We love the 90s.
Developer: Playtonic Games
Format: PC, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PS4 (Reviewed)
Released: April 11, 2017
In my mind, Yooka-Laylee managed to do everything that was promised in its Kickstarter campaign. It delivers a bright and colourful world full of collectables, and scored by the soundtrack dream team of David Wise and Grant Kirkhope. It is indeed a “Rare-vival”, a nostalgia trip that absolutely nails the feeling of late 90s mascot platformers. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s something Playtonic Games should be proud of.
In short, Yooka-Laylee is the original Banjo-Kazooie with a fresh coat of next-gen paint, looking and sounding the part of a 90s Rare throwback. The soundtrack is bombastic and whimsical. Conversations between characters play out with subtitled dialogue full of gulps, squeaks, moans and clunks. Our Chameleon and Bat duo are species-swapped copies of the Nintendo 64’s fur and feather team, with Yooka taking the calm straight-man role and Laylee being the more sarcastic and snarky of the pair. And every world you explore is stuffed full of weird and wonderfully designed characters, from the old-school gaming 64-bit T-Rex, Rextro, to the villainous gumball machine-bodied head in a jar, Dr Quack.
The environments themselves look especially gorgeous and expansive, even somehow making the hub-world’s soulless industrial factory setting look seriously impressive alongside the first level’s lush jungle temple ruins. However, despite their impressive size and look, the game’s levels don’t have any engaging or memorable features. Banjo-Kazooie’s levels existed at a time when the formula of “ice world, water world, fire world” was considerably old hat, but they always had at least one set piece that made them true stand-outs. Who could forget the foreboding presence of Clanker the metal shark in “Clanker’s Cavern”, or the giant snowman in “Freezeezy Peak”?
Without any kind of attention-grabbing feature, the small handful of Yooka-Laylee’s five levels very quickly feel dull and lifeless, as if they were simply themes to fill out on the “stereotypical 3D platformer level” checklist. And with a lack of notable landmarks, the expansive size of the levels just makes them either incredibly easy to get lost in, or simply large areas taking up dull space. Either way, they aren’t exactly fun to explore.
If you’ve played Banjo-Kazooie before, then you should know what to expect from the gameplay. To stop the game’s big bad bee, Capital B, you’ll need to explore a large hub world, unlocking levels full of challenges and collectables, such as golden “Pagies” which will help you unlock even more levels. The game basically follows the original Banjo-Kazooie formula to the letter, including a character who sells you new moves to help you get around levels easier and even a character who transforms you into a creature or object that will help you find more Pagies. There’s even multiple quiz mini-games that will test how much you’ve been paying attention to the levels and characters, because I guess it’s been in other Rare games before.
And therein lies my major problem with Yooka-Laylee: it follows the classic Rare formula far too closely. It’s so concerned with offering an experience that plays exactly like Banjo-Kazooie that it feels more like a fan-made game trying to recapture the old game’s charm rather than a game made by industry professionals who should have been making something unique and charming in its own way. Instead, it plays with out-of-date gameplay mechanics, an awful camera that you’ll be wrestling with constantly, and controls that frequently swap between being tight and satisfying to slippery and loose.
The only notable new mechanic that Yooka-Laylee offers is the ability to use the Pagies you’ve found to “expand” levels you’ve already unlocked, increasing their size and granting you access to more collectables and challenges. And while it’s the only real twist on the Rare formula the game is so fond of, the previously mentioned unnecessary size of the levels just turns it into a counterintuitive problem. While the ability to expand previously visited levels offers extra content, it also adds even more space to the game’s unremarkable environments, either making them even more difficult to navigate, or more empty and spacious.
Ultimately, I stopped playing Yooka-Laylee. I very quickly reached a point where I was forcing myself through its sub-par gameplay just so I could see all of its levels. But then, seven hours of playtime later, the game pushed a door into my face and told me that if I wanted to face the final boss, I would need to collect one hundred Pagies. After all of my time with the game, I had forty. If I wasn’t having fun after seven hours, I certainly wasn’t going to force myself to play through twenty simply because the game couldn’t think of any other way to extend its content besides lengthy and unnecessary padding.
What frustrates me the most about Yooka-Laylee is that it feels like it needed at least another year of development. Despite my complaints, there were very small and sparse moments I actually had fun with the game. During the few points that it focused on simple, tight and skilful platforming, I could see the potential it had to be something more. But as it is, the game is a dull disappointment that feels like it’s trying too hard to recapture the magic of its predecessors without having any identity and uniqueness of its own. If you’re going in looking for a game that plays and looks exactly like a nostalgic 90s platformer, then you may actually get some enjoyment out of it. But from what I’ve played of it, Yooka-Laylee serves only as an example that sometimes imitation isn’t always the sincerest form of flattery.
While it might be happy and nostalgic for the first couple of hours, its not worth your time or money if you’re hoping for it to do anything unique or interesting.