Metroidvania meets pinball in a surprisingly natural pairing.
A Metroidvania-pinball hybrid isn’t a thing I ever expected to exist, but Yoku’s Island Express feels like a breath of fresh air in a genre that’s felt crowded as of late. It’s fun, adorable, and wonderfully unique while still satisfying the things I love about 2D platformers. Even if its pinball paths occasionally got frustrating to navigate, I enjoyed every minute I spent with its charming, secret-filled campaign.
Yoku’s Island Express creatively fuses a traditional Metroidvania game with pinball mechanics in a way that feels surprisingly natural. You take control of a tiny beetle postmaster named Yoku, pushing around a ball and making deliveries on a large open-world island. There’s a fairly straightforward but cute story to follow, alongside a hefty amount of side quests, hidden collectibles, and other distractions.
While the bulk of the gorgeous 2D levels might make it seem like a familiar run ‘n jump platformer, you can’t actually jump at all. Instead, you have to use paddles (activated by your controller’s shoulder buttons) to knock yourself into tracks, bumpers, and more scattered around the island to bounce your ball around obstacles, dragging Yoku along with it. It’s a novel concept, and the fast-firing responsiveness of the flippers is satisfying in the same way as hopping around the Mushroom Kingdom as Mario.
As you roll around and explore, you’ll occasionally drop into distinct areas that are basically small pinball tables, each with their own lanes to fire down and skill shots that require occasionally frustratingly precise timing. Lots of familiar pinball mechanics are present here, like lights to turn on in different lanes or bumpers to knock around, all of which will pour fruit to collect onto the table. Tricks that work on real tables work here too, like putting up one flipper to let the ball roll over to the other — but now if you slow down too much you can take direct control of Yoku and push the ball over the gap.
I really enjoyed these contained challenges, and they are used in clever ways. Many have doors you need to unlock by collecting purple gems on the table before you can progress further — so instead of just being about getting points, you’re trying to make specific shots to free the gems from crystals or spinners. Other tables can take the shape of epic and difficult multi-ball boss battles, which are some of the coolest challenges available.
Before I unlocked the adorable Beeline fast-travel system, I did find myself having to retreading the island’s core paths to and from the hub town fair bit. Replaying the same tables each time I wanted to go through an area got a bit repetitive because navigating a table isn’t as simple as hopping through a completed area in a traditional platformer. Instead, it requires a series of shots with tight timing to proceed, so barely missing multiple times in a row hurts the flow of moving through the world and could be frustrating when I returned to areas looking for secrets.
But it’s hard to stop smiling when playing a game this peppy, and personality is overflowing out of every corner of Yoku’s Island Express. There’s no combat outside of a few bosses, and the tool you get to break open certain objects is a party-blower noise maker that you can make Yoku adorably spam as you run around. The cutesy Animal Crossing-style voices, cheery music, and lovely painted art style (which has some of the cooler background parallaxing I’ve seen in a 2D game) make being in this world a joy, and that helps temper the frustration.
The island’s quirky inhabitants are also amusing to meet, and often send you on side-missions as elaborate as the main story — it wasn’t uncommon for me to have four or five different things I could be doing at any given time. One townsperson wanted me to spread mushroom spores around the island, while another asked me to bring back baubles that I could use to customize the look of my ball.
While the campaign smartly doesn’t overstay its welcome — it took me about six hours to complete, including some distractions — collecting all 80 of Yoku’s hidden Wickerlings, finding all of its chests, and completing some other simple missions like delivering letters made me want to keep playing even after the credits rolled.