We’re not chame-lyin’ – this is a great game.
I enjoy the Banjo-Kazooie games, but I didn’t grow up with them in the way much of our staff and many of our readers did. I can’t speak to what it’s like to be an old fan starting up Yooka-Laylee for the first time, seeing the familiar colors and artstyle rendered in high-quality 3D and hearing Rare’s trademark grunting language again (though I’ll admit, even as a series latecomer, the nostalgia was not lost on me.)
What I can do is evaluate Yooka-Laylee as a product. And that product, I’m happy to say, is one of the finest 3D platformers ever to grace the genre.
The odds of you having an interest in Yooka-Laylee and not knowing what it’s about are slim to none, but just in case: the game follows the titular chameleon (Yooka) and bat (Laylee) in their quest to stop the evil Capital B and his right-hand-man/brains of the operation Dr. Quack. Capital B’s Hivory Towers is stealing all the books in the world in order to corner the market and, more critically, to get its hands on The One Book, which has the power to re-write reality.
To stop Capital B’s evil plan, Yooka and Laylee will have to collect golden Pagies scattered across 5 Grand Tome worlds and the hub world of Hivory Towers. If you’ve played the Banjo-Kazooie games, the gameplay will seem very familiar – in fact, “familiar” may not be the right word. Possibly “identical.” Jiggies are now Pagies, Music Notes are now Quills, the character who sells you moves is a snake instead of a mole, et cetera. You can explore and complete the worlds in any order you like, buying new worlds and/or expanding old ones until you’ve collected the 100 Pagies required to take on Capital B and complete the story (and then going back to collect the rest and 100% the game, if you like.)
Sure, technically, it’s “nothing new,” but it’s been quite some time since we had a proper collect-a-thon of this nature. And if Yooka-Laylee is just a sequel to Banjo-Tooie, well, then it’s everything a good sequel should be: true to the spirit of the original, but bigger, better, and more beautiful than ever. The five Tome worlds are absolutely enormous, and every square inch is packed with things to do. I played slots, fought monstrous and creative bosses, destroyed a small village, competed in races, turned into a flower and pollinated other flowers (ew), flew through space, climbed a mountain, and so, so much more. I was amazed at how unique the challenges were and how fresh gameplay felt even into the game’s final chapters, helped in large part by the vast array of moves available to the player, many of which completely change the flow of gameplay.
The downside to having so many mechanics is that, admittedly, not all of them work. The ice world is frustrating in the way that ice worlds so often are – forcing players to do precision platforming on a Slip-N-Slide hasn’t magically become fun in the past decade, especially in one area that requires you to light torches to warm up the room or die nearly instantly. The casino world features a repeated slot machine game that manages to be both frustrating and boring, as well as (of all things) a match-the-pictures puzzle. What’s more, almost every gameplay mechanic and puzzle has a timer, which sometimes feels like a cheap trick to pad out gameplay. For example: why does the bubble that allows me to breathe underwater pop after a short period of time when I can just immediately make a new one? All that does is waste my time.
At the same time, though, I find it hard to fault Yooka-Laylee for having a few small flaws in what is overall a great experience. Partially, this is because these flaws are so rare – I encountered maybe 10 games total that I truly didn’t derive any enjoyment from. And partially, it’s hard to get mad at a few bad puzzles when you can skip them entirely and still complete the story. Like I said, I didn’t enjoy the ice world very much, but you know what I did? I just skipped most of the ice world, collecting Pagies in the casino or the tropics or the sci-fi world instead. Yooka-Laylee really embraces the “open world” in “open-world 3D platformer,” letting players customize the experience and focus on doing whatever it is they really enjoy. What’s more, as long as you’re collecting Pagies, you’re making progress, and that progress may make previously annoying puzzles less frustrating. For example: I could not for the life of me figure out the precise aiming required to climb a mountain in the first world, so I abandoned it. Later on, almost at the very end of the game, I learned the flying ability. This allowed me to go back and fly to the top of the mountain, bypassing all the puzzles and snatching the treasure on top, turning a puzzle I initially hated into an amazing sense of accomplishment. I hadn’t cheated – I had found another way to complete the challenge, and the fact that Yooka-Laylee offers these alternate routes means that everyone will find something to love in the game.
Besides, how can you hate a game that’s just so darn charming? From the immediately-memorable NPCs to the gorgeously cartoony world designs, Yooka-Laylee had me enchanted from the very first cutscene. As much as we now laugh about the time when every company desperately churned out its version of the mascot platformer, there’s a reason these games hold such a special place in so many of our hearts. Yooka and Laylee may not undergo any sort of character arc, but they’re absolutely brimming with personality, as is their scene-chewing capitalist arch-nemesis. Though some of the humor did fall flat (I’m not a big fan of fourth-wall-breaking stuff in general), there were many moments in the game that made me laugh out loud. Plus: fans will be glad to hear that Grant Kirkhope hasn’t lost a step, and his fantastic soundtrack imbues the already colorful worlds with a vibrant sense of character.
One final note: other pre-release coverage of Yooka-Laylee has suggested that the game may have significant framerate issues and choppiness on some systems. I personally had no problems of this nature – in fact, I was impressed at how well everything ran and how short loading times were. However, this could be a quirk of the copy we were given, or it could be that other ports of the game have issues not present on the Xbox One. At any rate, you may wish to consult other reviews and make sure that the game will run smoothly on your preferred system.
For me, though, the game ran perfectly, a fact that was emblematic of Yooka-Laylee’s overall polish. No, it may not do anything particularly new or innovative, but it doesn’t really need to – it’s still one of the most solid, charming, and just plain fun platformers in years. It has its flaws, yes, like any other game, but those flaws are offset by a brilliantly-designed open world and the ridiculous amount of content on offer. It’s a welcome reminder of a bygone era that feels familiar even as it offers vast improvements on its storied predecessors.
In short, it’s a darn fine videogame.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC, PS4, Xbox One (reviewed); Publisher: Team17 Digital Ltd; Developer: Playtonic Games; Players: 1; Released: April 11, 2017 ; ESRB: E10+ for Everyone 10+; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Yooka-Laylee given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.