Two creatures, two partners, fighting evil, collecting thingamajigs and opening doors to new worlds. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Almost nostalgic? But no, it’s not Banjo-Kazooie, it’s Yooka Laylee.
Developer: Playtonic Games
Publisher: Terrible Toybox
Release Date: April 2017
Played Main Story
Purchase At: Steam
If Yooka Laylee has something, it’s that it teaches you its strengths and weaknesses in the opening level, at least if you play it as thoroughly as I did while working through this review. As a major fan of this genre, I’ve made it my goal to finish every level in its entirety, collecting every you can pick up—that has a purpose.
In doing so I found a game so focused on reliving the past that it never really takes a step forward, rehashing old ideas and mixing them together, sometimes in clever ways but also in messy ones.
Yooka Laylee is a game clearly inspired by the classics of the genre in the early days of the Nintendo 64, most predominantly among them Banjo-Kazooie, as it follows this game’s blueprint the closest. But while Banjo-Kazooie had a degree of coherence in its zaniness, at least in narrative, Yooka Laylee seems to go further back into that age of gaming where the story was merely an excuse to get you going, even if it makes little sense or characters have the flimsiest of motivations.
In Yooka Laylee, our characters, Yooka, a humanoid iguana, and Laylee, a fruit bat, are chilling at home, enjoying the weather, using a book they found in the shipwreck that makes their home as a coaster for drinks, until the nefarious Capital B—a capitalist Bee and head of an evil corporation—and his henchman Doctor Quack—did you get it?—activate their latest creation, a machine that steals all the books from the world, so they may hold a monopoly on all the world’s books.
But Yooka Laylee doesn’t even wait five minutes before sending that simple, silly and frankly absurd premise out the window by introducing another plot element that makes that plan largely irrelevant. You see, their real goal is to obtain The One Book, which when used will allow its owner to rewrite reality.
Wanna guess where the book was? That’s right, with Yooka and Laylee, who just happen to live next door to Evil Corp. As the book goes flying towards the company, it somehow decides to let its sentient pages escape, some landing close by and some, somehow, making it through strange book-like portals inside the evil headquarters. It’s up to you to recover the pages…because…it’s your book?
Platformers of the Banjo-Kazooie or Super Mario 64 variety never had complex plots, but at least they made sense. Yooka Laylee gives you this nonsense and then piles on evil organisations, board meetings, cutscenes with the villains that I can only assume are meant to be tongue-in-cheek, as if the game took itself too seriously, but fail because none of the characters involved, the world or the premise itself are in any way interesting.
And while we’re at it, the overall writing for the game ranges from passable to complete disaster, with heavy handed jokes, innuendo that is a few worlds removed from subtle and a character, Laylee, with no nuance in how mean they are. Yooka Laylee presents the iguana as the straight man of the duo, but for that to work and make you find them an endearing partnership, the humour must work and not fall on its face constantly.
Gameplay is what you would expect from a game in this genre. You travel to different worlds, solve puzzles, fight enemies and get new and fun abilities so you may collect the prizes that will open the way to new challenges: the pagies, living pages of The One Book. Some of them are loose and you just need to figure out how to reach them, others are the rewards for completing a simple story scenario and others remain locked in chests until you complete the requisite puzzle. It’s classic gameplay and it works…except for some issues of course.
To open new worlds you need a set of pagies, but that’s not all. You can expand each of the worlds you visit, making their book bigger and giving you access to new regions and challenges. I have to admit I liked this mechanic, it gave me a reason to keep collecting pagies and return to the worlds I had already visited—aside from, you know, my completionist nature.
The level design in Yooka Laylee is a bit mixed, with beautiful open worlds with interesting challenges and puzzles in the early levels and a sudden turn for darker and claustrophobic ones as you progress. The marsh level is a sore spot for me, as it’s visually uninteresting, the challenges are bland and the level design makes very little sense.
I have entirely mixed feelings on the hub world, the evil corporation’s headquarters. I like finding new pagies and having puzzles between levels, particularly since some of these offer a nice challenge, but I thoroughly hate how little sense the different wings make when put together. It’s almost as if the designers cobbled together unrelated areas and rooms and created a building for them. There is no coherent thread that binds them, no discernible purpose for their existence save to offer a few puzzles for more pages.
And if that wasn’t enough, the hub world is labyrinthine and monumental pain to traverse. Even when you find a way back to an earlier area, almost in Metroidvania style, the path is so out of the way and so inconveniently placed that it makes its purpose moot. I honestly cannot grasp the design choice behind the hub world, when the core of a hub is to be a centralised location where one can easily reach and travel to other worlds. But in Yooka Laylee, the hub is almost like another of the book-worlds, just one lacking in anything interesting to find.
Yooka Laylee draws heavily from Banjo Kazooie, downright to having a character that offers you transformation, which you’ll then use maybe twice in each world to acquire a couple of pagies and then forget all about them. But where the Banjo Kazooie Shaman was a fun character, the ones in this title are just bland, their design outrageous and outlandish to garner a few cheap laughs.
The strangest design choice in Yooka Laylee, by far must be the inclusion of obligatory minigames. You’ll often come across a very polygonal and “retro” inspired dinosaur with a giant arcade machine, full of minigames that he challenges you to play, earning pagies with each victory, though you first need to find his coin somewhere around the level. These arcades don’t help the experience but hinder it, as the minigames are profoundly uninteresting.
At its best, when you can simply explore worlds and collect pagies, solving puzzles and fighting enemies with the simplistic combat mechanics, Yooka Laylee brings back the games of old back to life, and you will feel the same as you felt back in those days. There’s a degree of freedom in the exploration, with the ability to abuse textures and jump directions to reach almost every place in any level. I liked this, appreciated it in fact as it let me be creative in the way I approached each challenge, in some cases using the clearly marked way to get there and in others just improvising and jumping from one outcropping to the next.
The problem is that Yooka Laylee reuses too many old-school concepts without putting enough new ones in place, so that the resulting experience feels like a re-tread of old ground instead of a new step for the genre.
Nothing makes this adherence to the past more evident that the title’s painfully awkward camera, which very often will switch point of view—and thus facing for the purposes of controller direction—and is generally incredibly uncooperative, and this is from one playing with a mouse and keyboard, a configuration that should offer maximum freedom when using the camera.
But the most heinous crime Yooka Laylee commits is its voice acting, a collection of grunts and noise for each character that makes them seem Pokemon, the downside being that some of the voices are so screechy and loud they become painful to hear, because unlike other titles where characters only make the sound at the beginning of each speech bubble, here they do it for every single word. To make matters worse, it’s impossible to skip text, which I discovered as I pounded the keyboard hoping to find salvation from the horrendous noise acting.
Yooka Laylee could have been a modern take on old concepts, revitalising the subgenre of platformers that Banjo Kazooie helped define, but instead it retreads on familiar ground and can’t seem to ever escape the past.
It’s fun when you’re out exploring worlds and collecting pagies, but you will never escape the annoyances the designers place in your way, for reasons I have yet to decipher
2.5/5 – Average!