Have you ever thought about what it must be like to be a postman, especially in this age of internet shopping? Buried under endless parcels and mounting piles of letters, with both the English weather and the nation's favourite pet/infamous enemy of the postman, the dog, to contend with, it takes a certain kind of person to want to take up delivering the post. Or in this case, a special kind of beetle.
In the idyllic postal world of Yoku's Island Express, a dung beetle named Yoku washes up on the beach of a tropical island, only to find himself immediately promoted to being the island's postman, as the previous postie heads off on his retirement. Seemingly having seen the future coming, no sooner has the former postie left stage right, than the island starts to fall apart - making it a perilous place to be pushing around parcels. It turns out the lumbering god-like figure Makuma has been attacked by a mysterious assailant, and it falls to you, as the only delivery beetle on the island, to take three summons to the island's tribal chiefs calling for their aid. And so, Yoku finds himself not only delivering letters and overdue parcels - but also trying to deliver the island from impending doom. No pressure, then...
Part postal simulator, part pinball game, part adventure, Yoku's Island Express is a bit of a unique prospect. On the surface, it's a mishmash of different genres that may seem like strange bedfellows - but it's a combination that works surprisingly well. In the line of duty, the titular dung beetle will find his journey taking in the many regions of Mokumana island (note to self: must stop reading as Monokuma Island), from dense forests and snowy mountain peaks, to volcanic underground caverns and many more. Constantly tethered to a ball (for some reason), and with comparatively few moves in his arsenal, Yoku has his own unique method of getting around the island - pinball. As you walk your way around the island, you'll find paddles, bouncers and flaps that have been built into the scenery, and through a combination of well-timed flips, bounces and loop-de-loops, little Yoku can climb towers, open doors and generally fling himself around the island on his deliveries. As time goes on, you'll learn new moves that let you backtrack to previously-explored areas and reach new places, such as the ability to swim under water, or even fire explosive slugs, as per your average 'Metroidvania' game. The unlocking-new-areas idea, that is. Not the explosive slugs.
Though pinball is your main method of transportation, the game often doubles down on the pinball idea in sections that we'll describe as being a kind of pinball challenge - and despite usually loathing pinball, these are really well done. Part puzzle, part pinball, and with no harsh penalties for losing the ball (in this case, little Yoku), you'll need to flip your postie around the screen with the triggers on your controller, sending him careening through loops, bouncing over bumpers and pinging off bounce pads. Hitting switches, collecting gems, and bashing your way through blockages with sheer brute force all come into play when it comes to opening the way forward, which is often fenced off with a barrier, a meddlesome gust of wind or some other kind of obstacle you'll need to disable. Often, pinball challenges relate directly to a particular side quest or mission, perhaps seeing you working your way through a pinball-centric maze to rescue a stuck magician, or ricocheting up a building in search of a guy's pet 'sootlings' which have done a runner come bath time. 'Boss fights', meanwhile, take the form of a much more lengthy and protracted pinball session, where you'll need to think and aim a bit more than usual - perhaps trying to plug a number of air holes with some balls to try and stop a volcano erupting, which requires a bit more precision pinballing - or in our case, some frantic flinging - to progress.
You see, the island of Makumana is a rather quirky and charming little place, packed full of unusual characters who all need your help in some form or another, whether it's just a simple delivery, or something a bit more involved. While your main mission is to round up the island's three chiefs, there's plenty of other things to be doing too, whether it's taking a fungus on a tour of the island to find the perfect spot to settle down, helping an oddball magician piece together a stone statue, or rounding up some lost tadpoles for a mother. There's also oodles of collectables and such hidden off the beaten track, from the mysterious Wickerlings pick ups, key to reviving the [message redacted]; to the long overdue parcels that are in desperate need of delivering to three hard-to-reach recipients; and the many empty post boxes scattered around the island you'll need to stuff with late letters. Frequently, while exploring, you'll also come across little nooks and crannies that are filled with treasure, upgrades and bonus fruit (the game's currency), so it's often well worth a little detour and a bit of experimentation.
What's also interesting, is that a number of the missions give you a few different ways of solving them. For example, an early roadblock sees a rather unfriendly eel blocking your path, demanding you fetch him one of the delicious mushrooms that grow higher up as payment before he'll let you pass. Once you reach the mushroom, you find you have two choices - you can take him the Juicy Cove Mushroom he ordered, or deliver a Poison Mushroom that'll knock anyone who eats it out cold. Whichever one you decide to give him, he'll move out your way, but you do have the option of playing as a bit of a rogue postie, should you fancy it. Another section, fronted by a curmudgeonly dude on the door, warns that you get only one - and he means one - chance to pass through the pinball segment. Unfortunately for us and our poor pinball skills, that meant we landed straight into the gutter, and were locked out of the Juicery for a long time. As it turns out, there is another way to sneak back in at a later point, although we won't spoil it for you.
While pinballing your way across an island filled with characters that look like Studio Ghibli-rejects is nice enough, Yoku's Island Express does stumble a little in places. The biggest issue is that the game is in dire need of a better map, given that you'll often find yourself having to backtrack and explore new places. The problem here is that the map only gives you a choice of two rather unhelpful zooms, which are neither big enough to be useful, nor small enough to let you see everything at a glance - and to compound things further, there's no way of scrolling it around, either. It doesn't help that none of the areas are labelled on the map - so when a character asks you to head to the 'Obtanium Mine', you're often left to your own devices, unless you're lucky enough to stumble into a waypoint marker plonked in the cloudy abyss of the unexplored parts of the island.
Given how the whole island is basically a maze of interconnected rooms, areas and pinball boards, getting from A to B can be a bit more of a trial than you'd imagine, and you'll often find yourself having to repeat pinball sections to get from area to area, never sure if you're actually going the right way. As time goes on, you do unlock a fast-travel of sorts, called the 'Beeline', but you'll have to pay (using the in-game fruit currency) to activate it in segments, so it's not particularly useful until you've unlocked several of the things anyway. All of this adds together in a way that can make the early to mid game feel a bit like you're fumbling around in the dark as you struggle to figure out where to head next, which is a bit at odds with its happy-go-lucky light-hearted nature.
For the most part, though, Yoku's Island Express is a blast; a whimsical jaunt that manages to combine the two disparate genres of exploration-y adventure (aka 'Metroidvania') and pinball in a fun way. Playing pinball postman in a cutesy Stuido Ghibli-inspired world, full of oddball creatures, may sound like a step too far in the mash-up stakes, but thanks to some well thought out platforming/pinball mechanics, combined with a jam-packed island to explore, Yoku's Island Express works surprisingly well, and we can see ourselves spending a lot of time trying to nab every last hidden collectable.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4