Tuesday, May 29

Review: Yoku's Island Express [Nintendo Switch eShop]


At times, even as much as I enjoy playing a wide variety of games, it does tend to feel like so many titles end up retreading familiar territory. That is one of the reasons I’m such a big fan of indie developers, since they tend to be a little more daring and willing to take chances on new ideas or combinations of gameplay that haven’t been experimented with before. One such combination of ideas is central to Yoku’s Island Express, which deftly mixes pinball with an adventure game. The result, though somewhat encumbered by the challenges with the pinball elements at times, is a charming, colorful, and thoroughly engaging experience.


In the game you’ll play as Yoku, and industrious little beetle who is pushing around a ball (let’s not discuss what this may then be) and who is charged a bit randomly with being the island’s new postmaster. In order to do this you’ll get your first checkpoint on the island map and immediately you’ll begin to get the idea that this is a big place. Of course, even just this first step will require that you complete a few quests along the way, and possibly get sidetracked a bit trying to track down treasure chests and some collectibles. Even as you progress and the full scope of what you need to try to do to help the island’s inhabitants becomes known you’ll find that secrets and goodies seem to be lurking everywhere, and that can either make for a ton of fun or some frustration depending on your approach.


In general, everything you need to accomplish is some riff on classic pinball mechanics. You’ll have flippers, bumpers, targets you can light up, and a pretty wide variety of surprises… including some clever boss battles. For the most part you’ll be rewarded in fruit for your efforts along the way, which act as the game’s currency and will allow you to either unlock special flippers that will allow you to go to new places, activate stations along the island Beeline fast travel system, or occasionally to purchase special things like maps that show where secrets on the island are hidden. When you’re trying to get through the game’s primary quest, tracking down each of the 3 island Elders, you’ll also acquire special items and abilities that will give you the power to do things like use special flowers essentially as grappling points or to be able to swim underwater. As you gain each new ability you’ll then tend to remember spots on the island where those would help you get to something new so, in particular, if you’re a completionist you can plan on backtracking through many areas a number of times to try to scour for every possible secret, and there are many.


Probably the greatest issue in the game, especially bearing in mind that there are quite a number of areas that you’ll need to move through more than once, is that traversal can be a chore at times. The first issue is that it can be hard to know where you need to go at times. Hitting the map can be helpful to show you active points you want to get to but even when you know where you want to go, figuring out how best to get there can be the next challenge. With so many routes that noodle around through the map it isn’t always obvious which combination of places you can go will get you somewhere. Later in the game the Beeline travel system can be extremely helpful for minimizing this problem but earlier on in the game it can be aggravating. This is mostly because of the last issue, and that’s the need to still execute some of the sequences and shots to get yourself into the right spot. Some way that would kick in an auto-trigger system or a simple bypass would have been nice in these sorts of moments since they’re obviously no longer fresh and fun when you’ve already done them.


All said, Yoku’s Island Express is a breath of fresh and creative air on the Switch and just what this jaded gamer needed to get out of a pretty serious “more of the same” funk. As a life-long fan of pinball I’m thrilled with the result and enjoyed the many ways mechanical concepts from physical machines managed to get integrated into this adventure-style format. Even if you’re more of a pinball novice, in general the controls are pretty friendly and approachable, you’ll just need to develop a sense of timing and pay attention to certain patterns to determine what you’ll need to do to progress. If you’re down for something with boatloads of charm and heart mixed with a style of play you’ve likely never experienced before it is well worth picking up.

Score: 8.5

Pros:
  • Looks and sounds fabulous (the soundtrack is wonderful)
  • A fascinating mix of mechanics and elements of pinball mixed with an adventure game full of quests and hidden secrets
  • Even once the main quest is completed there’s still plenty to discover, with a major secret of the island enticing you to 100% it

Cons:
  • If you’ve traditionally struggled to enjoy pinball due to a poor sense of timing this may well aggravate more than entertain
  • Getting around and knowing what to do, especially earlier on, can be aggravating