What would happen if you combined Metroid with pinball? It’s a strange question to say the least, and Yoku’s Island Express is probably the best answer we’ll ever get.
Like Metroid before it, Yoku’s Island (not to be confused with Yoshi’s Island) features a large, interconnected world full of obstacles that can only be overcome with certain abilities. What really sets it apart, however, is the fact that you can’t jump. Instead, you must use pinball flippers to go airborne and traverse the environment.
Although this might sound gimmicky and even tedious, rest assured, Yoku’s blend of pinball and exploration is fantastic. The world is designed such that basic navigation is painless and typically consists of rolling around and occasionally activating flippers (some of which require fruit to unlock) to reach higher ground. It’s only when you near important items and/or locations that Yoku goes into full-fledged pinball mode with level layouts that resemble pinball tables and thorns at the bottom of the screen that take away some of your fruit if you happen to fall into them.
Most of Yoku’s gameplay revolves around tackling quests given to you by the island’s many zany inhabitants. Each quest is handily marked on a map that you can pull up at any time, and as large as the island is, trust me when I say that you’ll need it. These range from fetch quests to boss battles, and the best part is that they can be completed in almost any order. There are also loads of collectibles, including hard-to-find treasure chests and plant-like creatures called “Wickerlings.” As a result, there’s almost always something to do even outside of quests and exploration usually yields great rewards.
Yoku’s Island is also brimming with charm. Its colorful, Rayman-like visuals and upbeat music go a long ways towards making it a real joy to play, and the game’s wacky characters, all of whom grunt and babble Banjo Kazooie-style, are downright adorable. If I ever were to need to recommend a “feel-good” game to someone, this would make the top of the list.
The only complaints I have are that the game is a bit too forgiving and the island itself can sometimes be a chore to navigate. It isn’t possible to die–only to lose fruit–and fruit is so readily available that it never feels like a loss even when it’s taken from you. Getting from place to place isn’t always easy even with the aid of the map, either, and the quasi-fast travel system in the form of the “Beeline” (which functions almost like a mid-air tram system) does little to help matters since it covers a limited area and isn’t available until later in the game.
If there’s one thing I can say about Yoku’s Island Express, it’s that it’s a grand achievement. Not only is it the freshest “Metroidvania” I’ve played to date, but it also proves that platformers and pinball games can be mashed together with stellar results. I’ll admit that I was skeptical going into it, but I ended up having to tear myself away from the computer each and every time I sat down to play it. If you’re going to pick up one indie sidescroller this year, make it this one. I promise you won’t regret it.