Adventure through colorful worlds like it’s 1997.
PC Release: April 11, 2017
By Ian Coppock
Even for a medium as fluid as video games, the demise of the open-world platformer was breathtakingly fast. The 90’s were replete with titles like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, in which players were free to explore massive worlds littered with hidden treasure. Despite massive popularity, the genre largely died out at the turn of the century, and has remained quiet for the better part of two decades. With games like 2014’s The Last Tinker and last fall’s Unbox, though, it’s starting to creep back into the gaming scene. Yooka-Laylee, the subject of tonight’s review, is the strongest sign yet of the open-world platforming genre’s push into contemporary gaming.
The title Yooka-Laylee is immediately reminiscent of 1998’s Banjo-Kazooie, and that’s no coincidence. Not only is this new game a spiritual successor to that legendary platformer… it’s made by the same team of former Rare developers, who reunited after nearly 20 years under the banner of Playtonic Games. The team’s stated goal with Yooka-Laylee is to bring back the open-world platforming genre that gaming has been sorely missing, and to create a title that they hoped would match the vibrancy and variety of one of the Rare era’s best platformers. Just like Banjo-Kazooie, Yooka-Laylee sees a duo of cartoonish animals square off against an equally cartoonish evil, with plenty of platforming to boot.
Yooka-Laylee kicks off with the game’s titular characters, a chameleon named Yooka and a bat named Laylee, relaxing perilously close to the premises of the nefarious Hivory Towers. The adventure starts when the One Book, a golden-paged tome that Laylee found, gets stolen by the evil Capital B and his sidekick, Dr. Quack. The pair hope to use the tome to rewrite the universe, but not before stealing all the world’s books and turning them into money! That latter plot detail kinda falls to the wayside, but it doesn’t stop the heroic duo from breaking into Hivory Towers to stop Capital B and save the universe.
Yooka and Laylee manage to break into Hivory Towers (the door was open) but the One Book’s magical pages get scattered all over the place. Collecting “Pagies” is the main goal of the game; they are to Yooka and Laylee what Jiggies were to Banjo and Kazooie, and golden stars were to Mario. To find all the Pagies, Yooka and Laylee have to dive into huge worlds brimming with treasure. Collecting Pagies is not only the only way to confront Capital B, but also to open up new worlds for exploration. Yooka-Laylee contains five big worlds with themes similar to those of Banjo-Kazooie, while Hivory Towers serves as a hub world that binds it all together.
Like Banjo-Kazooie, Yooka-Laylee is a third-person platformer that emphasizes scouring the aforementioned big worlds for hidden treasures. In addition to Pagies, players can also find a riot of other collectibles. Quills, for example, allow players to learn new moves useful for accessing new areas. There are also more conventional pickups, like health and power upgrades. Pagies are still the most important item for players to find; some are awarded to Yooka and Laylee for completing challenges, while others are hiding out there just waiting to be discovered.
Yooka-Laylee‘s gameplay is pure Rare platformer. While out exploring the world, players can use different abilities to speed across terrain, jump to new heights, and break through physical barriers. Like Banjo and Kazooie, Yooka and Laylee execute these moves by working together as a team, with coordination that can only be described as symbiotic. Players start out running and jumping, but can learn how to blast through barriers, fly, and even absorb new abilities from the world around them. Provided they’ve found a certain squid-woman scientist, players can even transform into new creatures for taking on previously inaccessible challenges. Most monsters go down in one hit, but boss battles are a little more complicated.
Using these abilities is essential for collecting Pagies and advancing to new worlds, as well as finding the other useful pickups hidden around each level. Most challenges revolve around using these powers to destroy an obstacle or complete a task, sometimes with a time limit, and getting a Pagie as a reward. These tasks are usually performed at the behest of an NPC, who can’t be bothered to just hand the damn Pagie over even though the universe is in danger of being destroyed. No, no, there are rules, ways that these things have to be done. A quest to save the universe is moot, but jump through these hoops (literally) and somehow that’s way more impressive.
Even though five worlds may not sound like a lot, each of Yooka-Laylee‘s treasure-filled realms is a sight to behold. The game’s textures could stand some sharpening, but its worlds are colorful and gorgeously detailed. Like Banjo-Kazooie, Yooka-Laylee‘s worlds are expansive and each revolve around a singular theme, like a ruins-filled jungle, a winter wonderland, or a spooky swamp. The intergalactic pirate cove world is particularly beautiful. Each world varies visually but their basic layouts are all similar: a large ground area studded with obstacles and opportunities to jump high or swim low.
Though running around these worlds looking for treasure is fun and quite reminiscent of the best 90’s Rare games, there is quite a bit of pointless space packed into each one. Between each challenge and cluster of quills is a ton of open space that, while useful for establishing the world’s sense of scale, leaves players spending an inordinate amount of time running from place to place. Scale can be achieved without putting an empty space the size of a football field between Pagies, but Yooka-Laylee nixes compacting its levels a bit in favor of leaving them too big. As a result, each world has a lot of ground to cover but also ends up feeling empty.
Although Yooka-Laylee runs well and suffers almost no bugs or in-game problems, some of its gameplay does feel rather dated. Embarrassingly, the game contains a few gameplay issues that were endemic to 90’s games but successfully omitted in other, more recent releases, including imprecise controls and occasionally tedious platforming. The fact that Playtonic has reintroduced these long-corrected issues with a 2017 title is embarrassing. It suggests that the team entered some sort of hibernation after developing Banjo-Kazooie and emerged from their slumber blissfully unaware of the advances that have been made in game design these last 20 years.
To be fair, though, some of the issues plaguing Yooka-Laylee have been greatly exaggerated. Critics at the bigger networks have taken this game to task for its camera controls, which, to hear them tell it, are the worst thing to befall mankind since the Bubonic Plague. The camera does struggle to provide decent angles on occasion, including during the first world’s boss fight and in a few puzzles, but it’s not anything that players will be fighting constantly. Usually it does a pretty fluid job of following the player, without necessitating constant push-back.
The main concern to be had with Yooka-Laylee is how in lockstep it is with Banjo-Kazooie. It feels less like a spiritual successor and more like a reskinned Banjo-Kazooie that was ported to modern systems. Though Yooka-Laylee is visually superior to that venerated title, there’s almost nothing in the game that wasn’t also present in its predecessor. The characters do that Banjo-Kazooie thing where they repeat a few odd noises every time they talk, and virtually all of the collectibles are stand-ins for the items found in Banjo-Kazooie. Even Yooka-Laylee‘s fonts are nigh identical to those of Banjo-Kazooie.
None of these things are necessarily bad, but they do represent a missed opportunity to innovate the open-world collectathon. Playtonic did streamline a few things here and there, like how the player absorbs and uses different types of projectile weapons, but the otherwise rigid adherence to what Banjo-Kazooie already pioneered makes Yooka-Laylee feel cheap. The fun and nostalgia that its open-world gameplay brings back to the scene is compounded by a weary sense of repetition. It’s at once demonstrative of the genre’s resilience over time, but also leaves players wondering that they’ve already seen this exact game before.
Yooka-Laylee is somewhat aware of how dated some of its design has become, as demonstrated by the game’s writing. The dialogue is rife with funny little fourth-wall breaks, as well as jabs at how the gaming industry has changed since the 90’s. Capital B in particular cracks a lot of jokes about microtransactions and DLC, which is cathartic for players who remember a time before such cancerous practices. Surprisingly, the dialogue contains a lot of innuendo, which makes it harder to characterize the game’s intended audience. Is it the adults who grew up with Banjo-Kazooie, or today’s crop of youngins?
For all the fun that Yooka-Laylee pokes at contemporary gaming, though, some of its writing remains little changed from that of Banjo-Kazooie. As characters, Yooka and Laylee are virtual clone-stamps of Banjo and Kazooie, with the former being a slow-witted but big-hearted warrior and the latter being an acid-tongued little prankster. The supporting cast of NPCs make for a colorful bunch, like the serpentine abilities salesman, but that the two main heroes are so similar to Banjo and Kazooie once again makes the game feel derivative. Like a lot of things about this game, Yooka-Laylee‘s characterization and writing are a mixed bag of amusing, yet dated.
Yooka-Laylee has a lot of adventuring fun and amusing dialogue to offer, but it’s nothing that old-school platforming fans haven’t seen before. The game feels less like the triumphant return of open-world collectathons and more like a fun but clone-stamped fan service for people who grew up playing Banjo-Kazooie. Playtonic bet too hard on the game’s nostalgia factor, nixing innovation in the hope that the mere presence of an open-world platformer would be enough to catalyze the genre’s resurrection.
Unfortunately for Playtonic and for Yooka-Laylee, innovation is the only way the open-world collectathon genre will regain the prominence it once enjoyed. It’s not enough to simply derive from what was already done and expect the outcome of the genre to magically change. None of this stops Yooka-Laylee from being a fond love letter to the 90’s and to fans of Banjo-Kazooie, but it does stop the game from being the genre-reviving spark that Playtonic set out to make. Above all else, keep that divide in mind while deciding whether to purchase Yooka-Laylee.
You can buy Yooka-Laylee here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.