Because many video games lean on familiar gameplay loops, archetypal characters, and genre conventions, when you're reviewing them it can sometimes feel like you're saying exactly the same thing about a game that you already wrote about previously. But every now and again you'll have to write a sentence during a review that you know you've never written before, and you'll likely never have to write again. This is one of those times. Yoku's Island Express is a 2D, open world, Metroidvania, pinball game starring a dung beetle postman dragged into a battle for the fate of the world on his first day on the job. Beat that.
It's the sort of premise that appears to be so ludicrous, featuring so many disparate, seemingly incongruent elements that it could quite easily have been generated by picking ideas out of a hat, but incredibly the game isn't just wacky for wacky's sake, and the whole thing really does mesh wonderfully. As a dung beetle, Yoku is constantly pushing around a ball of dung and the island is littered with pinball paddles. Yoku controls with the left stick – or d-pad, if you prefer – while the paddles are colour co-ordinated – orange, blue, or a mix of the two – and mapped to R2 and L2. So Yoku can wander around the island rolling his little ball of dung, and then he'll happen upon a paddle and if he stands atop it and you tap the corresponding button he goes flying. There's some simple platforming puzzles at the start of the game using the paddles to reach places that Yoku couldn't otherwise get to, and the mechanics are introduced in a way that does an impressive job of succinctly explaining how the game works.
Of course, things quickly become more complicated. You'll soon find yourself in situations where you're solving puzzles by firing Yoku around secluded areas that are set up like a traditional pinball table – minus the garish lights and sounds – bouncing him off of bumpers and collecting fruit which is used as a currency on the island. Many of these "tables" are interwoven and connected to each other via a series of rails, tunnels, and other level design tricks, and the further you progress through the game the more elaborate they become. By the end you'll be solving multifaceted problems across numerous different "tables" utilising skills you've picked up from all four corners of the map. While the game will likely never leave you totally stumped, there's a few head-scratchers that will at least make you think for a minute or two, as you'll find yourself looking at the various unique elements of the area you're in and trying to work out how to get Yoku to a specific place, or bounce off of a certain target, using only a couple of paddles and the obstacles in the environment.
Yoku can go wherever he wants early on in the game, and you can choose to complete objectives in any order you wish. Obviously, some objectives are more difficult than others, and some require special skills that you don't have access to at the beginning of the game, but you're never explicitly told where to go or what to do, and you're free to just explore the island at your own pace. There's dozens of hidden treasures and bonuses to discover in the world, including brand new skills that will help you in other areas of the game, and upgrades that allow you to carry more fruit or offer cosmetic changes. In classic Metroidvania fashion, whenever you come across an area that looks like it has an out of reach treasure, remember it, because chances are you'll later have some sort of skill that will enable you to get to places that you once could not.
Being a Metroidvania game you'll be forced to backtrack at numerous points, having gone as far as you can go with the skills at your disposal, but perhaps having picked up an ability that will allow you to progress further in a place you visited earlier. Backtracking is part and parcel of the genre, but here it can be a little more perplexing than in most games of this ilk because the method of travel is so unpredictable. It's not a huge issue because there's a lot of shortcuts, and after a while you'll unlock an amusing fast travel system that allows you to quickly get to other areas of the map, but there were a few moments where we found ourselves sighing as we realised that the place we needed to be was at the other end of the island and we'd be bouncing off bumpers and flying through the air for the next ten minutes trying to remember how to get there.
The presentation of the game is consistently charming, with the cast of characters you'll meet on your journey proving to be a unique and endearing bunch. The island that Yoku inhabits pops with bright colours and imaginative creatures and locales, and the chilled, jazzy soundtrack works well as a calming influence during trickier pinball puzzles. The whole game is quite laid back, with no enemies to fight, and apparently no way to actually die as we never saw a game over screen during our eight-ish hour journey to the end credits. Figuring out how to get from A to B is the challenge here, and finally discovering how to reach a treasure is constantly rewarding.
Yoku's Island Express is one of the most surprising games of 2018. The combination of pinball and Metroidvania is, on paper at least, a little like dipping your French fries into your milkshake; as good as the two elements are separately, they shouldn't really work together. But thanks to an array of smart design choices, a wonderful art style, and some genuinely inventive puzzles, Yoku's Island Express is a game that only rarely frustrates – and frequently delights.