52 Yoku’s Island Express
This charming pinball adventure simply wants you to roll with it
PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
Developer Villa Gorilla Publisher Team 17 Format PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One Origin Sweden Release 2018
Pinball and exploration hardly seem the most natural bedfellows. Mind you, neither do pinball and military strategy, and that didn’t stop Yoot Saito making GameCube curio Odama. But having settled on its unusual combination – and an unlikely hero in Yoku, a dung beetle tethered to a ball – Swedish indie Villa Gorilla realised its debut was developing an identity crisis. “We did some focus testing and realised it was a very stressful game,” co-founder Jens Andersson admits. “Which is inherent to pinball, really: it’s focused for short bursts of time, and that didn’t mesh well with the exploration.” The solution wasn’t to lower the difficulty so much as reduce the punishment for missing a shot – or, as Andersson puts it, “to make it more chill.”
It’s a decision that pays off handsomely. Yoku’s Island Express might lack the flashing lights and furious noise of your average pinball table, but the pleasure in arcing the ball smoothly around a loop or across a rail is undiminished by the relative lack of spectacle. Missing the intended ramp is never disastrous; yes, you’ll still want to avoid draining the ball,
“We didn’t want to just have pinball tables linked together. That doesn’t interest us”
since clusters of thorns lie between each set of flippers, and touching them means losing some of Yoku’s supply of fruit. Yet these can be quickly replenished by hitting nearby targets. As such, a game where you’re often moving at speed feels oddly relaxing, which fits with its developer’s desire to let you traverse this surprisingly expansive world at your own pace. Sometimes discoveries come about by happy accident, a mistimed flip taking you somewhere you weren’t intending to go, but which rewards you anyway. “Missing a shot should still be fun,” Andersson believes, though the chests and collectible critters that lie away from the critical path tend to require more skill than luck to reach.
If neither of the playable chunks in our demo comes to a natural ending, that’s because they’re part of a much larger whole. “We didn’t want to just have pinball tables linked together,” Andersson says. “That doesn’t really interest us as developers. We like building worlds; we like having a story.” As such, though the biomes are diverse, the environments will flow seamlessly into one another, with artist Mattias Snygg responsible for the lush, hand-painted look. “I worked with him back at Starbreeze when we did
Chronicles Of Riddick,” Andersson tells us. “Painting is definitely his strength so we wanted to leverage that.”
This rich and characterful world is gated in a familiar fashion, although Yoku’s abilities are anything but orthodox. They’re unlocked by feeding fruit into totems. Our first toy, a noisemaker, stirs a slumbering creature into starting up a fan, which carries us up a vent to a snowy peak – once we’ve closed both external hatches, at any rate. Later, we gain the power of a slug vacuum, and attract explosive gastropods that detonate when the ball collides with obstructive rocks. Elsewhere, a giant eel halts our progress until we bring him a mushroom that grows on the cliffs above. At the top we collect our prize, but also locate a poison toadstool nearby. Both, it turns out, can be used to solve the problem; it merely depends on whether you’re feeling benevolent or spiteful.
With such a bright, attractive setting and characters, Yoku’s Island Express should have wide appeal, though Andersson is curious to see whether the speedrunning community latches onto it. Indeed, there will be sequence breaks in the game for experienced players to exploit. “Throughout development we’ve discussed this specifically,” he says. “The slug vacuum is pretty much a rocket jump: it’s one of those manoeuvres that, from a design point of view, we don’t necessarily expect the player to use, but since they can, we need to support it. We had the choice of either removing that feature, or support massive sequence-breaking in the game.” Naturally, it’s been kept in – well, it’s not called Express for nothing.
Reach a telescope, and the camera will zoom out to show the local area – this, however, is just a tiny fragment of the world map
TOP LEFT Not all Yoku’s unlockable abilities are mandatory, Andersson tells us; some will be entirely optional, rewarding more thorough explorers.
ABOVE Interactive objects are colour-coded: blue for the left trigger, orange for the right. Some bounce pads can be activated with either
LEFT With no bumpers or flippers at the top of the mountain, Villa Gorilla can pile on the wind and snow effects, though it’s prioritised readability elsewhere. Andersson says:“It’s more important to be clear what’s going on than to be pretty”
Bear left from the start and you’ll float over to an island, though we’d be surprised if there wasn’t an ability that let Yoku head underwater at some point