'Yoku's Island Express': Game Review

Yoku's Island Express - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Team17 Group
Swedish game developer Villa Gorilla's first title is a brilliant mashup of pinball and action-adventure platforming.

It can be hard to summarize Swedish game developer Villa Gorilla's first title, Yoku's Island Express, but if there was one word to encapsulate the explorative action-adventure game that incorporates Studio Ghibli-inspired visuals with the classic gameplay of old-school pinball, it is this: inventive.

The new game — available for download on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC — is a mashup of genres from classic Metroidvania (a subgenre of action games inspired by Nintendo and Konami classics Metroid and Castlevania that emphasizes exploration in a semi-open-world setting) to platforming to, yes, pinball. The player controls a plucky little dung beetle named Yoku, deposited on the picturesque Mokumana Island, a land full of endearing, albeit often bizarre, characters and creatures.

Yoku has arrived at a moment of much consternation for the island's inhabitants as the towering protector of the tropical isle, Mokumana, has been attacked and put into a deep slumber. The intrepid beetle is also tasked with assuming the mantle of the island's postmaster, which has the player moving across the surprisingly vast world depositing letters in mailboxes and delivering colorful packages to even more colorful characters.

As a dung beetle, the player moves around with a large bauble of... well, dung. The hard-packed substance, while not entirely sanitary, does make for a truly unique and fundamentally satisfying gameplay mechanic, however, as players send Yoku bouncing up sheer cliffs, through impossibly tight corridors and down elaborate track systems as they explore every nook and cranny of the island in the quest to unite the island's elders, adhere to the postman's code and awaken the ancient island god.

As with games in the Metroidvania style, Yoku's Island Express drops the player in a massive open world. Many areas at the beginning of the game are off-limits until further gameplay opens up moves, tools and abilities that make more of the interconnected map accessible. The combination of exploration and pinball mechanics is a true joy, and neither gets old or feels overused. 

What ties it all together is the absolutely beautiful art design and the various, fully realized locales. From noxious pits to deep cavernous caves dripping with precipitation to rainbow-hued waterfalls, the island of Makumana is a gorgeous sight to behold and even more fun to explore.

Gameplay is fast paced and frenetic, but never overly frustrating. The incorporation of puzzles and quick-trigger controller manipulation while bouncing the adorable Yoku with pinball bumpers never gets old and feels genuinely satisfying when a new segment is cleared.

Under all the action is an impressive score with tracks so instantly catchy that players will no doubt find themselves whistling tunes hours after setting down the controller.

While the game's main narrative is short (a playthrough can be done in one long session or easily over the course of a weekend) there are enough extras and collectibles to attract postgame play for a number of additional hours. 

With exceptional level design, gameplay, music, visuals and charm (not to mention a $19.99 price point) Yoku's Island Express is a welcome addition to any gamer's library and should be applauded for taking an innovative leap in the platforming and Metroidvania genres. It also puts Villa Gorilla on a shortlist of indie developers to watch.