Perhaps it’s a bit of a cop out to call Yoku’s Island Express a hidden gem. After all, it received a decent amount of attention on release last year. It was reviewed(mostly favorably) by several major publication, sold decently, and was even an Epic free giveaway at some point. However, I do think it was perhaps mislabeled in some ways.
From every single review, preview, article or video I had read or watched, I got the impression that Yoku’s Island Express was a kids game, something relaxing, simple and inoffensive. And it is certainly child friendly in many ways. Indeed, it would serve well as someone younger’s first introduction to platformers. The controls are easy to understand, the difficulty curve is very generous, there’s no death or fail states(although you can occasionally get stuck in some places, I don’t believe it’s possible to get permanently trapped), and it provides an overall very leisurely experience. Overall, it’s probably among the most relaxing games I have played in the last few years. But it is also a bit more. Beneath the Saturday Morning charms and whimsy, there is a constant undercurrent of darkness, reminiscent at times of Ori and the Blind Forest.
The one thing you instantly notice when you start the game is it’s extremely colorful and vibrant art style. The art direction obviously owes quite a bit to the aforementioned Ori and the Blind Forest, although it also takes a few cues from some classic 90s platformers. The characters are cute and imaginative, the backgrounds are lovingly rendered and detailed, and the map is very diverse, with 3 or 4 distinct biomes. The music, while rarely standing out on it’s own(with a couple of notable exceptions in the later half of the game), brilliantly compliments the visuals as well.
While at first glance, Yoku’s Island Express doesn’t really seem like the kind of game to have more than a perfunctory story, the main narrative is surprisingly involved and high stakes. I don’t want to spoil too much here, but this probably seems like the last game where you’d expect to fight something called “The God-slayer”. While the occasional hints of darkness in the art style blend beautifully with the rest of the game world, as far as the game’s narrative is concerned, things are a bit more disjointed. Although both parts of the story are well done individually, sometimes it does make you wonder why exactly the developers decided to insert a dark fantasy plot in the middle of a game about a dung beetle postman delivering packages with the power of pinball.
Much like the story and tone, the gameplay’s simplicity is also occasionally deceptive. In classic Metroidvania fashion, progressing through the game unlocks various items which can be used to access previously locked areas, and make your way in a non-linear fashion through the titular island’s surprisingly intricate layout. At a certain point, the levels stop resembling the pinball machines they were modeled on and slowly morph into an intricate maze of moving parts, akin to a Rube Goldberg machine. Much like any veteran of the genre would expect, seemingly simple tools you had learned to use on their own are capable of some pretty cool things when used together. In the later stages of the game, traversal becomes so much more than the simple act of hitting paddles and bouncing off various objects, with grappling hooks and exploding snails adding some much needed variety to the increasingly complex arenas.
It’s at this point where the game reveals it’s true colors, and everything suddenly starts making sense: Yoku’s Island Express is in fact more of a puzzle game, cleverly disguised as a Pinball-themed platformer. It’s not challenging to your reflexes or coordination because it’s much more about figuring the solution to a certain puzzle, rather than applying said solution. It just takes a while to get going. And when it does finally get going, well, it stops short of reaching the heights of Portal in terms of inventiveness and imagination, but comes a lot closer than a lot of other, more “serious” games. That’s not to say that it isn’t still a casual experience, however. There’s no Sierra-style oblique logic or convoluted multi-step problems to be found here.
If it seems like I’m heaping a lot of praise on a game with very modest ambitions, well, that’s because I really see the potential in what very promising first time developers Villa Gorilla have made here, even if that potential is not fully realized. It really does seem like perhaps they lacked some faith in the strength of the core mechanics, or their audience. Even if the intended audience is children, I don’t think they would be so bewildered by the concept of of pinball that the game needs to dedicate half it’s runtime to just familiarizing them with the core mechanic before introducing anything new. And even if some things they threw out in the later stages ended up not working(turns out boss battles aren’t exactly thrilling when your main character is functionally invulnerable), I would have still liked to see what more they could have done with the concept. It’s a bit of a let down that after throwing out a couple of amazing set pieces in the final act, Yoku’s Island Express just sort of ends just as soon as seems to get going.
Yoku’s Island Express is fun, inventive and occasionally thrilling. Above all, it’s a very relaxing experience. Although it has a few moments of brilliance, and it’s reputation as a very casual and childish game is perhaps not entirely deserved, it falls a bit short of it’s potential, even if it far exceeded my initial expectations.
Final Grade: 8/10