A Blast to the Past
Back in the late 90s, the N64 and PlayStation brought unprecedented processing power to the console market, and with it a leap into 3D. Many old genres were updated to account for the third dimension, and platforming was chief among them, with many titles like Super Mario 64, Crash Bandicoot, and Spyro the Dragon. It was a magical time for many gamers, where platforming became more about exploring lush and beautiful worlds that captured our imaginations and our hearts.
One of the most memorable of these was a plucky title for the N64, developed by Rare, titled Banjo-Kazooie. Full of diverse characters, colorful environments, an unforgettable soundtrack, and that crass and cheeky British humour, the game was a huge commercial success and remains a fan favorite to this day.
Banjo-Kazooie followed the titular musical themed animal duo as they stormed the antagonist’s tower, completing puzzles in the various themed worlds within to collect jigsaw puzzle pieces and notes scattered throughout to open up more of the hub. Each world also had a unique character transformation one could use to complete puzzles and traverse the stage.
Now, at this point you might be wondering why we’re discussing an old series from the 90s that hasn’t released a new game in nine years. Indeed, the title of this review is Yooka-Laylee, which is a plucky title for the PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC that was developed by Playtonic games. In Yooka-Laylee, you control the titular musical themed animal duo as they storm the antagonist’s tower, completing puzzles in the various themed worlds within to collect golden pages and quills scattered throughout to unlock more moves. Each world also had a unique character transformation one could use to complete puzzles and traverse the stage.
The similarities between the two games are intentional, as Yooka-Laylee is a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie, and created by several of the minds behind the latter, including Grant Kirkhope, Steve Mayles, and Chris Sutherland. Partially funded through Kickstarter, it was intended as a nostalgic trip back to the old 3D platforming genre. The question remains; how successful were they, and is that a good thing?
The story follows Yooka the Chameleon and Laylee the Bat as they uncover a strange book with golden pages and plan to sell it for tons of cash. Unfortunately, their prize floats up and away and leaves them, courtesy of antagonist Capital B’s Noveliser 64, a device that is stealing all the world’s books for a nefarious purpose. They’ll have to infiltrate his tower and take back their book… and save the world if they really have to.
The plot takes a back seat over the course of the game, outside of the bee villain tossing buzzword-laden taunts your way. Instead, as you explore the five worlds within the tower, you’ll find various characters with their own problems to solve, which is where Rare’s writing really shines. Most of the characters are genuinely entertaining to talk to, with plenty of wit and puns thrown around.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of variety in characters. There’s a recurring cast of characters who are traveling among the worlds, like the Knights of Hamalot or Clara the Adventurer, who you’ll get to know over the course of your adventure. Outside of that, the worlds have a shocking lack of native characters, with usually just five or so related to a single objective and that’s it. The enemies have a similar lack of variety, with the same cast of reskinned villains across all the worlds aside from the bosses. This leads to the various worlds having a lack of individual identity in spite of the beautiful environments.
They’ve Got the Moves
Moves are what makes a good 3D platformer, and Yooka-Laylee does not disappoint here. On top of staples like high jumps, gliding, and slope traversal, there are a number of moves that highlight the unique abilities of the two animals. Yooka has a suite of moves that change his colors as he gains various temporary powerups from food, such as elemental breath weapons, glowing, or becoming heavy (from eating a cannonball of all things). Laylee’s powers mostly center around flight and sonar, allowing you to stun and attack enemies or activate switches.
In a departure from previous games, there are no collectibles to power your moves this time around. Instead they will be temporary powerups from something you lick in the world, allowing you free reign to use it as much as you like nearby, or make use of an energy bar that refills swiftly after a few seconds of not using it. This is a welcome change that avoids the usual “I need to save this for later” mindset many players fall into.
The one area they did not improve upon was the character transformations. They’re often used for only a single objective or two and control worse than traversing the level normally in most cases. They wind up feeling less like a reward for finding a level’s hidden “Mollycool” and more like something you simply put up with for a golden page.
A Good Old Time
Nostalgia is the main driving force for Yooka-Laylee, and it really shows. On top of reviving an old genre, a lot of the game’s humor pokes fun at old trends in gaming, especially with the recurring characters of Rextro and Kartos, who embody retro gaming and mine cart sections respectively. However, these sections also carry the difficulty of older games, leading to some of the most frustrating sections of the game.
Rextro and Kartos are far from the only sections of the game to adhere to classic gameplay at the expense of ease of play, and a lot of your enjoyment of this game will likely involve how much you are willing to forgive frustrating features here and there.
That said, as of the time of this review they are working on patching a few of the features, such as the camera, to push the game a little more towards modern gameplay trends.
A Gem in the Rough
Overall, Yooka-Laylee is a game with a ton of retro-inspired heart, but a definite lack of polish may disappoint fans who expected the quality of their previous Banjo-Kazooie titles. With a smaller team, smaller development time, and a lower price in the end at $40, it’s still a good deal for those looking for a modern 3D platformer.
At the end of the day, despite some issues here and there, I had fun with this title, and I look forward to seeing what Playtonic does with Yooka-Tooie.
~Final Score: 7/10~
Review copy purchased by reviewer for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.