When Yooka-Laylee (2017) was announced by Playtonic Games, a dev studio with former Rare members on its staff, a Kickstarter campaign was launched that received £2,094,104. The consensus was clear; give us the 3D platformer of our childhoods.
The relevance here is that Rare developed the now legendary platformer, Banjo-Kazooie (1998) and Playtonic Games set out with the expressed intent to create its spiritual successor. This could not be clearer, given that the names for each game share similarities in how they roll of the tongue.
Now, full disclosure, I’ve never played Banjo-Kazooie, which many will probably think puts me at a disadvantage to review this title. However, this means that that I won’t be looking at Yooka-Laylee whilst influenced by halcyon days. I am aware of Banjo-Kazooie, it’s significance on the 3D platformer genre, and have played enough similar games to understand their mechanics and conventions.
With that in mind, I am confused as to what Yooka-Laylee does for the genre. It plays much the same as similar games from the 1990’s, with the exception that it adds more scope to its level design and features nicer visuals, though these are testaments to how far technology has advanced, rather than taking the genre one step further. The game has a look and feel that is clearly designed for children, but some of the puzzle-design and boss battles are too unintuitive. Some gags are not child-friendly either. Very early in the game you meet a snake character, who’s a dodgy-dealer type and sells you move upgrades in exchange for quills, which are the collectable currency peppered throughout the game’s levels. Though this character is called ‘Trowzer’, and I shouldn’t have to spell out what the joke is.
In many regards, Playtonic Games are revisiting a time when games didn’t offer world maps or insistent tutorial text, creating an experience that doesn’t guide the player, allowing them to think on their own two feet. This would suggest that the game is made for adults, but thematically and aesthetically, the game doesn’t appeal to that wider, adult audience either.
Yooka-Laylee appears to be solely for those who pledged to the campaign. A love-letter to N64 games and those who still bathe in their nostalgic afterglow. From that perspective, it feels unfair of me to criticise Playtonic Games for doing exactly what they set out to do. Though the reliance on the traditional mechanics and features of the 3D platformer, spells out a desire to create a game which is Banjo-Kazooie in everything but name only serves to be a detriment. It’s fine to pay homage to your inspirations, or in this case, your previous works, but to replicate them entirely makes the game feel tiring very early on.
Yooka-Laylee does feature a nice soundtrack, filled with jolly and bashful tunes, but not all are good. The music in the hub world, where you will visit to traverse between levels, has a loud, obnoxiously bombastic music, which irritates after a while. Another point of contention is how the characters interact with one another, communicating using buzzes, squeeks, hums and grunts. It’s intended to be cute and charming, to make each character feel endearing, irrespective of their role in the story, but it ends up grating, especially having to sit through unskippable cut scenes with long stretches of dialogue. The option to skip these moments or even turn off the dialogue sound effects, would have been welcome.
The story Yooka-Laylee tells is simple. Antagonists Mr B and Dr Quack, of evil corporation, Hivory Towers, want to absorb all of the world’s literature and convert it into profit. This sees the duo of Yooka, a lizard, and Laylee, a bat, explore the world to collect, ‘pagies,’ and stop both Mr B and Dr Quack from realising their evil plot. It’s exactly the cartoony story to expect from a game like Yooka-Laylee and gives appropriate context to the adventure.
Level design is also inconsistent. To be clear, when it’s good, it’s very good, but it also goes the other way. It starts with its best level, which features a variety of well designed vertical areas, ripe with challenging platforming sections. Sadly, they slowly fizzle out, offering flat levels which become samey and uninteresting as they go along, offering dull side activities given by otherwise interesting characters. The hub world can be a pain to navigate, with it being necessary to revisit the different worlds several times as the game progresses. It becomes a chore going back and forth and it really feels as though a fast-travel option should have been available.
You access and expand the levels by collecting book pages, which are scattered across each level, accessible by completing quests and activities for different characters, or by completing platforming puzzles. Each level has about 25 pages, and you don’t need them all to advance to the next stage, so there is replay value for those looking to 100% the game. It just depends on whether Yooka-Laylee meets your expectations. Were you looking for a carbon copy of 3D platformer games from the 1990’s, or a title that expands and innovates the genre? If it’s the former, then there is some fun to be had. For all I found annoying, I did find myself at times enjoying this experience, despite the controls not being as solid as other games in this genre.
Yooka-Laylee has me split between two mindsets. I am both disappointed with how little the game offers that is new, but feel Playtonic games deserves to be lauded for their efforts on bringing about a game that almost nearly replicates those golden-days of N64 gaming. Essentially, it all boils down to what you want to get out of Yooka-Laylee and if you’re willing to overlook its flaws to feel like a child again.