With the plethora of indie titles vying for attention these days, it’s easy to overlook a hidden gem as you sift through the online stores. Sometimes, however, one breaks through, punching above its weight to share the spotlight with the big boys. One such game is Yoku’s Island Express, a title which straddles genres and, unusually, exhibits a magical, Nintendo-like level of charm and polish.
The story opens with an introduction to Yoku, a dung beetle who has just assumed the postmaster role in Mokumana Island. Yoku is dwarfed by the giant ball to which he’s attached and, in a twist to the usual platforming formula, he relies on the ball to navigate much of the island. With movement limited to left and right – and no jump option – you use L2 and R2 to operate flippers dotted around the landscape to propel Yoku, pinball-style, around the island. It’s a novel approach and you have to re-calibrate your brain to play a platform game with pinball as the main mechanic.
Without a huge amount of hand-holding tutorial stuff, you are free to explore the island and converse with the eclectic range of characters which populate the island. Many are happy to help you out, on the proviso you do something for them. Generally these take the form of fetch quests during which you glean useful information and items, and it’s an effective device for driving the story forward. The game’s structure quickly becomes apparent, with some areas blocked off until you have the requisite collectibles, items or abilities. This necessitates a backtracking approach which won’t sit well with all gamers, but thankfully you have easy access to the island map, with a zoom function making it easy to take stock of where you are.
Movement is straightforward – in theory. I found myself experiencing the whole gamut of emotions. In some areas, things flowed beautifully, and I derived huge satisfaction from seeing Yoku hurtle around the island, hoovering up slugs and smashing his way through to unlock new areas. On occasion, however, I found myself mired in frustration, unable to fathom a way through and feeling trapped in an interminable loop of trial and error. However, getting stuck was never down to bad game design, only my ineptitude, and the feeling when I found the solution or finally timed things just right was something close to elation. The addictive gameplay pulled me through and not once did I seriously consider giving up.
Only through extended play do you fully appreciate the size of the island, which branches open as you progress. The art style is gorgeous, at times reminiscent of Ori and the Blind Forest. It really feels organic – a living, breathing world which encourages and rewards exploration. The atmosphere is supported by a suitably minimalist soundtrack which is ideal during the more relaxing moments in the game. Completionists can search every nook and cranny of the world to uncover secrets if they wish, but the game can also be played at a more casual level if you are happy to simply experience the story and the joy of flipping Yoku around the island.
My one quibble is the decision to keep fast travel locked away for so long, a source of frustration when you are having to retread some of the more difficult sections. Still, the game positively brims with charm, so it’s difficult to be annoyed for too long. My other half did bemoan some of the sound effects – in particular the party-style ‘noisemaker’- and admittedly they began to grate a little after a while.
However, these are trifling concerns when you consider the game as a whole. Despite fleeting moments of pad-breaking frustration, I fell in love with Yoku. The game has such heart and to play it is to love it. I have a sneaking suspicion that, come the end of the year, this little fella will feature in GOTY lists for many people – it’s that good.