Platformers have had their heyday. In the prime years of the PSX, Nintendo 64 and (by some extension) the PS2, 3D platfomers ruled the roost with gems from the Crash Bandicoot series, Mario 64 and, of course, Banjo Kazooie. The intrepid grizzly bear and his feathered friend were mascots for developers Rare, blending open-world platforming gameplay with charming, colourful worlds and humourous characters. Yooka-Laylee captures this spirit in every sense of the word, but really fails to evolve a formula that is now decades old.
Developers Playtonic Games, being a team that is comprised of many faces that worked on the original two Banjo games, make their efforts to recreate that platforming magic clear from the get go. Yooka Laylee, for all intents and purposes, is a Banjo Kazooie 3 with a character swap. Instead of Banjo we have Yooka – a bright, green chameleon with some truly great animations. Joining him is the purple clad Laylee – an often sarcastic little bat that really does some of Yooka’s heavy lifting in the platforming department.
In their land of whimsical architecture and saturated colour, a dastardly Bumblebee (named only as Capital B) and his rent-a-villain cohorts are busy stealing magical books from all over the place. One special book in particular gets broken and and torn apart, strewing pages across a series of varied landscapes just waiting to be picked up. You, playing as the title duo themselves, are simply tasked with collecting them all, restoring said book and kicking the big bad Capital B from his Hivory Tower stronghold. Straight forward stuff.
Yooka-Laylee then does a good job of opening up in its first few hours. Quickly rushed into the game’s hub world (which could easily be thought of as the sixth in what is otherwise a firmly five world game), you’re free to tackle the game at a pace that suits you. You can use Yooka’s series of jumps, double jumps and rolls to traverse vertically challenging obstacles and slippery surfaces respectively. Even if it takes some time to get used to the slightly erratic controls and the confusing camera, Yooka-Laylee eventually eases you into feeling comfortable for the long ride.
With each new world comes new opportunities to add to your arsenal of moves, which all tie into a central theme for the level. You purchase new moves using quills that are scattered around each landscape, with the ever sleazy Trouzer (a snake in, well, trousers) dishing them out for a nominal fee. You’ll be able to do ground pound attacks, enhance Laylee’s stun attack and add a little velocity to your rolling, all of which help you solve platforming puzzles and get by previously inaccessible foes. It’s nice that you get to choose your path in this regard, which plays well into Yooka-Laylee’s more open-ended design.
What isn’t so compelling is the blatant locking of collectibles behind obstacles that you immediately know you can’t get past. From the very first world you’ll encounter puzzles that you simply don’t have the tools for, which the game will only occasionally make clear to you. These obstacles often lock away the treasured pages you’re meant to collect for progression. Each new world requires a certain amount of pages, which are often easy to collect with regular gameplay. But as the title starts racing towards the end, that requirement spikes up astronomically, and you’re left having to trudge through all five previous worlds again to uncover those pages that are infuriatingly designed to force backtracking.
The worlds themselves are distinct in their make-up, and make for nice environmental changes most of the time. One moment you might be running through a thick jungle pass, while during the next you’re in a snow covered mountain or fog heavy, creepy bog. Some of the details in each area really make the worlds shine too. Glowing Jack-o-lanterns that follow your movement or giant casino chips in a gambling-themed adventure keep the visual variety flowing, and do a decent enough job to mask the limited spaces outside of the main areas you interact with.
Yooka-Laylee’s backdrops are bland and flat for the most part, and they really stick out when you’re exploring the many large open areas that litter each stage. For each little pocket of adventure or action, there’s an area double the size that just acts as filler – letting you take in the less appealing sights and sounds of the world around you. Simple navigation isn’t as fun as it should be either, with many of the game’s systems working against it in their design. A level filled with hazardous liquid (which spits you back to the start of the area if you die) is just one example of how Yooka-Laylee makes getting from A to B a chore that frustrated more than captivated.
Much of the game’s content is similarly shallow. You’ll encounter an array of characters that reappear in each of the game’s worlds, with their own challenges for you to undertake for page rewards. You’ll take part in some slightly exciting races or infrequently engaging puzzles, but for the most part these activities simply implore you to re-tread the same gameplay in a more controlled fashion. Some characters simply want you to find a number of collectibles in an area, or defeat a few enemies before a timer runs out. They are mundane and repetitive most of the time, with only a few glimmers here and there to try and convince you to keep pressing on.
Boss fights are a big part of this, which for the most part manage to challenge your current set of skills in classical, fun ways. Their scale and design sometimes eclipse the quality of the worlds they’re meant to protect, which make for surprisingly fun (if not brief) injections of excitement. Unlike the enemy fodder that litters the rest of the worlds in different skins, these boss fights test nearly all aspects of your move set. And even if some of the attacks have some weird damage triggers, the change of pace is often a welcome one.
That’s especially so when you consider just what else Yooka-Laylee seems to consider as fun, infrequent content. Sometimes when transitioning to new parts of the hub world (required to get to new books that take you to new worlds) you’ll be forced to engage with quizzes. You’ll need to answer ten question correctly to progress, or restart the entire process if you get just three wrong. Questions on the number of collectibles you’ve gathered, the names of never mentioned character races and more, take a long while to eventually start repeating, making these sections long, tedious time wasters. There’s simply no fun to be had when trying to recall how many pages you’ve collected up to this point, or attempting to remember where a random screenshot of gameplay originated from.
Yooka-Laylee’s writing comes off as self-referential then, which clearly was not the intention when it was written. Most of the game’s text attempts to make light of everything happening around you, with an assortment of puns and fourth wall breaking dialogue meant to act as jabs to trends in the industry. A joke about how games never used to break up collectibles into pieces might have been funny if the game didn’t just commit the same crime directly after. A jab at how tedious tutorials are loses all relevance when it’s made in the middle of such a sequence. It’s so frequently ironic that it becomes laughable – and not in the way that the game intends. Younger players might get a kick out of the cheekiness in some more light-hearted responses, at the very least.
Yooka-Laylee is full of curiously poor ideas like this, often permeating through the puzzles you’re meant to solve just to progress. The entire experience is just not fun for long stretches of time. The well executed platforming which is meant to keep the game propped up simply limps to keep the game moving along, while its many puzzles manage to engage and disappoint in equal measure. The game’s real transgressions only get worse as you progress, and nothing hits this home harder than having to re-experience everything it has to offer just to access the final payoff. It’s a classically poor way to add minutes on to the game counter, at a time where you might be wondering if the time you’ve already sunk into it was in any way well spent.
If not for faint glimmers of well thought out design and captivating encounters, Yooka-Laylee would’ve even failed in recapturing the era it so fondly tries to recreate. Instead, it’s successful in doing that. If only to serve as a reminder as to why the industry around it has evolved beyond this particular type of design.