We've been pinballing our way through Villa Gorilla's charming island adventure.
Yoku's Island Express is an indie metroidvania pinball puzzle platforming adventure in which you control a dung beetle, who is also a postman, who finds himself tasked with saving the mysterious Mokumana Island from a god-slaying monster. Intrigued yet? We were. Developed by debutants Villa Gorilla and published by Team 17 of Worms fame, this peculiar cocktail of game design is a charming blast of fresh air, and while it isn't perfect it did give us several hours of fun.
The quality of the visual design goes a long way to making Yoku's Island Express more than just an experiment in genre-blending. The world feels distinct, colourful and imaginative. Various creatures inhabit the Mokumana Island and all of them have a slightly cutesy otherworldly aesthetic. Think Studio Ghibli at its peak and you'll have some idea of what the devs were going for.
Many character designs are lifted from the aforementioned animation studio's back-catalogue. For instance, the googly-eyed soot monsters reminded us of Spirited Away, while the collectable Wikerling roots share a striking resemblance to the forest spirits of Princess Mononoke.
There are also giant snakes, shadowy yet adorable pocket-sized ninjas, and happy-go-lucky (yet quite demanding) mushrooms to meet.
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The soundtrack deserves praise as part of an accomplished and well-rounded audio presentation. The overarching theme is a blend of tropical island and gentle Africanesque drums and strings that wouldn't be amiss in Disney's Moana or Lion King. It's a pleasant listen, then, and easy to bop your head to and tenser moments are suitably enhanced with more ominous overtures.
You may have noticed a theme here. Ghibli and Disney are obvious reference points and there is good reason for that. Nothing in the game is too violent or offensive for junior gamers and we believe it would be a very enjoyable experience for that market. That's not to say Yoku's Island Express is a kid's game, as there is plenty for adults to appreciate as well. However, in terms of overall presentation, it does seem that the pre-teen and children's market was very much in Villa Gorilla's thoughts.
Players come face-to-face with local inhabitants and various challenges as they traverse through every open-area and dark corner of the island. Being a metroidvania there is plenty to explore in a relatively compact play-area. To complete the campaign, it is necessary to head deep underground, delve underwater, and even reach for the skies; all of which can be accessed at varying intervals depending on the player's choice of which challenges to focus on and in which order to do it.
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How can a dung-beetle traverse such a wide-ranging terrain? Obvious really. By firing off the many, many flappy paddles dotted around each area and hitting increasingly difficult shots in just the right way with just the right tools for the job at their disposal. How else would they?
Yoku, our beetle protagonist, has a ball tethered to his body at all times. This same ball is what allows him to be pinged from place-to-pace by the flippers and bumpers that are dotted around the landscape, which are intuitively activated by the corresponding buttons on both controller and keyboard.
The entertaining pinball-platforming combined with the liberty to negotiate landscapes and complete quests in the order of the player's choosing is Yoku's Island Express's trump card. This distinct method of traversal blends fast-paced action, precision timing and, occasionally, a bit of brain stretching.
Along the way, fruits need to be collected to unlock the fast travel 'bee-line' or release frozen bumpers that make further exploration of certain areas possible. There are a few upgrades to be grabbed as well. Some are purely cosmetic, like the ability to change the colour of the ball you push around. Others are necessary to progress such as increasing the size of the fruit wallet, a vacuum so you can grab exploding slugs or a fish-tail that grants the ability to dive underwater.
Yoku's Island Express is never too punishing and it's easy to keep track of what to do and where to go. A simple tap of a button zooms out to a map screen with every objective clearly labelled on it. The save points are quite frequent too. We appreciate that risk-taking is encouraged and how instinctual everything is. We were rarely unsure what we needed to do or how we were supposed to do it, but the game still managed to test our skills every now and then and never resorted to cheap tricks to up the difficulty factor.
Despite so many positives, there were still times when we found motivation a problem. Some story can be unearthed as you play and details about the island and its inhabitants can be discovered, but what's there is actually pretty thin. Additionally, almost every NPC asks for tasks to be completed without giving much incentive. We found this quite irksome; we are, after all, the postman. There's just not enough reason to form a meaningful connection with the island or its inhabitants. The only motivation to help is just to be good, kind and upstanding. We might be nit-picking, but we do feel that offering minor rewards and giving more sympathetic characters to interact with would have spurred us on a bit more.
We also found that the more we played the more repetitive the gameplay became. The pinball mechanic is great, but after playing for a while the lack of diversity and need for consistent accuracy starts to get a bit tiresome. In some moments it is necessary to pull off the same challenging shot numerous times. At other times getting to a new objective requires repeating the same pinballing through areas that have already been conquered.
What faults we found in Yoku's Island Express are not nearly enough to stop us recommending it. Villa Gorilla's game is likely to prove fun for anyone who plays it, relaxing and enjoyable for the most part while also testing player skill just enough to keep things interesting. It might be a game more appealing to youngsters but grownups shouldn't be put off by the cute aesthetics; there is still plenty to get sunk into.