My time with Yooka Laylee was a roller coaster of emotions. From nostalgia, to apprehension, to, finally, excitement, Playtonic’s spiritual successor to the classic N64 title Banjo-Kazooie, is a 3D platformer in pure form. But, do the gameplay styles of yesterday still work in the present? Read our Yooka-Laylee review to find out.
The story starts with the antagonist hatching a plot to steal every book in the world and turn them into profit. Yooka and Laylee are relaxing and enjoying a nice day, completely oblivious to the fact that every book in the world is being sucked through the air like a giant vacuum cleaner, until their special book is snatched away, it’s pages being scattered as it flies off. The duo sets out to Hivory Towers to recover their book and it’s this simple premise that puts the game in motion.
While older genre fans will experience something comforting and familiar when playing Yooka-Laylee for the first time, the relative absence of collect-a-thon platformers in the current zeitgeist may come across as very different to new-comers. This game isn’t pushed forward by engaging storylines or creative freedom. There is no sense of go anywhere, do anything openness, and no level cap to strive for. At it’s core, Yooka-Laylee is about jumping around and collecting.
Each of the games’ 5 unlockable worlds provides a unique environmental theme that the puzzles are based around for the heroic team of Yooka, a chameleon, and Laylee, a bat, to make their way through. The goal is to collect pages, or Pagies, of a special book that was stolen by the evil capitalist bee, Capital B. These worlds are connected by a central hub, the aforementioned Hivory Towers, which provides its own platforming puzzles to navigate to the Grand Tomes that hold these different levels.
While not an open world in the current sense of the term, after the first level, players can generally make their way to any of the others with some minimal gating. Worlds are contained in giant books and each one requires a number of pagies in order to unlock. Along with that, some of the areas of Hivory Towers also require new moves to access, but the game is quite free about giving you the needed move near where it’s required, provided by Trowzer the snake.
Yes, you read that correctly. Yooka-Laylee is full of this kind of humor. While Yooka is generally earnest and interested in helping everyone, Laylee is often sarcastic and scathing, commenting in humorous ways on all the silly puns and ridiculous situations that populate these worlds. It’s this feeling of silly, unbridled fun that’s part of what makes Yooka Laylee a special experience. While gaming as a media has worked hard to push into more serious storytelling, Playtonic remembers and revels in a time when some games were just about play.
Sometimes though, that reveling can be taken in the wrong direction. One character, Rextro provides arcade mini games as a simple distraction. Your milage will vary, but I found them to be boring, and occasionally difficult to control. They were distraction that didn’t enhance the game and were easily ignored. Quizzes also make a return from Banjo-Kazooie and, to be frank, they are down right terrible. Besides needing certain items or moves, some areas are also blocked off with a quiz, which test how much you’ve been paying attention; asking questions like how many collectable you have or guessing the area based on a picture. They are boring, not challenging, and the overall experience would not have suffered if this feature had been left on the cutting room floor.
In many ways, video games have changed since the days of the Nintendo 64. While Yooka Laylee does a good job at updating the genre, some of the old marks are still there and may not appeal to everyone. With 5 worlds, each one is significantly larger than those found in its spiritual predecessor. However, there are some levels where the open space feels empty, with few enemies or puzzles to interact with at any given time. There are also not a large number of enemy types and while some have unique strategies needed to dispatch them, the majority of the pawn like enemies are simply re-skinned for different levels and are easily eliminated by spinning into them with the press of a button.
The camera can also cause trouble at time. The default setting was too loose, in this reviewer’s opinion, but adjusting it made the controls much better. However, that camera would have a tendency to get caught on scenery, occasionally bouncing around for a few seconds before finally settling. There were also odd moments when camera controls were limited. Even in the open air, the game would sometimes lock the camera angle low during certain platforming segments, making precise jumps that much more difficult.
Among their many abilities, early on Yooka can eat certain plants and then shoot them out as projectiles. These last only a short amount of time but are fired using the same button as the standard attack. Shooting from the normal 3rd person view is far less than exact. This led to some frustration where Yooka was shooting wildly while waiting for the projectile timer to run out, when a spin attack would have worked just fine. Clicking the left stick entered an over the shoulder camera, which offers more precise aiming but this locked Yooka in place and also, would not always activate especially right after coming to a stop. This made some puzzles where you have to pick up a projectile and then move to a location to use it before the invisible time ran out tedious.
Individually, these are all small complaints, but when taken together, they can result in the moments of unnecessary frustration.
When you really get into the flow though, these flaws don’t seem as important. The worlds are quite large and often when you’re done with one puzzle, there’s another one close at hand. These different world can also be expanded to add additional collectables and challenges, and it’s up to the player whether they want to expand and explore a world further, or use those items to unlock the next.
One aspect of the game that has been brought up by many outlets leading to its release is the return of composer Grant Kirkhope, who previously worked on Banjo-Kazooie as well as a number of other games. The music in Yooka Laylee is fun and fitting to the style of the game, but nothing has really stuck out as iconic. In fact, staying in one world for too long can cause the music to grow a tad tiresome. Only time will tell if certain pieces will live on with players the way some of his past efforts have.
Yooka Laylee is also pleasing to look at. It’s cartoony aesthetic will not win any awards, but it does ensure that the game will continue to look nice for years down the road, and on any platform. This is what your mind remembers older, favorite 3D games looking like, in the same way that Shovel Knight does for NES games. When talking to the fun and cleverly design NPC, they all have little motions and quirks that repeat over and over, which can be a nice break because Yooka-Laylee forgoes talking characters for text boxes. These texts are accompanied by a flapping head and an uniques grunts and squawks to give the otherwise silent characters personality. These can be fun, especially for those who remember Banjo-Kazooie, but during the occasional cut scene, which cannot be skipped or sped up, they began to get annoying after a few minutes.
Looking back over this review, there are two things that keep coming up; fun and comparisons to older games. Because that’s what Yooka Laylee is at its core. It is joyous in its embrace of a different time in gaming’s history. Despite some of its design flaws, Yooka Laylee is just fun. Older gamers and especially fans of the genre will find a lot to love here. What was brought to life as a spiritual successor to a popular game of the past lives up to that promise. Those unfamiliar may not be as forgiving of some of the quirks, but there is a lot of good fun to be had with Yooka Laylee.
+ Nostalgia (in a good way)
+ Open-ish world design
+ Humorous characters and dialogue
– Quiz game interruption
– Projectiles are a nuisance
Final Score: 8.0/10
Reviewed on Xbox One. An advance copy was provided for the this review.