Perfection in game-design is sort of a Holy Grail. The best ideas can be utterly hamstrung by poor tech, or the best tech can be wasted on poor ideas. Pacing, progression and engagement are paramount from a perspective of balance to keep players not only interested, but invested in, well, their investment
. And not many games nail this -- especially in a gaming landscape like the one we’re in, in this day and age. What with open-world gaming, multiplayer, shared co-op experiences and myriad other takes on the platform.
Platform. A long time ago, the-now-humble platformer
was king across all systems. Mario ruled the roost, Sonic attempted to usurp multiple times and Rayman was considered something of a Merlin. MegaMan was Lancelot and Commander Keen might as well have been Uther Pendragon. Okay, Arthurian nods aside, what I’m getting at is in this technologically-expanded gaming space the platformer has been pushed back to the next generation of prospective designers. Existing more exclusively in the world of the Indie; the gamer who grew up on those Arthurian experiences, and in that space they’ve all been chipping away at forging a true Excalibur. (I’m really sorry, I don’t know where any of this is coming from.)
Yoku’s Island Express, in everything it presents to the player, couldn’t be more perfect. Its art, its silly premise, its characters, its progression system, its modes mashup, its level design… Science, that level-design -- everything
is perfect. Describing the game is a bit difficult, but imagine a side-scrolling platformer-adventure game with quests, friendly characters and fewer bosses. Now, throw in physics and pinball, specifically in how you not only traverse the game-world, but also tackle ‘dungeons’, and you’re kind of on the right track. From an art perspective, and taking nothing away from the team that did this, the traditional Nintendo-era Rare influence is plainly obvious. But also charming to a fault.
Fault. I can’t find a bad thing to say about Yoku’s Island Express. It’s a layered experience with charm coming out the wazoo. It’s short, but given the type of game it is, that’s not really an issue. That charm oozes from the basic setup: you’re a dung beetle named Yoku heading to Mokumana Island to become their new postmaster. Posterodactyl, the current postmaster, has just had enough and needs a change of scenery. He’s been so fed up, he’s even been sitting on undelivered packages alongside the regular mail. But he doesn’t care because you’re here now to take over, and this deceptively large game-world is full of little critters who need both their mail and, invariably, the sort of help only you can give.
Yoku’s a dung beetle because it allows developer Villa Gorilla to loosely contextualise the little ball he’s tethered to. This ball acts as a physics-based pinball, while the game’s ‘level design’ features left, right and neutral paddles to flick him about the place. How the island is designed around this, and the other powerups Yoku gains, is breathtaking. It’s broken up into unique areas: jungle, snow, arid and then inside (or underground). But it’s not as simple or basic as that, either. There’s so much nuance to each area and how you move through them with requirements to revisit each time you gain new power ups, especially if you intend to 100% the whole experience. And while the story side of the game, which features relatively easy boss battles, can be knocked out pretty quickly you’re able to continue on after the credits roll, totally free.
Free. The way in which you can attack the missions throughout is entirely up to the player and the deeper you get into the game the more you open up faster ways to traverse. You’ll even unlock the “Beeline”, which is effectively a Donkey Kong Country-style barrel-cannon transport system. Moving through Mokumana Island from the start through to the game’s end is nothing short of glorious. And all of this is accompanied with a wonderful soundtrack that shifts in and out of varying genres of music, and is never in-your-face. The sounds that represent the ‘speech’ the island’s NPCs deliver is part of that relentless charm I keep mentioning, but the game never feels like it’s an experience just for kids. There’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek humour here, while the skill requirement is definitely not low.
Compounding all of the above is just how gorgeous Yoku’s Island Express is. It’s bright, colourful and brimming with confident art-direction, which is unironically amplified by some of the game’s darker areas, tones and themes. There’s a mystery baked into the island’s history that slowly unfolds, and if you are a completionist, said mysteries will deliver you a far more complete experience than just finishing the basic story.
Available now for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more complete, competent, fun and wonderfully balanced Indie experience. We all love the God of Wars and Battlefield Vs of the world, but I’d take 10 more Yoku’s Island Expresss every day of the week. An absolutely perfect gaming experience.