Yoku's Island Express Is a Pinball Platformer That Should Inspire Tons of Copycats

I first got a taste of Yoku's Island Express last year at E3, and I've been eagerly anticipating the official release ever since.

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(Yoku's Island Express via Team17)

The game stars an adorable dung beetle named Yoku, who travels to his new home on Mokumana Island to become their new postmaster. Soon, he discovers that an evil force has attached the island deity, Mokuma, and only Yoku can stop it.

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(Yoku's Island Express via Team17)

To do so, he must travel across the island using a series of pinball-like plungers, flippers and bumpers to fling his ball, reaching unexplored areas and solving puzzles all the while.

Publisher Team17 was generous enough to provide me with a review code for the pinball platformer on the Nintendo Switch, and I was eager to see where my adventure with Yoku would take me.

As the game opens, the Yoku's controls are extremely simple. You can move him left or right with the analog stick, press a button to talk to characters and read signs, and use the trigger buttons to control pinball bumpers and flippers. The right trigger powers orange flippers, while the left trigger powers blue ones, and getting the ball where you need to go is all about patience and good timing.

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(Yoku's Island Express via Team17)

The game's world is similar to a Metroidvania-style platformer, meaning it contains a sprawling world containing secrets that can't be accessed right away. When you see a goodie that's just out of reach, it typically means you'll need to move on and return later once you've unlocked the ability to nab it.

It's here that Yoku's Island Express becomes much more than a typical pinball game. As the game progresses you'll collect everything from a noisy party horn to a mermaid tail that allows you to swim to a vacuum for sucking up exploding slugs. Each of these items opens up the game in huge ways and makes each area worth revisiting again and again.

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(Yoku's Island Express via Team17)

Though Yoku's main mission is to find out what's going on with Mokuma, you'll encounter tons of distractions along the way. The island is massive, and during my game I found myself sidetracked again and again with side quests like delivering parcels to every mailbox on the island, finding hiding places and collecting mystical Wickerlings and finding chunks of a trickster's stone statue to solve a riddle. It's also important to collect fruit, which is the game's currency.

I found myself juggling a number of tasks at once, and found it really helpful to take notes of my current missions. Though the map often places a waypoint to help you find your way, it typically points out who to ask for guidance, rather than the area you actually need to visit, so it's helpful to keep track yourself.

But while this type of gameplay can extend a game and make it particularly exciting to finally collect an item you couldn't before, trudging through areas again and again and again doesn't always make for the most riveting experience. Often, the place you'll need to go is on the other end of the map, and the map isn't small. Sometimes it felt a little tiresome making the trek all the way there and back again and again, but it did help me familiarize myself with the sprawling map, and I found new secrets and things to do almost every time I did.

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(Yoku's Island Express via Team17)

It was especially frustrating when the only thing keeping me from progressing was that I kept fumbling a super precise shot, and there are quite a few of them. Still, the knowledge that I was always making process kept me going, and the reward of new areas was always worth it. It helps that the game feels extra responsive.

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(Yoku's Island Express via Team17)

There's also a move Yoku gains later on where he can spin around these carnivorous plants to get the momentum to access hard-to-reach areas. Mastering this move to scale the terrain is tough, and I got stuck on some of them for way too long.

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(Yoku's Island Express via Team17)

Luckily, you can later pay fruit to unlock handy Beelines, which help you get from place to place along certain routes in a snap. They're worth unlocking as soon as possible to save lots of precious time—and they're the only way to get to certain areas.

It's also important to collect as much fruit as possible in order to progress. Certain flippers won't open until a fruit payment is made, and you lose fruit when you fall into spikes. Fruit is the closest thing to health in Yoku's Island Express. Touching explosive slugs will fling you around, rather than hurt you or make you lose fruit, and falling into spikes will only sap some of your fruit. However, after multiple falls into spikes, the game does display what it calls "A Secret Cave." I'm not sure if this mysterious area has a purpose besides counting deaths, but it certainly has me intrigued.

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(Yoku's Island Express via Team17)

Though Yoku's Island Express contains a lot of pinball, I never grew bored of the mechanic, and even late in the game I found that different types of pinball were introduced in new and innovative ways. In particular, the final, multi-part boss battle smartly utilizes a number of different pinball mechanics, including a multi-ball system with allies that isn't used anywhere else in the game, making for a satisfying and exciting finish to a great little journey.

Beyond the gameplay itself, every aspect of Yoku's Island Express is stunning. The characters are unique and beautifully animated in a hand-drawn style, and I never tired of Mokumana Island. The mythology around the island is compelling and well-crafted, and Yoku is so charming it's impossible not to adore him.

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(Yoku's Island Express via Team17)

And even once I'd beaten the game's final boss, I knew there was so much left to explore and do. I finished with 70% of the game completed, and hours of gameplay later I'm still trying to uncover all its secrets. Look how much of the map I still need to visit!

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(Yoku's Island Express via Team17)

Yoku's Island Express is a really special little game, and I'd be surprised if it doesn't inspire a lot of copycats. I hope it does, because the pinball platformer is a rich system that has a lot more to explore inside.

Yoku's Island Express is available now on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Steam for $29.99.

 

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