Game Review: Yoku’s Island Express

Yoku’s Island Express is a pleasant surprise. Its charming visuals and simple yet engaging playstyle outweigh its shortcomings and provide players of all ages with a game worth exploring. I was initially turned off by the title, which seemed to imply that the game would be a ripoff of Yoshi’s Island, one of my old SNES favorites. Many indie games use knockoff titles and artwork to trick foolish consumers into purchasing inferior products. I’d seen Yoku on various game stores for a while, and assumed it was one of those phoned-in pieces of vaporware. Not so! Yoku’s Island Express might as well be called Sonic Spinball but Good, as it shares more in common with that ancient Genesis game than anything Yoshi related. It’s an adventure/exploration game with pinball mechanics starring a lovable dung beetle. If someone had led with those details rather than the lame title, I might have bought it sooner.

Yoku the dung beetle is the new mail carrier for a small island community. Yoku is tied to a stone ball that serves as both a Sisyphus-ian albatross and means of conveyance. Using the triggers on your controller you can flip Yoku’s ball this way and that, like you would with the flippers on a standard pinball machine. These flippers, catapults and trampolines occur naturally all over the island, and you use them constantly to gain altitude, reach collectibles, and complete missions for the island’s inhabitants. The main plot revolves around Yoku needing to gather together the island’s three chiefs in order to save the island god, a big toady-looking beast who has been recently savaged by something called the “god killer.” The god killer aspect of the story feels decidedly inappropriate for a game that looks like a storybook, and in terms of execution, it is probably the game’s biggest misstep. Without spoiling the ending, a third-act twist feels more like a slap-in-the-face than logical storytelling. It’s another example of the modern obsession with surprising the audience rather than aiming for consistency. In general, I will always argue that a twist’s impact is momentary, whereas a good story’s consistency can make it a classic forever.

That being said, no one would dare play this type of game for the story. You’ll be playing to bounce your bug along the map, collecting fruit and unlocking items that help you scale higher and higher. The characters are well-designed and have pleasant dialogue. Everything is piping with personality. The main quest is fairly easy to complete, but there are a bunch of additional tasks to try if you’re the obsessive type. There’s no real incentive to go above and beyond, but if you truly like the gameplay you might be begging for more. I felt that the game’s main story was the perfect length to spend with the title, as things wound down at the exact point when I was getting a bit tired of the pinball-esque looparounds and precision shots.

Yoku’s Island Express is an easy recommendation for children and adults who want something sweet and sunny to distract themselves from the world’s woes. The music is endearing and nothing ever feels frustrating. I had a bit of an issue getting my slug vacuum, yes you read that right, to function properly, but I think it was a problem with my PlayStation controller interacting with my Windows machine and not a fault of the game itself. (For those suffering from the same issue, try releasing the trigger before tapping it again to suck up a slug. Good life advice in general.) As a Game Pass title, this is a must-have. Without Game Pass, I’d wait for a sale and snatch it up for a fun weekend fling. Just don’t go in expecting Yoshi, or you might be begging for a refund.  

Game Review: Slay the Spire

It’s difficult to gauge the full shape of Slay the Spire, because the game intentionally makes itself such a mess of RNG. Ostensibly the game’s challenge comes from its randomness. The player’s advantage comes from the chance to build a deck of complementary cards that stack together to form a barrage of death to mow down enemies. This is especially evident in the first of three decks the game hands the player, wherein strength and direct combat are the keys to victory. When playing as the Ironclad warrior class, the game’s mix of random chance and strategy hit a sweet spot. It’s only when you move on to the next class that things become a bit hairy and a bit more problematic.

Roguelike games require the developers to craft a replayable loop. Each time the player fails they are forced to begin again, perhaps with a few added advantages such as foreknowledge of the challenges ahead or a few items or abilities they clung onto from the previous run. Slay the Spire, with its dozens of card combinations, allows the player to feel powerful and clever as you stack together card powers that feel overpowered when used in unison. In fact, the game plays best during those rare instances where the RNG works in your favor and you accrue the perfect assortment of cards and relics to make it feel like you’re cheating. In every other instance, you’ll wonder why you aren’t allowed some advantage from previous runs, a single card of your choice, a relic or something else. It becomes quickly clear that the game has been designed with the Wizard of Oz-like stratagem that the player must never see behind the curtain, where the truth of the carnival game lies. In order for Slay the Spire’s loop to be replayable and not easy as pie, the developers needed to make the player’s odds of success so slim they have no choice but to play over and over hoping for that one sweet run.

The basic gameplay is simple enough and should be familiar for fans of Magic, Pokemon: TCG, or Hearthstone. You won’t be buying new card packs here, but you’ll be gaining cards each time you defeat a foe. This works simply and perfectly in the Ironclad run, where the deck consists of basic shields and sword attacks. When you try The Silent, aka the rogue deck, things start to fall apart. You’re supposed to be using sneaky tactics, poison and shivs, but your base card set doesn’t provide you with any of those skills, so you’re forced to grind for them. Of course your chance of picking up any cards that you might need for a successful run are random, even as you select from a few options after each fight or buy cards at the merchant’s shop with your accrued gold. That means you’re already starting at a deficit with your basic deck, unlike in the warrior’s deck where the basic skills you needed to succeed were handed to you. Even a successful-seeming-run can be ended suddenly by a chance encounter with a particular enemy type, and then it’s back to the beginning with your progress undone.

The game tries to seem fair and more roguelike by allowing you to accrue “unlock EXP” which takes forever to do anything, and when it does finally unlock something it merely adds the chance of a few new cards or relics being added to the pool in each run. A magic whale-thing will give you a few seemingly helpful options at the beginning of each loop, but the benefits of each choice are minimal, and when playing as the rogue would be easily outweighed by the addition of a few shiv or poison cards from the offset. The reason for this lack of generosity appears to be because the overall game is incredibly shallow, and if the devs made the odds in the player’s favor you’d be done with Slay the Spire in an hour. To make the game feign depth, the devs decided to screw you over at every turn, giving you more time to ponder why the artwork looks like construction paper.

As a ‘free’ game via Game Pass, this was a fine find, as the initial character’s path through the spire was a fun and engaging one. The parts are definitely there for a fun and addictive game, but the overall experience is more like a slot machine or carnival game, where the fun comes specifically from the player’s ability to ignore how easily they’ve been sold down the river on a boat with a hole in it. If you’re the kind of player living in denial, unable to understand the way the mechanics function, capable of convincing yourself that despite your repeated failures and lack of chances to succeed the developers really do have your best interests at heart, then sure, Slay the Spire will captivate you for hours to come, in the same way a bright light dancing on the wall might captivate a kitten. For anyone with a more thorough understanding of strategy, this game feels broken or half-finished at best.

Game Review: Guacamelee! 2

I enjoyed the first Guacameleefor its light-hearted Mexican-themed reskin on classic Metroidvania adventures, those types of games with exploration, ability upgrades, and plenty of backtracking. The first game arrived at a time when it felt like good Metroidvanias were in short supply. Fans of Super Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, are always on the lookout for the latest take on this style of gameplay, and in spite of the corniness of its humor, Guacamelee felt like a fun modern take on those games replete with references to Mexican culture. To be clear, there’s nothing in either Guacamelee or its sequel that could be accused of deepening cultural understanding, but in an ongoing time of racism and xenophobia, there was something charismatic about the fact that the Mexicans were the ones making the jokes rather than being the butt of them. I appreciated that, and found that in general, the first Guacamelee was mapped and paced in a satisfying way. It’s the type of game that parents and kids alike could enjoy for its emphasis on rock-‘em-sock-‘em combat and adventure.

          Guacamelee 2 is a bit of a double-dip in the same bowl of salsa. Graphically there have been zero upgrades from the predecessor, and many visual and audio assets have been copy-and-pasted. That goes for the story too, which hits its beats with a lackadaisical attitude and lack of focus that makes the whole game feel more like DLC than a full-fledged sequel. Sometimes routine can be a good thing, as when you’re unlocking fun new power-ups and moves for the game’s chicken transformation. The high-flying aerials and precision platforming generally work in the game’s favor, but after the infinitely better Hollow Knight, a game even referenced in the background of this one, it’s hard to see Guacamelee 2 as anything other than a cheap cash-in.

          That’s not to say that this game isn’t fun, but it might be vastly more enjoyable for someone who never played the first game (or a Metroidvania in general). The game’s humor is less potent this time, as much of it comes from the characters making mistakes or being tired of having to repeat the same bits over and over. There are new characters introduced, but they barely have anything to say or do besides providing a skill tree or being around for a boss fight. The villains are intriguing, but they’re merely functionaries, filling the role of the guy you’ve gotta beat at the end of each level. Things push toward a conclusion at such a rapid and inevitable pace it feels like even the game designers wanted to get the whole thing over and done with as quickly as possible.

          One of the odder things about the game is how straight-forward it is in a genre known for back-tracking and exploration. If you follow the game’s instructions from beginning to end you can complete the story with zero motivation to explore. This undermines the Metroidvania feel, where you’re suppose to be rewarded for your exploration and creative thinking, using the tools at your disposal to find things that power up your character along the way, like the cleverly hidden energy tanks in Super Metroid. There are upgrade rooms in Guacamelee 2, but they all tend to be an obvious offshoot of the main path, and seeing as they’re the only alternate path available, one per main track, it feels less like exploration and more like a pit stop.

          I didn’t hate the game by any means, but I wished it had done more to capture some of the original game’s freshness rather than sitting on its laurels and expecting praise. A fresh graphical update, a more complicated story, more interesting relationships between the characters- any of these would have been enough to spice things up. Even a closer focus on level design and pacing could have been helpful, as many of the levels felt endless in spite of their relative brevity. Every area and room looks basically the same and the shape of the levels is arbitrary, fitting power-up usage more than slowly expanding to give you the shape of this unique world like in Hollow Knight. A Metroidvania doesn’t have to hang together perfectly like a real-world location with logical ins and outs, but it should give you that amazing feeling of discovery where you can’t believe you ended up where you did. There should be that satisfaction from opening up a door you found at minute fifteen after two additional hours of gameplay. The fantastic Resident Evil 2 remaster has this sensation in spades, and since there seem to be more examples of this style of gameplay than ever, it’s hard to be on the dev team’s side here. I got this game through Game Pass, and I can only imagine how annoyed I’d be if I paid full price only for the game to be like, “Yeah, you know the drill. Yadda yadda yadda.”

          The parts that work are the combat and platforming, which while often undermined by repetition are basically good, clean fun. As you get further in the game, you’re often asked to quickly press multiple buttons in such rapid fashion that it feels a little bit awkward. The game is easy and very forgiving, but it seems to want to argue with you about how challenging it really is by arbitrarily throwing in a few rooms where the difficulty stems from the fact that you only have two thumbs. Is it particularly fun or rewarding to have to precisely hit the specific inputs in a platforming section? Not really, especially when compared to the combat system that allows you a bit more free-wheeling fun. Maybe the game could have done better to follow the example of Breath of the Wild, allowing for multiple paths to completing puzzles. Sometimes allowing for more creativity lets the player find their own fun, and overall the lack of creativity in Guacamelee 2 is its downfall.