What makes a good metroidvania game? Is it the difficulty? The open world platforming? The RPG-like abilities you gain along the way? The grim tone? Some will argue all these things make up the genre that takes its name from the likes of Castlevania and Metroid. While others, like me, may argue that it's hardly any of these things at all.
Late last month, I played Yoku's Island Express, a game in that genre that isn't particularly hard in any way; a game with a sunny demeanor and hardly any bleakness in its vicinity. It's how unabashedly pleasant Yoku's Island Express is that makes it refreshing; and in 2018, it was the last thing I knew I needed.
So what makes a metroidvania game? For me, it's the map. A world that folds onto itself with ease and intricacy. One gated by how much you know at any given time, with progression opening you up to more opportunities, more surprises, more wonder. Yoku's Island Express is built off this central conceit, trading the genre's usual off-putting challenge in fleshing out a world that's a delight to explore and learn more about.
It's relatively rare for me to finish a game if I'm not obligated by a review to do so. There have been a few this year that I've finished anyways—God of War, Detroit: Become Human (a mistake)—but by and large, there are many where I don't think I'll ever see the credits roll, like Yakuza 6 or Sushi Striker. When I set out on a weekend to dive into Yoku's Island Express, a game that was praised by word of mouth in late May and early June before E3 cratered it, I expected it to be like every other game I play in my freetime. I'd play it until I was satisfied, and that would be that.
But I didn't. I fell in love with Yoku's Island Express and saw it through to its end after a marathon dozen or so hours. From the snowy peaks of its island's mountains to the creepy caves that lie far, far below, I found myself deeply invested in this game where you basically just roll a ball around everywhere. You see, Yoku's Island Express isn't just any metroidvania-inclined platformer: it's a pinball game too. All across the world there are bumpers for you to propel yourself off of, reaching new heights, collecting fruit, and discovering secrets. In theory, it's a ludicrous concept. In practice, it's the most inventive game I've played all year.
In Yoku's Island Express, your protagonist is a beetle-mailman saving an island from misfortune. You roll across it and back dozens of times, unlocking more entry points and making friends with more and more critters all along the journey. It has all the usual checkmarks that follow the "metroidvania" genre. (And how I wish we had a better genre name than something so woefully self-referential.) The art style is a little too twee for my taste, but it's still cute. The world itself is easy to wrap your head around, with progression through it lying in the new abilities you attain throughout it, such as a grappling hook that lets you fling yourself from certain plants. Whenever I unlocked something, my mind would immediately wander to all the areas I remember passing along the way that were then inaccessible.
In Yoku's Island Express, nothing feels impossible or gated by skill forever. I always knew that eventually, I'd get where I needed or wanted to be. Still, the abundance of inherent chillness woven into its design may alienate the sorts of players who prefer a bit of challenge. Battles are resigned to relatively simple boss fights. Getting to new areas, while there is definitely the trial and error that suits its pinball inspirations, is more about knowing the precise moment to hit a bumper to fling you upwards. It's a relaxing sort of metroidvania, rolling counter to the trend of others (such as Hollow Knight) taking pride in boasting hella-hard as the foremost essential ingredient.
Most of the other games I've played and enjoyed this year have been pretty dour too. It might be a reflection of our current climate—morally, politically, just in getting older—so maybe that's why Yoku's Island Express clicked so warmly with me. There aren't many dark pretensions in it, nor some brutal challenge that would draw comparisons to that one JRPG. It's just purely pleasant, which in 2018, was what I've apparently been craving in a video game. There is no game this year so far that's more charming and, excuse me if this sounds like a back of the box quote, fun to play than Yoku's Island Express. Even after beating its story, I'm still happily pinging my beetle and ball around its open world, hoping to inch closer towards that 100 percent completion rate.
And if you're still on the fence about Yoku's Island Express, luckily starting today Steam is offering a new free PC demo for it. Roll away now, little beetles.