Yoku the dung beetle only signed up to take care of the mail, but instead he was handed a pinball adventure on a tropical island.
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."
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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.
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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.
Circling back to Yoku's Island Express specifically, the demo we got to try ran for about 15 minutes from the start of the game, and gave a fairly linear impression, something that's not true of the game as a whole, but serves as an introduction as it takes you from one pinball room to the next as you try and make your way past various obstacles. It's a fairly forgiving experience, as the player isn't necessarilly punished for missing a shot, but there's still skill involved when you try to line up shots, grab all the fruits, and progress smoothly, something that should appeal to speedrunners, as a clean run through the game will require both great knowledge and skill. The latter comes into play as you're also able to control the beetle (sort of like you were able to control Sonic in Sonic Spinball), something that can allow players to optimise playthroughs with small tweaks of the beetle to quickly line up shots as they trim seconds off their times.
"One thing that you learn very quickly working with pinball as a means of navigating is how little control you have compared to a normal platforming [game]," says level designer Linus Larsson. "So creating levels where you can get where you want to go and reducing the penalty for when you don't go where you intended to go has been a big challenge. And tackling that is really the big obstacle to overcome."
Andersson also had this to add on the subject: "One of our early design goals was missing a shot should be fun as well. So it's about finding interesting ways for the gameplay to uncover [this] both for skillful and less skillful players."
Upon visiting Villa Gorilla we quickly spotted a map of the island with various things noted on it including larger red dots, as we asked whether these were boss fights. "We don't like to call them boss encounters," says Larsson, "but these encounters with larger, more action-packed creatures, where sometimes you're supposed to defeat someone, sometimes you're supposed to help someone, sometimes you're escaping from something. And of course these do appear a lot like platforming boss like characters in terms of size and stuff. But you probably won't be seeing any Super Mario style boss battles."
The art style that Villa Gorilla co-founder Mattias Snygg is chiefly responsible for is said to be inspired by the likes of Studio Ghibli and offers a fairly soft painterly look. At first glance you may not notice the fine details that have gone into it, but the more you look at it the more it comes across.
One thing that stood out with the announcement of the game the other week was the fact that it was confirmed for release not just on the usual trio of platforms consisting of PC, PS4, and Xbox One, but that it's also coming to Nintendo Switch. But while the game has been approved for development on Switch, the current focus has been on getting the game together rather than focus on individual platforms. Nothing has been decided in terms of taking advantage of things like the HD Rumble for example, which seems like a great feature to harness given the pinball mechanics. Andersson, who does the programming, did note that the game, which runs on a proprietary engine (for no other reason than the fact that he likes it that way), isn't a "resource hog," and should have no problems running on a less powerful console.
While we only got a brief taste of what Yoku's Island Express offers thanks to the demo (the same demo was playable at Microsoft's ID@Xbox Lobby Bar during GDC), the concept as such intrigues and it feels like a great fit on the go with Nintendo Switch as well. And you can't go wrong with poop jokes, can you?