliver the mail early, then put your feet up and soak in the rains of that warm tropical sun all afternoon. The good life!
Of course all is not as it seems. We quickly discover that the inhabitants of the island – a stunning mix of bizarre but charming personalities – are under threat from some ancient beast. As well as attacking the god-like beings that bring harmony to the island’s nature, this beast is impacting the climate’s weather. Rain, snowstorms, earthquakes, and more are unsettling the balance.
As plots go, it’s borderline cliché for the platformer/Metroidvania genre. However, in practice it’s far more compelling than what you might expect from a Yoshi’s Island or a Kirby. Told through simple text, delivered by the world’s odd array of characters, you’re lured into the experience sublimely. Soon multiple objectives dot your giant map, with huge distances shrouded in cloud waiting to be discovered.
Only minutes into the game, everything just makes sense. There is a symbiotic relationship between the mission structure and the environment that gives off this Avatar-like “one with nature” vibe. We’re hugging trees just thinking about it.
No Combat? That’s a Paddlin’
In Yoku’s Island Express you’re not really armed as much as burdened. A ball is attached to our heroic little dung beetle, and it must drag it along wherever it goes. Our hero can’t jump, and can’t attack. In fact, all it has as it starts off on its journey is a party horn that tweets and shoots streamers.
The main tool here is the paddles, or flippers depending on your pinball lingo. The world is covered in them. And bumpers, too. Just like the traditional, old-school pinball machines, you control the left and right paddles separately. As our dung beetle moves over a paddle, you hit the required trigger to whack the ball he is attached to, shooting him to a new location.
You can move left and right like a traditional platformer, seeking out hidden areas, collecting fruit and other objects, and unlocking chests. But to get anywhere significant, you need to use these paddles. Rather than rooms or caves like traditional Metroidvania experiences, in Yoku’s Island Express you shift between areas that feel like independent pinball tables.
So you time your paddle whacks to aim and shoot your dung beetle towards new routes, into collectables, or against obstacles to bust them open. Often you need to use bumpers and other classic pinball features – like metal rails or cannons that trap your ball and shoot it out at speed – to puzzle your way through to something you want.
There will often be mini-objectives in these areas, too, where you may have to collect a certain number of objects to open up the next passage.
You can’t die in Yoku’s Island Express in the traditional sense. If you fall through the bottom paddles in these areas, you hit thorns that rob you of a portion of your collected fruit. Fruit is primarily used to unlock paddles, giving you access to new areas.
You certainly wouldn’t call Yoku’s Island Express a hard game. However, finding enough fruit to unlock a paddle can require some lateral thinking. As does remembering the pinball route back through the island to return to an area armed with the new ability you need to reach unexplored territory.
If this sounds complicated, it really isn’t in practice. It’s very literally a pinball machine platformer. And it works brilliantly. Dusting off those old pinball skills and using them to navigate through the giant, open island world is thrilling in its novelty. You’ll continue to find yourself saying, “wow, that was really cool.”
One Big, Inviting World
The rich colour palette reminds us of the Rayman games. But it feels more organic than that. The way the world moves and pulses with life, combined with a parallax effect and stunningly detailed backdrops filled with giant flowers and bizarre beasts is intoxicating. We’ve seen indies produce art design of this quality before – Leo’s Fortune and Trine spring to mind – and Villa Gorilla’s work is at the top of the pile.
We’d go as far as to say the level design itself is a work of art. More than just simple hallways, rooms, and doors puzzled together into a labyrinth, Yoku’s Island Express can rightfully call itself an open-world experience. The massive island seamlessly transitions between environment types. It’s a spider’s web of channels, hidden areas, collectables bumpers, paddles, and more.
How Villa Gorilla made all these disparate parts come together in a way that makes movement through the world never feel clunky is beyond impressive. If at any point the bumpers were placed slightly wrong, or the paddles didn’t behave as you’d expect, the game would just break.
Yet the end result feels like you’re on a giant, world-size pinball table where you can whack your way to anywhere, and then back again when you’ve unlocked or gathered what you need to find your way into a new area.
Indeed, like all good Metroidvania games, Yoku’s Island Express has carrots dangled everywhere. Constant reminders that you’ve got some game-changing abilities to be earned down the track.
Is Yoku’s Island Express Good?
If you hadn’t caught our drift to this point, we’ll make it clear – Yoku’s Island Express is a gem. Villa Gorilla knocks it out of the park with its debut game, proving there’s still plenty of room for innovation in old-school genres.
Wonderfully orchestrated platforming that sizzles with its charm and creativeness. Sure, its borrowing from a number of different sources, but Villa Gorilla’s game is more than the sum of its parts. And now we not only know what an open-world pinball Metroidvania game is; we know it’s a great way to play.
Yoku’s Island Express is out today on PC, XBO, PS4 and Switch.