Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Yoku's Island Express (PS4, NSW, XB1, PC) Review

Can you hear me over the fireworks, U.S. peeps? For everyone else, SuperPhillip Central delivers a new review for today. It's a pinball game that fuses a Metroidvania adventure influence into it to create one stellar and satisfying experiment. It's Yoku's Island Express, and here's my review based off the PlayStation 4 build.

That deft dung beetle sure plays a mean pinball.

With an industry full of genres that have been repeated seemingly ad infinitum, we've seen the coolest of ideas come from indies. That's the case with Yoku's Island Express, a game that mashes and mixes two completely separate game concepts into one: pinball meets Metroidvania. Throw in a healthy heaping of puzzle-solving, light platforming elements, and exploration, and you have one fantastic game from developer Villa Gorilla and publisher Team17.

Yoku himself is a beetle who is connected by a string to his ball of dung, serving as the pinball in the game. He's not just the pinball, but he's an excellent postmaster, too--assigned with delivering mail all across the massive, interconnected world of the game. The island is completely open to explore right from the beginning, but in true Metroid-style fashion, some areas are inaccessible until Yoku uncovers the proper ability needed to get passed or through it. For instance, Yoku gains the ability to dive and swim water, as well as use a rope of sorts to latch onto flowers and swing from them. 

Exploration of the island takes Yoku to all sorts of areas within his adventure. Rather than traditional platforming where the player would jump at will with the press of a button, instead Yoku gets around and scales heights by having the player activate pinball paddles to send Yoku flying and moving through the island via bumpers, chutes, and more. Using the paddles to get around is fast and fluid, feeling natural and enjoyable. 

Occasionally, Yoku will be sent into full fledged pinball tables, where lanes and areas on the board that require precise, sometimes frustratingly narrow, timing of flipping the pinball paddles in order to reach them. Elements of typical pinball tables are here, such as lanes that possess lights that turn on when Yoku flies through them, switches that activate items on the tables, and more. These can reveal fruit that serve as the currency of Yoku's journey, used to turn on inactive pinball paddles within the island as well as purchase bonuses like fruit wallet upgrades and other optional items. 

Thankfully, messing up on these pinball tables isn't overly anger-inducing thanks to the consequences being limited, making for a far more relaxing pinball-playing experience.
These small pinball table moments operate in a similar way to real-life tables, where all of the tricks one can do to slow the ball down by raising one flipper up--even rolling Yoku over to the alternate flipper just like you would in a real pinball setting. The only real gripe I have with these pinball table sections is when you have to backtrack through them, a feature in the game that is mandatory until one of many shortcuts passed these tables open up. Even then, backtracking in general is a common occurrence in Yoku's adventure, and one that can result in a lot of headaches where you can't quite get Yoku to get hit through the correct lane, chute, or passage in order to progress. It requires much more accurate timing than say, just jumping through an area like in your standard Metroidvania platformer. When you're just trying to get from one point to another, and one of these small pinball tables interferes with your plans, Yoku's Island Express's flow can be seriously and negatively altered.

Some tables require you to collect all of these pictured purple crystals to unlock a door.
Backtracking is mitigated somewhat through the Beeline transportation system, a collection of launchers that send Yoku flying across the island with a quick speed. It can make getting across the map much less of a burden, but the problem here is that Beelines only open up a good portion of the way through the game. The time spent until then is comprised of the aforementioned backtracking through familiar areas, and even then, the Beeline launchers don't reach all corners of the island. 

Still, it's quite difficult to be fully frustrated with Yoku's Island Express even with these issues when the game is just so darn charming. From the breathtaking vistas that one can't help but marvel at, to the kooky characters speaking adorable gibberish, Yoku's Island Express is indeed delightful in its presentation. The feelgood music that accompanies each area and section of the island also spreads joy.

This section of the game requires Yoku to close two hatches in order for him
to be lifted upwards in this shaft by these orange crystals.
These particular kooky characters also house many of the game's multitude of side missions and quests to partake in. These can range from looking for locations to spread mushroom spores along the island to give a particularly picky mushroom its perfect resting spot, to delivering overdue packages to three of the islanders in exchange for a host of helpful goodies. There are baubles to collect from treasure chests that can alter the color of Yoku's ball, 100 Wickerlings to nab that are hidden throughout the island in order to seek out and get the game's best ending, optional upgrades to your abilities and wallet size, and items that reveal and display the locations of undiscovered treasure chests and Wickerlings on the in-game map (which, by the way, needs a serious option to zoom in even further than the default setting--especially when playing on a smaller screen like the Nintendo Switch's in handheld mode). 

When there's something slimy in the neighborhood, who you gonna call? Slug busters!
Many of these hidden goodies require some adept pinball playing to discover, as well as some clever exploration and puzzle-solving. There are also some lesser Wickerlings and treasure chests to reach by sucking up explosive slugs that latch on and attach themselves to Yoku's dung ball. I call these "lesser" because they require the slugs to be positioned on the ball and then self-destructed in such a finicky way in order to have Yoku get launched upwards to reach otherwise impossible chambers in the game to collect certain Wickerlings and chests. The physics here and the strict timing and precision needed to access these specific areas can get quite maddening, especially when you have to transport a slug from a faraway location, only to mess up the timing and have to redo your attempt all over again.

That said, Yoku's Island Express is overall a highly endearing and pleasant pinball game mixed with Metroidvania sensibilities. The story will last about five hours for most players, but the amount of extra content and the way the island is so much fun to explore--backtracking notwithstanding--made me want to continue long after I reached the credits and even long after I acquired the Platinum on my PlayStation 4 build of the game. The pinball meets Metroidvania mishmash of concepts put on display in Yoku's Island Express is a successful experiment, and it's put Villa Gorilla on my list of developers that can't wait to see what they cook up next.

[SPC Says: A-]

Review code provided by Team17.

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