Of all the gaming genres, pinball has probably lasted the longest. Pinball has been around for centuries, delighting millions of players yearning for high scores. The pinball cabinets have certainly changed over the centuries, but the gameplay remains the same. So how can you take the tried and true pinball gameplay and create something a little more exciting? Something with more purpose? Yoku’s Island Express has done this and more, creating a pinball game with a story and heart.
Our story begins with our hero, Yoku. Yoku is a dung beetle who pushes around a ball conveniently shaped like a pinball. He arrives on Mokumana Island in order to become the resident postmaster. His grand plans turn upside down, as he discovers an ancient deity is trapped and the island is plagued by hardships and dangers. Your goal is to wake the deity, make the island a tropical paradise again, and deliver some mail!
It’s so hard for me to grasp that Yoku’s Island Express is a pinball game. Yes, the essential gameplay elements are pinball based (which I will get to in a little bit). But the story and progression are right out of an adventure/platformer. Yoku is your classic hero – someone put in an abnormal situation who rises to meet the challenges before him. He must travel over land and water to find those who can help the island deity return to its normal state. He must improve himself with artifacts and upgrades. He even has a boss or two to conquer! You would think that this would not work in a pinball game, but Yoku pulls it off.
The story comes to life thanks to a beautiful environment and memorable characters. You will come across many animals who will guide you to your destination. These characters are quirky and odd, but lovable just the same. One of my favorites is a race of frogs that are trying to get their rocket into space. They are bizarre, but endearing at the same time. I couldn’t wait to explore more and meet new characters on my journey.
Another surprise was the number of things to do in Yoku’s Island Express. The main campaign was great, but there are plenty of side quests and collectibles to pass the time. It’s easy to forget your main job when traveling the island, so there are plenty of mailboxes to fill and packages to deliver if you need a break from the story. There are upgrades to find or purchase using the fruit that you collect. There are even moments where you can choose to be noble or rotten to some characters. The story is so delightful and surprised me from start to finish.
Yoku’s gameplay is a mix of platforming and pinball mechanics. Yoku is attached to a ball that he can push around. Throughout the game, paddles are scattered throughout the environment to propel Yoku in all kinds of directions. These moments aren’t really true to pinball. The true pinball moments occur throughout the game when trying to unlock specific areas, gather necessary artifacts, or during “boss fights.” You will notice these areas right away when you see paddles on the left and right with thorns in the middle.
In these sections, you will hit the paddle to gather food and tokens that may unlock a wall that blocks the next section. These moments are handled beautifully and work exactly like a traditional pinball cabinet. Movement is based on momentum and specific placement of the ball when hitting the paddle. I never felt cheated or frustrated if the ball didn’t travel in the direction I wanted. Any misplaced hits were my fault because I hit the paddle too soon or too late.
There are a few moments in the game where you will need to go above and beyond the tradition pinball mechanic. An example of this is the presence of explosive slugs. These slugs can be coated on your ball (after you get the right equipment, of course). When they are attached to the ball, you can send it to a specific object that will explode on contact. This may clear out paths to other parts of the island or unlock collectibles. Pinball can be a little repetitive, so it was a nice addition to the gameplay.
The island itself is beautiful, with nice details to the different environments that you will explore. You will come across snowy mountains, watery marshes, and yellowish plains. The detail is exquisite. I also very much enjoyed the soundtrack. The music is relaxing, as it should be when you are on a tropical island. I’m a little disappointed by the lack of voice acting in Yoku’s Island Express. It would have been fun to hear some unique voices to match the wonderful characters in the game. The sound effects are fine, but I would have loved some voice acting.
Yoku’s Island Express does the unthinkable with the pinball genre. It has taken the core pinball mechanics and blended it with a wonderful story, memorable characters, and natural progression system that you would see in a platforming game. The mechanics work exceptionally well, and it is a joy to play from start to finish. If you love pinball and want to see it in a refreshing way, then you owe it to yourself to check out Yoku’s Island Express.
Yoku’s Island Express is available May 29th on Xbox One, Playstation 4, PC, and Nintendo Switch for $19.99.
Note: GameOctane Editor Ryan Welch received a digital code from the publisher for the purpose of reviewing this game. Any code or product intended for reviews is distributed to the team to review and stream for our audience.
Check us out at Opencritic!
Great use of pinball mechanics
Beautiful environments and soundtrack
No voice acting