It's safe to say that Yoku's Island Express is the first pinball-Metroidvania game we've ever played. We sincerely hope it's not the last. Swedish indie studio Villa Gorilla has produced an improbable mash-up that succeeds through an uncommon combination of charm and inventiveness. Beyond all that, though, it's just brilliant fun to play.
You play the part of Yoku, an adorable little beetle who washes up on the mystical island of Mokumana just as things start falling apart. The island's lumbering god-figure has been attacked by a mysterious assailant, throwing its tribes into turmoil. Not only is Yoku tasked with filling the vacant postmaster role, but he also has to deliver the entire island from impending calamity. No pressure, then.
Yoku can scamper to the left and right via the left Joy-Con stick, and interact with items and NPCs by pressing 'A'. However, the bulk of your interaction comes through a ball that Yoku finds himself tethered to early on. Mokumana island is a compact yet diverse place filled with dense jungle, chilly peaks, arid deserts and gloomy caves. However, the entire island is saturated with pinball paraphernalia. There are flippers that help you get to higher ground (activated with the shoulder buttons), bumpers that flick you off at an angle, and rails that loop up and around to new areas.
The pinball influence goes further than mere traversal mechanics, with each instance of what you might call a dungeon - where all of the game's key puzzles, trials and bosses are contained - essentially playing out like a fully-fledged pinball table. There are targets to hit, sequential switches to flip, slots to land in, and loads of bonus fruit currency to collect. It sounds like an unusual mix of ingredients, for sure, but it somehow never feels contrived. At no point did we wish we were playing a more conventional Metroidvania with regular 2D platformer controls. Besides the pinball physics being really well executed, there's a distinct lack of compromise here. All the key attributes of a Super Metroid-inspired game are present and accounted for.
Yoku's Island Express isn't a particularly vast game, but exploration and discovery are at its heart. Heading to your next location on the map, you'll invariably encounter several tantalising distractions with the potential to divert your attention. Whether that's a secret room, a curious new character, a goody-filled treasure chest or one of the game's many collectable knick-knacks, your curiosity is always rewarded.
Indeed, like all the best Metroidvania games, it's possible to approach many of its main tasks in an order of your choosing. Where you are forced to do things in a certain sequence, it's because you'll need to have acquired a particular new ability in order to progress past a certain barrier. Sound familiar? It would be a crime to spoil any of the game's surprises, suffice to say that Yuku's steadily increasing abilities are a delight to discover and utilise. It's a small roster, but each new piece of equipment is put to thorough use across the map - especially if you have a completionist streak in you.
We've hinted at it already, but the thing that really knits the game's disparate elements together, and that stays with you in between playing sessions, is the beauty of its world. Mokumana has a gorgeous hand-painted feel to it, while its animalistic denizens are a wonderful mish-mash of shapes and sizes. It feels like some fantasy collaboration between Jim Henson and Studio Ghibli, with a little Pikmin magic stirred in.
The sound design is also tip top. Each creature has their own distinctive babble, which cuts through a background of gentle birdsong, pitter-pattering rain, or the harsh winds of an exposed mountainside. Accompanying all of this is a range of memorable analogue ditties, which we guarantee will find their way into your head at various points throughout the week.
We should note that Yoku's Island Express is far from flawless. The game's map screen isn't particularly great, for one thing. Sure, it looks lovely, but it offers two less-than-optimal zoom levels, with the furthest being nigh-on useless in portable mode. This map screen doesn't label any of its locations either, which can leave you confused as to where you're supposed to be headed when the game occasionally communicates your next location verbally. Where exactly is the obtainium mine, again?
Indeed, the biggest points of frustration in Yoku's Island Express come with getting about the world. There's a very handy (and highly entertaining) shortcut system that slowly unfurls, but figuring out exactly how to get from A to B in the early to mid-game stretch can feel like groping around in the dark. It can especially grate on the odd occasion that you find yourself drawn back into an extended pinball section that you've already encountered. You're often not quite sure whether you're wasting your time in an area. Some of the game's collectible traversal mechanisms - a manual swing system and an explosive-retrieval system in particular - feel like they needed a little more fine-tuning, too.
The amazing thing is that none of these flaws really matter in the final reckoning. There's just so much love and skill and charm on display here that complaining about a few navigation issues seems churlish. After the credits roll, all you'll be left with is a warm sense of satisfaction and a strong desire to experience your second pinball-Metroidvania game as soon as possible.
Yoku's Island Express is a genuine breath of fresh air, combining pinball and Metroidvania mechanics in a way that feels truly inspired. Add in one of the most appealing fantasy worlds you'll find on the eShop, and you have yourself an instant left-field classic.