A good reminder that this genre, once thought to be dead, still has some life left in it.
When it’s at its best, Yooka-Laylee reminds me of why 3D platformers have been one of my favorite game genres for the past two decades. Its colorful worlds, vibrant and funny characters, and generally smart and entertaining level design often had me grinning as I remembered my times with games like its not-so-thinly-veiled inspiration, Banjo-Kazooie. But while I enjoyed my 15 hours in the world created by developer Playtonic, I was bummed to notice camera issues, some bland activities, and small number of worlds that keep Yooka-Laylee from reaching the heights of its predecessors.
Like the iconic 3D platformers of the 64-bit era, Yooka-Laylee follows a very familiar and much-appreciated formula. You have your hub world, which acts as a sprawling maze that teaches you the basic mechanics before allowing you to really stretch your legs in a handful of huge, colorful stages. You explore the spaces, gather hundreds of different knick-knacks that can be used to purchase new abilities, discover new worlds, and unlock fun retro-arcade games that can be played locally with up to three other pals in a mode separate from the main campaign.
I’m a big fan of the sheer amount and variety of abilities that the two characters you control simultaneously, Yooka and Laylee, amass over the course of the campaign. Their relationship is both cute and functionally similar to that of Banjo and Kazooie: Yooka is a heroic lizard who does most of the heavy lifting, while Laylee is a sarcastic bat with abilities like a sonar ray that unlocks invisible objects, and a brief invincibility barrier that act as support. Standard platforming stuff like double jumps, flight, and a ground pound are joined by some surprising new additions that I really appreciated. For example, Yooka can temporarily assume the properties of certain objects that you lick in environment — applying your tongue to honey, for instance, makes you sticky, allowing you to walk across slick surfaces. Powers like this make for some really interesting puzzles, especially when paired with other temporarily abilities like shooting out flaming projectiles. It was satisfying to come to a puzzle, experiment with the objects nearby, and eventually come to creative solution.
The whole time, though, you have to wrestle against the fact that the controls and physics never feel quite as polished as the old-school Mario, Banjo, or Ratchet games. There were several times where I failed challenge, not because of a fault of my own, but because of slight collision, timing, and camera issues. That’s a problem, considering that platforming is the crux of everything you do here, including the exploration. While it’s never outright bad, there are moments when it becomes increasingly frustrating when it stacks with a camera that occasionally gets locked in geometry and actively fought back as I tried to get a better view of my surroundings and challenges. It’s not 1998 anymore, and the second a game’s camera becomes noticeable is when it becomes an issue. This happened to me a bit too often throughout my adventure.
Camera aside, one of my main gripes with Yooka is that there are only five worlds to explore outside of the hub. That’s definitely a disappointment, especially when you factor in that one of the five is flat-out not good. The fourth, a sprawling casino, is disappointingly lifeless considering the gaudy source material. This place is flat, dull, and filled with banal, chance-based tasks like slot machines that grind the pace of the adventure to a halt if you don’t have awesome luck. Given that this world is 20% of the total game, it’s absolutely a letdown.
Thankfully, the other four worlds each pull their weight, from Mayan ruins that sprawl out on a series of floating islands to an icy castle that’s home to a series of fun and surprising challenges that call back to early, lesser-known Rare games from the ‘80s. And while I’m definitely disappointed in the scant amount of worlds, I really love that each one can be expanded by spending some of the collectibles you find. I got a lot of satisfaction out of exploring a level, learning its intricacies, and collecting everything I could get my hands on, only to watch the entire thing double in size and offer up a whole new bunch of challenges. The constant cycle of exploring and gathering currency which can then be used to expand the levels, allowing you to explore and gather more is really satisfying, as is physically seeing a location change. For example, a locked castle in the ice world suddenly opens up, offering dozens of new and unexpected challenges.
Each of the worlds is massive – easily bigger than any of the stages in the original Banjo – and apart from the casino, they’re crammed with interesting activities to engage with in exchange for doo-dads and knick-knacks. From minecart challenges that harken back to Donkey Kong Country to some fun and clever boss fights against giant enemies brimming with personality, each one forcing me to master a handful of Yooka’s abilities. That said, there are a handful of annoying tasks, particularly a handful of trivia challenges that take the quiz scene from the original Banjo Kazooie, which many (myself included) consider to be the worst part of that game, and double down on the frustration. Asking me the name of a minor NPC that I didn’t even know had a name, or what my current playtime is and giving me the option of three times that are very close together doesn’t make for a very entertaining quiz. (Source: I run a pub trivia night at a local bar.)
Those few bad apples aside, the writing has the same British charm and wit that we’ve come to express from the ex-Rare developers. Meta-jokes about the genre’s past and Yooka-Laylee’s crowdfunding origins are in abundance, and the cast of talking critters throughout the worlds is diverse and memorable. A paranoid narcotics dealing snake named Trowzer sells your new abilities, while a depressed cloud named Nimbus is depressed because his wife left him for a typhoon. The Banjo series has always been known for an eclectic and iconic cast of characters, and Yooka-Laylee absolutely lives up to that pedigree.
Speaking of living up to Rare’s legacy, Yooka-Laylee has really great soundtrack that 100% feels like it was recorded in the late ‘90s, which I mean in the best possible way. Coupled with all of the characters making the same weird kinds of noises that I’ve been imitating since the original Banjo, and Yooka-Laylee is a joy to the ears.