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Anton Galang / Lifewire
Imaginative story and characters
Mysterious explorable world
Innovative gameplay mechanics
Charming visuals and sound
Some tediousness to travelling
Occasionally pauses to load during fast travel
Through a creative blend of platforming and pinball, Yoku's Island Express takes players across an artfully crafted world of imagination, humor, and mystery.
Our reviewer purchased Yoku's Island Express so that they could do a thorough play-through of the game. Keep reading for their full take.
Yoku's Island Express is a game you go into without knowing what to expect. I could tell you it plays like a 2D platforming adventure that incorporates open-world elements and pinball mechanics, set in a strange jungle environment inhabited by even stranger creatures, but it's hard to fully imagine. As you play, you start to understand, and you gain a feel for how the game flows. Yet it still never gives you exactly what you expect—one of the many reasons it's such a delightful and unique experience.
Playing through the game on Xbox One, I found it well deserving of a spot on the list of best Xbox One kids games. It's also available for the Switch, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC, and I'd expect the experience to be similarly engrossing on those platforms.
As the title character, Yoku the beetle, you arrive on the island of Mokumana just as something with ominous green claws starts attacking within the forest. You're met on the beach by the old postmaster (a "posterodactyl," obviously), who decided to bail when the strangeness began, so you're the lucky new delivery beetle of the Island Express. You head for the village rolling your ever-present white ball. (No, it's not a dung ball, and yes, there's a way to change it to one.)
You soon learn that your main quest is to help heal the island elder, Mokuma, who was injured by those green claws. You also quickly learn that you'll have a lot of other odd tasks given to you by the island's residents, distracting you from your primary mission—if you let them. You can tackle quests in a non-linear way, or explore as you please. It gets tricky to keep track of all the unfamiliar names of creatures and places thrown at you, but you have quick access to a map where important spots are marked.
Many of the tasks seem ridiculous until you actually dig into them, then they begin to make a strange sort of sense. At times you'll find more than one way to meet the request and face a choice on how to proceed. Going beyond simple branching dialogues, these instances happen organically enough that it feels like the control is in your hands.
You'll eventually progress to where the story needs you go, but not without plenty of surprises along the way. Because of how original the characters and situations are, it's hard to predict what's coming next. You quickly start to embrace the weirdness and enjoy the ride.
You'll eventually progress to where the story needs you go, but not without plenty of surprises along the way.
Rolling your ball left and right is simple enough, but beyond that is where your pinball skills come in (and where the real novelty of the game's traversal shines). The left and right trigger buttons activate blue and orange bumpers that can boost you up to higher ground or launch you to new sections. Other times they come in the form of traditional pinball flippers that you use to bounce your ball around an enclosed area, much like the playfield of a pinball machine. You hit switches, activate lights, pass through spinners, and break past barriers to reach the next area. There are even some boss encounters and other special instances when you end up with multiple balls, among other twists.
Your ball tends to travel precisely and consistently, so the pinball sequences are never overly frustrating. Sometimes it may take several tries to make it do what you need, but you don't lose your ball if it drops between the flippers. You're only docked a few of your fruits, the game's ubiquitous "currency" that's easy to get back. You'll usually have enough fruits to open up locked bumpers that let you access new areas.
The other tools you gain along the way have unexpected uses, too, creatively putting new skills at your disposal. Tooting a party horn is your main non-pinball mechanic, and it's surprisingly useful. Also helping you blaze new trails are a slug vacuum and a soot creature loved by carnivorous plants.
You'll appreciate anything that helps you explore the enigmatic island, which is where Yoku's Island Express becomes a Metroidvania game with fresh twists. You travel bit by bit across essentially the entire island in one big 2D cross section. You can see it all on your map, though fog of war covers the parts you haven't visited. For obsessive gamers, exploring every inch holds a lot of appeal.
There's an immersive flow to the game—you keep rolling along, discovering new areas. At times it feels like you have too many paths or quests to choose from, but you can eventually wrap back around to most things if you're patient and diligent enough. You'll eventually unlock the Beeline for a sort of fast travel to get around more quickly, but it sometimes still takes multiple retreads of old paths to get where you want to go.
The same imagination that went into the gameplay comes across in the game's visuals as well. The rich, hand-painted visual style of Yoku's Island Express conveys all the beauty, mystery, and quirky personality of the environment better than any advanced graphics technology could. Far from a tropical paradise, it deftly illustrates Mokumana's wildly varied landscape of forests, flora, caves, swamps, and snowy peaks.
Bringing life to the land are all manner of creatures, from lumpy humanoids to talking bunnies to monsters that look almost torn from a surreal dreamscape. Some creatures come across creepy and disconcerting at first, but—as just another unexpected part of the game—you start to find them lovable as they talk and explain their simple needs and become part of your journey. Though it's not a message the game hits you over the head with, you can't help but come out with a bit more respect and admiration for the weird and wonderful living world than you went in with.
Audio plays a valuable role in the presentation, too, including the gibberish voices of the characters. The soundtrack starts off as mellow background music and builds accordingly, shifting depending on the area and the mood it's meant to set. The music on the Beeline bops especially hard, though if you're zipping around too fast, the visuals can suddenly freeze up as the game tries to load the next area. It's only for a second or two, but enough to bump you out of an otherwise immersive rhythm.
You'll appreciate anything that helps you explore the enigmatic island.
It gets an E10+ ESRB rating for fantasy violence, animated blood, and crude humor, but Yoku's Island Express is in general an excellent game for younger players. Many may enjoy the weird humor, oddball characters, and even the dark or creepy parts. The pinball-centric gameplay is simple and forgiving enough for inexperienced players, too.
Available for $20 or less, it's a small price for the unique gaming experience you can get out of Yoku's Island Express, especially if you appreciate the originality and creativity involved in almost every aspect of the game. If you're a pinball aficionado looking for more traditional gameplay, though, you'll likely be happier with a dedicated pinball simulator.
Factoring into the game's value is its relatively short play time. It took me less than seven hours to get through the main game, and that was while pretty obsessively trying to discover as much as I could along the way. Aiming for 100% completion will give you much more time with the game, but there's not much replay value after you've gotten to that point.
The rich, hand-painted visual style conveys all the beauty, mystery, and quirky personality of the environment.
Yoku's Island Express has mixed together so many unique elements that nothing is quite like it, but Hollow Knight is another acclaimed indie 2D adventure in the Metroidvania tradition. Each title has its own distinct, polished art style with diverse environments. Both titles give players a lot to explore across a large, connected map, and choices in how to approach your journey.
Besides the lack of pinball and dung beetles, a clear difference is that Hollow Knight is darker in mood throughout, not to mention more challenging. There's much more fighting and combat involved, where Yoku's Island Express has hardly any, and focuses more on the pure joy of exploration and discovery.
Want to take a look at some other options? See our guide of the most fun online games for kids.
A uniquely crafted story, visuals, and gameplay all fit together into an entertaining and meaningful adventure for all ages.
The characters, landscapes, pinball, platforming, and open-world elements seem strange on their own but combine artfully on Mokumana island.
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