QCF: Yoku's Island Express

ith so many open-world adventures on the indie game market today, a majority of newer titles are now throwing all of their weight behind the craziest gimmick they can offer with their experience in hopes of finding a large enough of an audience that will praise it. While the experimentation hasn’t paid off every title, there is one new idea that has crossed expansive level-design into a territory that it has never been in before—pinball dynamics.

Villa Gorilla’s premier title explores the juxtaposition between side-scrolling platforming and a pinball table turned on its side in Yoku’s Island Express, a tale about a dung beetle who employs his spherical excrement as a means to bounce around and about through the obscure tropical arrangement of flippers and bumpers just so he could deliver some mail. In all honesty, the game is a lot weirder than that made it sound, but fortunately, it’s a whole lot more enjoyable too.

Yoku’s Island Express is novel in that the design of its explorative mechanics is aimed more at the journey more so than they are at the destination. Many of map’s branching paths are arranged like that of a Pinball board, with nearly every fork in the road containing a corresponding flipper that’s positioned to launch you down a number of routes. As players catch and slap their way through the overworld, they’ll come across sections that are more reminiscent of a tradition pinball course, complete with runways, drain, and bumper targets carrying objectives that need to be completed for the next area of the course to open for the postal insect.

The unique formula in Yoku’s Island Express works as well as it does because it doesn’t go overboard with its spin on Metroidvania; it brilliantly knows when tradeoff between wearing its Safari cap with its Wizard hat, and vice versa. The obstacles are by no means cerebral in their challenge because the difficulty doesn’t come from locating the objective, but chasing it instead, and this is where the quirky platforming hybrid embellishes upon its Pinball-half.

Yoku’s Island Express fences off certain portions of its tropical estate in two different ways. As you navigate with your bouncy poop in tow, the beetle will chance upon inactive bumpers or flippers that will have a toll that needs to be paid by the various fruit that’s collected throughout the quest. These, and many other routes will be blocked until Yoku coughs up enough citrus currency to open the up the path towards the next waypoint—but you not every road needs a fruity bribe to roll on. As is traditional with other Metroidvania contemporaries, the crawly hero will also acquire trinkets that will allow unique forms of traversal that flippers and bumpers won’t be able to account for, like a vacuum that can launch explosive slugs into rocky blockades, or fishy suit that will give Yoku the ability to dive underwater. Exploring is just so secondary to movement; for every gated off road that’s passed, there is a slew of other junctions that hold a bevy of other collectibles or side-quests that can easily lead players elsewhere, at a constant clip that rarely stops moving throughout the entire adventure.

These two very different gameplay styles surprisingly complement one another very well, and balance out the momentum at a brisk, yet challenging pace. Anytime I felt like my exploration of the stage had hit against a wall, I would suddenly stumble my way into a tunnel that would lead into a course that would not only commanded all of my attention; it occupied me for a good chunk of time as well. The biggest gripe that can be lobbied against this charmingly wacky romp is the fast travel mechanic it implements for those inevitable moments of back-tracking as it’s easily the sloppiest dynamic in the game. At certain junctions of the overworld there are “beeline stations” that the Mail bug can use to launch through a series of launch-points that will quickly get him over to certain spot on the map, and while it does make certain commutes a bit more convenient, their placement on the island is ultimately too infrequent to actually be useful.

To make matters more frustrating, it isn’t until you reach the very end of the game that these stations manage to intersect with one another, expanding the utility of their travel for the island. It isn’t until the adventure almost reaches its end that these points actually add something to your travel, making them less appealing than the slower, but appealingly denser off-beaten routes that can be taken to reach the same area.

In spite of this, Yoku’s Island Express delivers on all of the elements that make for an excellent Metroidvania experience that isn’t compromised by its pinball-centric approach; a memorable world that’s easy to familiarize with, travel through, and progress in. Anyone who’s craving their next open-world fix should definitely sink their teeth into this strange new title from Villa Gorilla, because as it stands now, Yoku’s Island Express is easily one of the best Metroidvania titles released in recent years.

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