There was a time when colourful 3D platformers and their characters ruled videogaming. The likes of Spyro, Conker, Crash Bandicoot, Mario, and my personal favourites Banjo, and Kazooie, introduced a generation of kids to videogames. Yooka-Laylee, developed by Playtonic Games, is a return to that 90s formula of videogames.
The game follows Yooka, a green chameleon, and Laylee a purple bat, as they go up against Capital B and Dr. Quack, two evil businessmen that are stealing all of the books in the world for profit. It's a fairly simple narrative that gives Yooka and Laylee purpose whilst driving the story forward. A lot of the main characters, notably Dr Quack are incredibly funny, serving players some of the game's most humorous moments.
Gameplay is based on one simple premise: collect everything. It's the same one that drove much of Banjo-Kazooie, and fans of that series are going to feel right at home. Each level is filled with quills, ghosts, and pagies, pages that have been torn out of a magical book. Pagies are the main currency in Yooka-Laylee, they unlock and expand new levels, forming your primary form of progression through the game. Quills are the most abundant collectible throughout the game, and collecting a certain amount of them will unlock moves found throughout each level.
Players will traverse the world using those unlocked moves and include but are not limited to: extended jumps, hovering, butt slams and eventually flight. Some of the abilities learned also have a limited use time, something that is measured through a stamina system. The stamina system is used to limit some abilities, meaning something like flight can’t be over used. To refill stamina players must collect butterflies scattered throughout the game. Moves are gradually unlocked as the game advances and the further players advance into the world, the more impressive and liberating the moves are - giving players much more verticality.
On top of the move system, there are also elemental modifiers scattered around the world. Yooka swallows these in order to modify his appearance or abilities. For example, swallowing a fire plant will endow Yooka with the ability to breathe fire, and other plants have corresponding effects. These form the base of many puzzles within Yooka-Laylee, forcing players to think logically about each one of the elements affect on each other as well as the world.
The transformations that were such a large part of Banjo-Kazooie make a welcome return in Yooka-Laylee. Each level has a special transformation that is relevant to a set of challenges within that level. While a couple of them do miss the mark, and force some really dreadful platforming, they are at least a welcome change of pace that portray creativity of the Playtonic team.
A new addition to Yooka-Laylee is the inclusion of Tonics, a system that modifies gameplay by altering current abilities or adding unusual effects. Some of these are more on the silly side, whilst some have positive gameplay effects like increasing the amount of stamina or health Yooka and Laylee have. It’s a nice system that doesn’t take anything away from gameplay, but adds just enough to make it feel like a unique experience.
In an age where developers are constantly chasing hyper-realism in games, the industry has gradually lost bright and vivid colour palettes, in place of grey and brown urban landscapes. Yooka-Laylee chooses to ignore the norm, giving players one of the most colourful and imaginative landscapes I've seen in a long time. It's stunning game that manages to recreate the 64-bit visuals of its predecessor, whilst creating a title that can sit among the competition in the modern era.
There are five levels for players to explore in Yooka-Laylee, and I won’t spoil names as finding them is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game. The levels themselves are often well designed if a little too large, although it is often the individual areas within these levels that leave a lasting impression. One such area, called Icymetric Palace is a clever change of pace from the rest of the game, forcing players to adapt to a different camera style.
One thing that sets Yooka-Laylee apart from its predecessors is the addition of level expansions. Once the player has attained a certain number of Pagies, players can then begin to expand levels. It’s a nice system that encourages re-exploration later on in the game once players have unlocked more skills. It’s something that shows off the power of Unity as a development tool, given that some of the expanded levels add some seriously huge areas - this is most visible in the first area, Tribalstack Tropics.
The expanded levels come with both benefits and drawbacks. While there are only five levels, each one of them is a 3-4 hour affair depending on how committed you are to 100% completion. The levels are intimidatingly large in places, making for quite a conflicting experience compared to Banjo-Kazooie. Yooka-Laylee follows the larger more explorative and emergent gameplay of Banjo-Tooie, rather than the tighter level design of its predecessor, Banjo-Kazooie.
Enemy design is one of the weakest aspects in Yooka-Laylee. Visually, many of the designs are unimaginative, with only one or two varied enemies through each level alongside a generic stock of recurring monsters. There's an enemy that is literally a pair of eyes attached to the nearest item. It’s not the worst set of antagonists I’ve ever seen in a game, but I honestly expected better from the team that created The Great Mighty Poo.
My biggest issue with Yooka-Laylee is that many of the same issues from the Banjo-Kazooie series have managed to make their way into the title. The camera can be incredibly bothersome at times, and depending on the environment you are in, you can often end up fighting with it. Checkpointing is also an issue; the game will always respawn you at the last door you walked through, but with such large levels this can be an unreasonable distance away. When tackling a specific area or puzzle the checkpointing often only adds to your frustrations.
The writing is a bit too juvenile in places. Rather than great dialogue with jokes and puns scattered in between, the entire dialogue is just one big joke. It feels like the writers are constantly giving you a nudge in the arm, reminding you that you are indeed playing a videogame. It’s not offensively bad, and the ability to skip text chat would likely make this a non-issue. I do believe that some players will genuinely love the humour, but it’s a bit too meta for me.
Banjo-Kazooie’s original soundtrack creator, Grant Kirkhope makes a welcome return in Yooka-Laylee. The game’s score is incredibly reminiscent of his previous work with the team. Each world is accompanied by a suitable soundtrack that breathes life into the characters and environments. The soundtrack isn’t quite as memorable as the Banjo-Kazooie soundtrack, but it’s still an enjoyable affair.
At its best, Yooka-Laylee reminds me why I fell in love with colourful platformers, it's a love letter to childhood nostalgia. At its worst, Yooka-Laylee reminds me why we moved away from platforming games: odd design choices and occasional bugs sour the experience. Regardless, Yooka-Laylee is the closest we’re ever going to get to a Banjo-Kazooie successor. It's predecessor was a masterpiece, a series that formed a solid foundation for an entire generation’s introduction to videogaming. Fortunately, Playtonic has managed to recapture that magic.
Yooka-Laylee (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
At its best, Yooka-Laylee reminds me why I fell in love with colourful platformers, it's a love letter to childhood nostalgia. At its worst, Yooka-Laylee reminds me why we moved away from platforming games: odd design choices and occasional bugs sour the experience.