An open world pinball adventure - why haven't we seen a concept like Yoku's Island Express before? We stopped by the offices of Villa Gorilla in Stockholm to learn more about the recently announced game from the small development team, and see what this interesting concept was about.
At first glance you might compare Yoku's Island Express to a game like Sonic Spinball on the Mega Drive, and there's some truth to that, but unlike Sonic Spinball, Yoku's Island Express opens up more and offers a Metroidvania-like structure as you unlock abilities (such as a multi-ball ability, as it's a pinball game after all), allowing you to reach new areas and secrets.
"The game is a 2D Metroid slash open world pinball game," explains Villa Gorilla co-founder and designer/programmer Jens Andersson. "You control Yoku, the dungle beetle, and you also control the flippers throughout the island. So we sort of mix these kind of elements seamlessly to create interesting gameplay."
But let's start from the top. Yoku, who's something as fascinating as a dung beetle, arrives on Mokumana Island to take over as the new postmaster, but it turns out this seemingly sweet gig on a tropical island isn't all umbrella drinks and beach volleyball. An earthquake rocks the island as he arrives, for instance, and something malicious is hiding beneath the surface - an island God is apparently angered. It's therefore time to put that dung ball to good use and fling yourself all over the place in search of the truth.
"We talked about creatures that could be rolled up into a ball, that's been done in a few games," says Andersson of the decision to make a dung beetle the main character. "But the dung beetle really fits, apart from the obvious poop jokes, it fits what we wanted to do in terms of scale with the island and in terms of the fantasy themes of the island."
Not only is Yoku the smallest creature on the island, but he's also literally tied to his dung ball with a string. In fact, he even lives in the ball, something that's part of this particular fiction. Plenty of games these days offer Metroidvania style progression, and while the game wasn't first thought up as an open world, non-linear experience, that's where it wound up. On the flipside, while the game offers pinball mechanics, there aren't typical pinball reward systems such as high-scores to chase.
On the topic of what there is to do, Andersson explains there's "plenty of exploration, of secrets, of optional areas that you can do, lots of stuff to do for completionists. And then there is this overlying story about the island, what it is and this island God, what's wrong with it and all the people living here, big and small."
Villa Gorilla was founded three years ago by Swedish industry veterans Jens Andersson (Starbreeze, Lucasarts, Collecting Smiles) and Mattias Snygg (Starbreeze), and a number of years ago they worked together at leading roles at Starbreeze Studios where they contributed to titles like The Chronicles of Riddick and The Darkness. Snygg also served as narrative director on 2012's Syndicate. They were later joined by level designer Linus Larsson, and even later by art intern Johanna Stålberg, and these now make up the entirety of the team (music and sound is done by freelancers), the idea being to have a small and agile team that works with quick iterations.