While pinball tables are becoming a distant memory in arcades, pinball games are becoming more popular. The most renowned Xbox franchise is, of course, ZEN Studios' Pinball FX
franchise, but there's also the Pinball Arcade
franchise. Between them, they offer the more traditional pinball experience. Villa Gorilla's upcoming title, Yoku's Island Express
, is aiming to be different. The closest comparison to the title would be Sonic Spinball
, where Sonic had to search a series of pinball machines for chaos emeralds before defeating the boss at the end of the level. But this comparison doesn't really do justice to the upcoming title. Described as an "open world/metroidvania-style pinball adventure", the title blends platforming and pinball to put an extra spin on a genre that rarely innovates.
Players assume the role of Yoku the dung beetle. He arrives on the Mushroom Beach area of Mokumana Island where he meets Posteradactyl, the old postman of the island. Yoku will be taking on the position of the island's new postman; as he tells you, there is something strange going on at Mokumana Island and he is packing his bags and leaving. It turns out that the ancient island God is in a restless sleep from which he can't awaken, and his movement and nightmares are causing quakes and storms. Not only must Yoku take over the post office and deliver the post to the tribal chiefs, he must wake up the island God from his disturbed slumber before it's too late.
Posteradactyl leaves behind the island map and it is here where you get a sense of the sheer size of each area. Players are encouraged to freely explore the island, discover its secrets and reveal more of the map in the process. The game tries to envoke the joy of exploration felt by a young child who finds the entrance to a secret garden or other area full of things to discover. The developer states that the game takes influence from the Studio Ghibli films, "where nature is infused with spirit and life". The hand-drawn cartoonish locations and characters present an environment that appears colourful and friendly on the surface, but dig deeper and there are shadows to be found.
Yoku is tethered to his ball of dung in which he lives, but that's not the ball's only purpose — it's also his means of travelling large distances. While he can push the ball along flat surfaces, he doesn't have the ability to jump and, even if he did, the distances he needs to cover are too great anyway. Instead, players use blue and orange pinball flippers, each corresponding to one of the controller's triggers, to propel the ball (and Yoku) around the map. The map is so large that a fast travel system has been implemented into the game to allow players to return to areas across the other side of the map more easily.
As players explore the levels, they will collect fruit that can be deposited into fruit altars that are located throughout the levels. Fruit is the game's main currency and once each altar has received a sufficient amount of fruit, players will receive a reward. One of these in the demo was the Noisemaker. This is a horn that can be used to wake up some of the island's sleeping inhabitants, but it sounds and looks like a party blower, so if you value your sanity, don't leave the Noisemaker in the hands of a child. There are also purple grubs that are hidden in more obscure places in the levels. Once the player reaches the game's hub area, which wasn't available in this demo, grubs can be used to reveal more of the villages that have been devastated by the island God's activity. This in turn unlocks more quests and other gameplay mechanics.
One of the first obstacles that was encountered in the demo was a giant eel that is blocking the path. Next to him is a helpful sign telling players not to feed him with mushrooms, so guess what you're going to do. The map displays the player's current objectives. As it shows, the mushroom isn't anywhere nearby and it's up to you to find the route to get there. There is no time limit to do this, so you can take your time and get distracted by other areas without any penalty. Yoku also can't die but is instead penalised by losing a proportion of his fruit collectibles, so while your pinball shots may not be successful, you can keep trying until you get it right.
Later on, players get their first glimpse of the sootling enemies, where inspiration is obviously drawn from the aforementioned Studio Ghibli films. To shoo them away, you need to collect enough runes to open the gate and remove the orange crystal obstacle that is sealing them in. While we get to complete this activity, we don't get to see the aftermath because it is at this point the demo ends. The new screenshots below showcase some of the sights that players can see further into the game:Yoku's Island Express
is a title that both children and adults can enjoy. Casual players will enjoy exploration unrestricted by time and a limited number of lives, while hardened pinball players will relish in the challenge presented by the hidden collectibles. We only saw a small section of the jungle world during our time with the game but we can't wait to explore more when it's released next year.