Metroid-style platformers have become more common recently, which makes standing out from the pack a daunting task for new games in that style. Yoku’s Island Express overcomes this hurdle by creatively combining both Metroid-style exploration and pinball mechanics into one unique product. This combination sounds unusual at first, but the final result is a charming, delightful, and wonderfully satisfying hybrid.
You play as Yoku, a cute little beetle who has a ball attached to his hip with a string, and it's his first day as postmaster on Mokumana Island. The story is cute and straightforward, and there’s a large amount of backstory sprinkled throughout the game, but it doesn’t take long for the rest of Yoku’s Island Express’ beautiful game design to quickly take the spotlight.
The world of Mokumana Island is gorgeous, and the delightful painterly art style realizes each of the game's different stages with vibrancy--lush jungles and dark labyrinths blend in seamlessly with stunning snow-covered mountains and underground caves, and the background scenery is just as beautifully detailed as the foreground. Every environment is perfectly accompanied by sound design which gives everything a cheery and quirky atmosphere, and the charming background music keeps things light and breezy throughout. The roster of supporting characters is also a delight to meet. Ranging from animals and plants to imaginary creatures, the large cast of NPCs are all amusing in their own ways. Some give you side quests, some give you exposition regarding the main story or island lore, and some are simply there for a quick quip or two.
Yoku can only move left and right, and can't jump. However, flippers and platforms can be found all over Mokumana Island, which can be operated by using just two buttons, much like in pinball. These devices are all used to fling Yoku and his ball (which doubles as a pinball) in helpful directions to help you find and explore new paths of game’s cleverly branching world.
If Yoku is the pinball, then Mokumana Island is a giant pinball table. One minute you could be strolling through the jungle, the next you might find yourself seamlessly dropped into a literal pinball puzzle carved out of the environment. Familiar pinball mechanics, like lanes and bumpers, are all there and completing these challenges will reward you with fruit (the game’s currency) and unlock additional paths around the island. Though the puzzles require precise timing demands, and there are many moments when your skills and reactions feel tested, no puzzle feels impossible. Most can be completed in only a handful of minutes, but there's a lot of variety to the boards which help keep the game incredibly engaging.
Mokumana Island is surprisingly large, and filled with secrets and collectible items. A sprawling story quest and numerous side quests constantly push you in different directions, and there’s a lot of traveling and pinballing to be done. It’s also easy to get sidetracked from your tasks in favor of searching for the game's many secrets hiding within the beautiful island stages.
Exploring becomes even more exciting as Yoku learns new, goofy abilities, which are used to overcome hurdles in a lighthearted fashion, like removing boulders using an exploding slug vacuum cleaner. These fun and practical abilities add extra layers of cheery personality to an already joyful game, and as common in the genre, they make you feel excited to backtrack and unlock previously inaccessible paths.
Traveling back and forth from one end of Mokumana Island to the other can sometimes become tedious, however. A fast-travel system isn’t unlocked until later in the game, but even that is quite limited in regards to where you can and can’t travel. Some areas require you to complete a pinball puzzle in order to get from point A to B, which makes retreading quite repetitive and occasionally frustrating, particularly when the pinball puzzle is a complex one.
Yoku’s Island Express takes two unlikely genres and combines them into one playful, natural experience. The game’s audio and visual design is simply joyous and the large game world seamlessly combines its pinball puzzles with some brilliant level designs. While traversing the large map does get frustrating at times, Yoku’s Island Express’ main quest never drags, and with its slate of fun abilities, quirky supporting characters and a generous amount of optional content, Yoku’s Island Express is a unique journey that’s refreshing and just straight up fun.