Yoku’s Island Express is a pinball-themed Metroidvania. Which is not a sentence that I ever expected to write, but here it is; and that combination works well? You’re a ball rolling through the game’s environment (well, I guess technically you’re a bug rolling the ball); and periodically you get to parts of the world that looks kind of like a pinball table. And, for those sections, instead of rolling the ball, you switch to controlling flippers.

If you’re looking for an elaborate pinball game, this isn’t it: the pinball is very forgiving (there’s essentially no penalty for losing your ball), and the pinball sections are much smaller than real-world pinball tables. You do have to be able to hit various locations on the screen with your ball, but you can try over and over again; and there’s a little bit of the sort of “light up these five things” challenges that you see on pinball tables. But, really, the pinball is there to put some friction into the world, to give you something to do as you go through it.

Which is fine, even good. After all, if I were playing a traditional Metroidvania, there would be enemies scattered all over the place; and those enemies wouldn’t be serious challenges, they’d just be there to give you something to do as you move around. (Well, that plus to teach you the basic skills you need for the boss battles.) From the point of view of how it affects the rhythm of the game, I think I might actually prefer the slightly larger scope of the pinball challenges compared to constant smaller enemies? And the pinball sections also work in some light puzzle solving, which is pleasant.


Since it’s a Metroidvania, you also have upgrades. Not as many in a traditional Metroidvania, and they’re generally not focused on your pinball capabilities. Instead, they’re focused on other aspects of traversal, serving to unlock areas of the environment via your movement capabilities rather than by colored doors that you can shoot with a weapon. Which is fine, even good; I guess one downside of pinball as the theming is that there are fewer ways to tweak that part of the gameplay by additions to the player’s capabilities, whereas a combat-focused game would have more options in that regard? But Yoku doesn’t force that issue: it is what it is, and the gradual unlocking of areas works just fine. (As does the puzzle solving that crops up in various ways.)

And there are some aspects that work surprisingly well. The fast travel system, in particular, is done via a few chains of cannons that shoot your ball from one cannon to the next to the next, and it’s one of the best fast travel systems I’ve ever seen in a game. Most fast travel systems make you feel disconnected from the world and erase the fact of travel; the worst ones have significant load times, but I don’t actually enjoy ones without load times either. But in Yoku, you see yourself moving through the world, through an entirely natural mechanism; and, sure, that means that it takes time when going from one end of the chain to the other, but you also see how much of the world you’re going through, so that time feels like the right amount of time? And you see all sorts of stuff while you’re going through the world, including bits that might tempt you to explore something in the middle of the chain; and that’s fine, you don’t have to go from one end of the line to the other end, you can get off at one of the stations along the way and poke around.


I’m not going to say that Yoku’s Island Express is the future of Metroidvanias, or even that it’s the birth of a new sub-genre, I expect this to be a one-off idea. But it’s a pleasant bit of experimentation, that experimentation works, and that experimentation has unexpected strong points. And the game doesn’t overstay its welcome, either: it took me a week to play, so it was probably around 6 hours long, maybe 8?

More stuff like this; a quite pleasant palate cleanser after some of the longer games I’d played before that.

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