Review: Yoku’s Island Express

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I love happy games. I mean, I’ll play a dark, gritty, or depressing game and appreciate it just fine, but happy games are a singular pleasure for me. It probably comes from growing up with Nintendo systems and faithful adherence to games like Mario and Kirby, though happy games have an advantage in spreading joy by their very nature. I’ve finished Yoku’s Island Express but I miss it already, all the sunshine and quirky characters and happy toots now behind me. I also miss the clever mixing of pinball and metroidvania mechanics, because I honestly don’t know where I can find such a thing outside of another cheerful playthrough.

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Happy little Yoku is a dung beetle who is thankfully tethered to a nice, clean stone ball for his work. He’s the newest postmaster of Mokumana Island, a mystical place held in balance by the great tentacled demigod Mokuma. Unfortunately, a mysterious figure called the God Slayer has wreaked havoc on the peaceful island, poisoning Mokuma and threatening to upset the balance he maintains. Since Yoku’s going to be rolling all over the island anyway, he’s been charged with contacting the three chiefs of the local factions about a ritual that will help their resident demigod recover. There’s a lot to see on Mokumana Island before that happens, though, and more than a few ancient secrets are bound to be unearthed by the time the God Slayer faces justice.

That might sound a bit grim for something so cheery-looking, and there are certainly some colorful moments of drama when the game dips into its deep lore. Mokumana Island has a fully-realized history of deities and settlers, and the results of that are found in the island’s current diverse crop of residents. You’ll be chatting with tiny bunnies, giant ferrets, fungus people, skull gangs, and ancient cultists as you deliver mail and collect delicious fruit in your quest. The writing is just as sweet and charming as the vibrant graphics, and includes some very creative twists and surprises to look forward to.

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More creative than that, though, is how you get around the island. There’s finally a healthy crop of pinball games on Steam these days, but none of them are quite as inventive as Yoku’s Island Express. The entirety of Mokumana Island is essentially pinball tables linked together by fields and platforms you can roll Yoku along with the analog stick. Once he tumbles onto a table, it’s pretty much all flippers to launch him and his ball into drop targets, ramps, and chutes to collect items and progress. By exploring and doing quests, you’ll also gather tools that allow access to new parts of the island. It’s the metroidvania concept but applied to pinball, and realized through some fantastically unique powers and presentations.

The more powers you have, the more of the island’s secrets you can open up with diligent exploration. For most of the game you’ll be hoovering up fruit, the de facto currency used on the island to buy items and unlock certain gates and barriers. These can be found anywhere, as bonuses on pinball tables and tucked away into the corners of areas. Exploring can earn you upgrades to your fruit limit, collectibles like plant creatures called Wickerlings, cosmetic customization for your ball, and tools to help you track down the rest of the hidden goodies. The main game is big enough to take you 4 or 5 hours to roll through, but the exploration can easily last you twice that if you want to see everything Mokumana Island has to offer.

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You really should keep at it, too, because you’re sure to have a smile plastered on your face the entire time. Every moment of Yoku’s Island Express is marked with lush, colorful graphics, an upbeat soundtrack, and the joy of wandering a fanciful locale. It’s one of those games where simply seeing new things feels like all the encouragement you need, and the pinball mechanics only make it that much more fun to do. There are no killer skill shots or stressful tables here, and really the worst that ever happens is that you fall down to a lower screen off of a flub. Tables are plenty forgiving, and there’s even a fast travel system for scooting around once you’ve seen most of the island. I can’t really find any reason this one wouldn’t inspire joy in just about anyone, so if you’re in the mood for something pleasant and upbeat this really should be your first choice.

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