It’s impossible to talk about Yooka-Laylee without mentioning notalgia. The recent yearning for glory days gone by is a major reason the game’s Kickstarter campaign proved so successful, breaking records two years ago when it became the fastest game to reach $1million. Players longing for more of the charming 3D platformers that became instant classics on the Nintendo 64 hoped the project would finally recapture that elusive magic, but have the folks at Playtonic delivered the goods?
The characterisation is good, with Dr. Quack fulfilling the henchman role with distinct henchmanliness, but given the richness of some of the villains we see nowadays, it can feel (again, surely quite knowingly) one-note. Some of the other supporting characters tend to be a lot more fun, thanks in no small part to their exposure, and the personification of animate and inanimate objects alike takes place left and right as no one bats an eyelid (no pun intended...).
The core gameplay will have anyone who has played any platformer, not just ones released 20 years ago, feeling immediately at home. Aside from an occasionally awkward camera - an all too common gripe for the genre - the simple combat and traversal mechanics are smooth and easy to get to grips with. One crucial challenge you’ll need to master early on is managing what’s essentially the animal duo’s sprint ability, which sees Yooka roll forward in a ball as Laylee stands atop him and paces him forwards (this bat doesn’t do as much flying as you might assume), which is key to climbing steep inclines, as well as besting some enemies and challenges.
The core gameplay will have anyone who has played any platformer, not just ones released 20 years ago, feeling immediately at home.
Learning moves has often felt like an arbitrary way to gate sections of a game off, but the fact you can unlock them in the order of your choosing in Yooka-Laylee - provided you’ve collected enough items, of course - can lead to some further head-scratching as you try to work out whether you have the right move to do something or are just too stupid to work it out, particularly in the earlier stages of the game.
Making progress involves collecting ‘Pagies’, torn out pages of the magical book central to the story, all of which are locked behind some sort of challenge - generally combat, traversal or puzzle-related - meaning you’ll need to do a few things in each book world before you can move on to the next. A nice touch is the choice to expand a world you’ve already explored rather than jumping into a brand new one, giving you more choice about which way your journey goes.
Working out where to go next can be difficult though as, if you feel like you’ve done all you can in the current locale, the hub world, Hivory Towers, can be a bit of a maze to navigate. There are no objective indicators or all-seeing arrows to give you literal pointers on the best place to go next, so you’ll just have to potter until you figure it out.
You can reclaim some control by utilising Play Tonics (see what they did there?!), which give specific buffs or activate special world modifiers, but you can only choose one at a time. Unlocking them means sampling everything the game has to offer, and, thankfully, the exact requirements are readily viewable. This gives you a range of smaller challenges to shoot for, the rewards for which you can use to make objectives a little easier to complete. Need to race a cloud around a track? (Trust us, it happens) No problem! Get a boost to how long you can move quickly before you need some health/energy-replenishing butterflies.
Some challenges feel more reasonable than others, with it up to the player to decide whether defeating a giant boss is more attractive than just moving through an area within a time limit. It ultimately depends on your play style, but if you don’t like the feel of one of the recurring challenges you can always ignore them, though it will mean missing out on the bragging rights that go with 100% completion.
Although many platformers punish players with incredibly hard ordeals which force countless retries and perfect timing, there’s not too much of that here. Most challenges will become clear without too much thought (providing you have the right moves unlocked), though actually doing what they ask of you can be more taxing.
Functionally, the game performs well on Xbox - whether the experience holds together on Nintendo Switch, where, arguably, the style seems a more natural fit, remains to be seen. It’s easy to overlook the fact that Playtonic are a relatively small outfit, with the game being published by Grand Masters of the Worms franchise Team 17, so to see something so polished and consistent in its art style and technical performance is impressive.
There are definitely the beginnings of something special here, and embracing the tone of the game is the biggest factor in enjoying it. If you play it without quite getting its sense of humour then it will feel like a struggle, just as those expecting logic and reason at every turn will be disappointed by the slight vein of mayhem that runs throughout.
When approached in the right mindset, Yooka-Laylee can be a Force Awakens, introducing a whole new generation of fans to a franchise by showing off exactly why their parents fell in love with it in the first place. The issue is that this is a new IP, there’s no Banjo here (he’s a bear, not a musical instrument, if you’re wondering) and no thread to pick up from what has come before - it’s absolutely a brand new game.
Going back to Banjo-Kazooie now, even comparing it to its own sequel you do see things which were improved and moved forward, but with Yooka-Laylee you’re not sure whether it should feel like Banjo-Threeie, Thirty-Threeie, or something completely different, and that lack of clarity might be too much for some people.
Having poured in a number of hours, it a brought a smile to our faces whenever we met a character with a pun-tastic name, or came across some contrived reason for our heroes to complete a task just to retrieve a torn scrap of paper. There’s love poured into every area of the game, from the upbeat score that’s packed with nostalgic motifs and takes on a different feel depending on where you might be, to the bizarre and unusual things you can turn into after giving one recurring NPC a ‘Mollycool’.
In the end, there’s a lot of skill and creativity on display, but there will undoubtedly be many who went in imagining their own version of what the game should be depending on their own exposure to 3D platformers. The important thing is that you can actually play this game, enjoy it and want more - which is what, we hope, Playtonic were going for.