Yoku’s Island Express is a pinball-based platformer, based around the adventures of a postman dung beetle. Even in the world of video games, that’s a particularly zany elevator pitch. It’s a good thing, then, that the first game by Swedish studio Villa Gorilla is shaping up to be such a charming, hand-crafted thing.
For a game about a dung beetle, there’s surprisingly little faeces being rolled around in Yoku’s Island Express. Instead, the titular postman is attached to the equivalent of a giant white pinball, which can either be pushed around or batted about by paddles dotted around a gorgeous landscape; all bright colours and hand-painted details.
Like last year’s Snake Pass, on the surface it looks like a standard platform title, but actually upends the genre by changing how your character moves. In Snake Pass, that meant puzzling your body around objects to slither onwards. In Yoku’s Island Express, that means treating the world like one big pinball machine. Instead of running and jumping towards objectives, Yoku ricochets across forests and mountains. It’s part ball-game, part Metroidvania adventure – with gradually amassed powers and abilities unlocking areas of the island.
Mattias Snygg, co-founder and artist at Villa Gorilla, says the approach to building the island was inspired by Japanese animations, particularly the work of Studio Ghibli: “[Hayao] Miyazaki’s work centres on the core idea of nature as a living, breathing thing. This is what I wanted the game to feel like. You’re on this special island, but the creatures aren’t just weird, wacky things; they’re part of the world.”
In the brief time I had with the game, I met a number of characters with tasks for my postman dung beetle. Letters need to be delivered, of course, but there’s also a bigger secret about the island waiting to be uncovered, I’m told. How this ties into the quasi-Shinto philosophy Snygg gestures to remains to be seen, but it suggests Villa Gorilla is interested in building an interesting world to go along with its novel pinball gameplay.
So why a dung beetle? “The exact reasoning is lost in the mists of history,” says Snygg. “We talked about having a character that could transform into a ball, which may have been more straightforward. But we liked the look of a dung beetle attached to a ball, bouncing around.”
Poor Yoku does seem to get thrown around quite a bit in the game’s opening, and the pinball-heavy sections can sometimes feel more reliant on luck than skill. It will be interesting to see how different abilities keep things interesting as the game progresses, adding a layer of puzzle solving to the twitch action. According to Snygg, Yoku’s Island Express will have a mix of “careful platform exploration and more hectic twitch gameplay”, and should take a player between four and six hours to complete. That’s not counting all of the optional quests, however, of which there are apparently a lot.
With its lush art style, Ghibli-inspired environments and novel approach to the platform genre, Yoku’s Island Express could be something special when it comes to Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PS4 and PC on 29 May. Pre-orders open today.