There are not a whole lot of games that can credibly claim to be novel ideas. Of course, novelty alone does not guarantee that the concept is a good one. That is why I was pleasantly surprised when I first booted up Team 17’s newest game, Yoku’s Island Express.
Team 17 is most closely associated with the Worms franchise, which seems to have been released countless times on pretty much every platform imaginable. They branched out a bit with The Escapists, a strategy RPG released in 2015. Yoku’s Island Express is their latest original game idea.
And it is quite an original concept. The best way to describe Yoku’s Island Express is a Metroidvania-style indie title that combines platforming elements with pinball. If that sounds weird, that’s because it is – and yet it works quite well.
Let me explain. The game combines pinball mechanics, which are used to help you reach new areas and collect items, with light side-scrolling platforming and adventure elements. The Metroidvania part comes in since you traverse a large, inter-connected world and need to acquire various new abilities.
Unlike in a game like Metroid or Castlevania, you are not taking on the role of a badass hero. In fact, you play as a lowly old dung beetle that washes up onto an island rife with all kinds of problems, least of which is the lack of a postmaster. So aside from delivering mail (yeah, seriously), you also run little errands for the island’s inhabitants and generally make yourself useful. I told you; it’s a weird game.
You’re also going to collect fruit and these mini-totem-looking things. Fruit is used in a similar fashion as a currency. It can unlock pinball bumpers that allow you to reach new areas, or you can barter with island residents to obtain new items, such as a larger fruit bag.
Since you’re just a dung beetle, you really don’t have much in the way of abilities to start. You can roll your ball around, which is tethered to you via a string, and that’s about it. Wherever the ball goes, you go, basically. And even though this is a platformer, you can’t even jump. Instead, you rely on the pinball elements to reach higher places and cross gaps.
Of course, the developers don’t leave you completely high and dry. Early in the game, you gain a whistle that allows you to break things when you are nearby. Eventually, you gain the ability to dive underwater, vacuum explosive bugs that can clear your path of obstacles, and so forth. Slowly gaining these new abilities — rather than starting with them all at the beginning — helps build a sense of progression and ultimately makes the game more interesting.
It also does not hurt that Yoku’s Island Express is a good-looking game as well. The art direction is reminiscent of Rayman Legends with bright, vibrant colors in a watercolor style. It can be a real joy to look at across its varying environments, which stretch from jungle scenery to snowy mountaintops.
If you can’t already tell, I enjoyed my time playing Yoku’s Island Express. It’s not every day that you get to play a truly unique game. And while I was somewhat skeptical at first, being that I am not a big fan of pinball, it actually works quite well as a pinball-platformer-Metroidvania mashup.