The first time that I had a chance to dive into Yooka-Laylee was all the way back in December 2016, with the Yooka-Laylee Toybox demo. Simply put, my experience with that demo was great. I praised it for many things — its polished 3D platforming, its likable characters, its unmistakably “N64-esque” feel, and more. I liked it a lot. So much, in fact, that I ended my preview by saying that “if the Yooka-Laylee Toybox Demo only contains a few of the toys that we’ll get to see within the full game, I’m more than ready to own the entire set.” And finally, over a year later, I got to play with that “entire set”. But it wasn’t as good as I was hoping that it would be.
In order to avoid any confusing, I’ll be upfront about this — all-in-all, I still think that Yooka-Laylee falls into the “good game” category. It was as fun little romp through a pseudo-nostalgic world that took me a good 20 hours to get through. I’m legitimately glad that I got the chance to play it, and don’t regret it one bit. Still, it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. And, truthfully, I’m not even sure what those “expectations” were. But they certainly weren’t what I got. Not entirely, anyway.
Turning the Pagie
Yooka-Laylee‘s story is relatively simple (as it should be, really). It begins with laid-back chameleon Yooka, and his wisecracking, fourth wall-breaking bat friend Laylee relaxing outside of their house, discussing a rather valuable book that Laylee found under the floorboards of their home (a boat that has since been converted into a tree house). Unfortunately, the day doesn’t stay relaxing for long. Before they can even finish their conversation, the duo finds their book being sucked out of their hands and into the sky by the nefarious Doctor Quack who, under command of the even more nefarious Capital B, has been ordered to steal as many books as possible in order to turn book sales into a thriving business.
Things only go from bad to worse from there on out. While Yooka and Laylee were right about their book being valuable, it turns out that they weren’t aware of just how valuable it was. As it turns out, their “buried” treasure that they found just so happens to be The One Book — a legendary artifact capable of re-writing the universe into however its owner sees fit. Fortunately, things aren’t completely hopeless. While Capital B now has the book, all 145 pages from the book — known as “Pagies” — escaped (sort of, anyway). Thus, with the fabric of the universe (and tons of cash) at stake, Yooka and Laylee set off on a collect-a-thon of a journey that they won’t soon forget.
With Yooka-Laylee being a 3D platoformer and all, I know that storytelling isn’t the game’s main focus. But I still feel like I need to talk about it for a minute. Story-wise, Yooka-Laylee is fine. You’ve got a two-animal duo ruining around and collecting items in order to defeat a big, mean bad guy. That’s exactly how it should be. But there’s something really weird about this game’s presentation.
Being a spiritual successor to the Banjo-Kazooie series, this game primarily attracts two demographics; children, and adults who want to re-live the glory days of N64 platforming. And a good portion of this game’s writing reflects that. However, there were also instances where it seemed like Playtonic was trying to remind you that they were also the ones behind Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Within the first five minutes, you’re greeted by a smooth-talking snake (and the character responsible for selling you new moves) named… Trowzer. I kid you not. That’s not the only instance of off-beat humor like that, either. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a prude. I very much appreciate dark and crude humor. But it just doesn’t fit at all within the confines of an otherwise family-friendly game like Yooka-Laylee. Plus, elementary school-level toilet humor is kind of lame in the first place.
Leapin’ Lizards! (Or Chameleons, in this case)
Mechanically speaking, Yooka-Laylee plays very similarly to Banjo-Kazooie, albeit with a bit more polish. Save for a few specific parts, the game is a familiar-feeling 3D platformer. Instead of focusing on a “start-to-finish” formula that requires the player to reach a specific point, Yooka-Laylee instead encourages exploration. Within each of Yooka-Laylee‘s worlds, players are given a large degree of freedom, allowing them to nab collectibles and uncover secrets at their own pace.
Also like Banjo-Kazooie, Yooka-Laylee features character growth. Rather than being given all of your moves from the get-go, players instead must unlock new moves by collecting the Feathers scattered throughout each world. After collecting enough enough avian-themed currency, they can then swap what they’ve got with Trowzer for a brand-new move. Of course, not every move is ready for purchase at the beginning. Trowzer only makes 1-2 new moves available per world. Because of this, you’ll find yourself doing a lot of back-and-forth if you want to 100% the game (or even reach the final boss). It can get a little monotonous, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t get excited each time I was taught something new.
Yooka-Laylee also features a special transformation in each world, most of which are pretty weird. I guess that makes sense though, seeing as how (supposed) ex-villain and mad scientist Dr. Puzz is the one responsible for scrambling your DNA. From a bizarre walking flower, to a fully loaded battleship, each world’s transformation is not only strange, but also fun. The only bad thing about them, in fact, is that you rarely end up using them. Both the mobility and utility is rather low for most of these transformations overall. It’s too bad, really. I would have liked to chow down on more baddies as a school of hungry piranha.
Grab and Go
Yooka-Laylee is split up into five different thematic worlds (known as “Grand Tome Levels”), each containing within them 25 Paiges — which are needed in order to progress the game — 200 Feathers — which can be used to purchase new moves from Trowzer — and 5 Ghost Writers — which, when all collected, provide the player with a Pagie — plus a handful of other items and upgrades. Yes, these collectibles are, for the most part, exact replicas of those found within Banjo-Kazooie. But that’s okay. As a game primarily fueled by nostalgia, the decision to make Yooka-Laylee‘s collectibles (much like its gameplay mechanics) nearly identical to Banjo-Kazooie really works out in the game’s favor.
While collecting Feathers and Ghost Writers is fairly straightforward, Yooka-Laylee does a nice job with diversifying Paige collection. Often times you’ll find a Pagie locked inside of a cage (charmingly known as a “Paige in a Cagie”), which will only be unlocked once you’ve completed the required challenge. Although there are plenty of platforming-based challenges, a surprising number of them aren’t. Thrown into the mix are things like shooting galleries, puzzles, and even a quiz show — many of which are quite fun.
Other times, you’ll be playing errand boy for each of the Grand Tome Worlds’ quirky inhabitants. Most of these aren’t too different from rescuing Pagies in Cagies, as all you’re doing in the end are similar tasks, but these requests usually involve a bit more legwork. From fighting off an alien invasion, to helping a sentient shopping cart destroy a field of mushrooms, Yooka-Laylee‘s denizens have some pretty bizarre and unforgettable tasks for the chameleon-bat duo to complete.
Sadly, nostalgic collectibles and bizarre fetch quests aren’t always enough to go on. It may be true that Yooka-Laylee shakes things up pretty well when it comes to Pagie collection, but “different” and “fun” are two different things. Initially, I found myself wanting to collect everything. It was my goal to nab as many collectibles as I could before having to move on, and I was determined to see that through. But that feeling didn’t last. Although gung-ho in the first three worlds, I found my energy waning by world 4. And, by world 5, I pretty much just wanted to get the game over with.
I think that I can attribute my eventual disinterest to two things. The first was the inability to complete a world as soon as you entered it. Normally, I actually like having to re-visit places in games. Coming back to an old area after powering up, and unlocking new secrets is incredibly rewarding in most games. And there were some instances of this in Yooka-Laylee, too. But a lot of the game progression felt so randomized, that I wasn’t ever sure when I should re-visit old worlds. The game doesn’t keep a checklist of what Paiges you have. Instead you’re left guessing at what you have and what you don’t. While this might be a throwback to the “good old days” of the N64, it’s a nostalgic element that I could do without. These worlds can get pretty big, and running around aimlessly gets boring very quickly.
The second thing that ended up getting to me was how the game handles each world. And, for the most part, this relates back to my first issue. As I mentioned earlier, Yooka-Laylee features five different worlds. What I didn’t mention, however, was that these worlds change. When you first unlock a new world, you only unlock a part of it. By spending additional Pagies, however, you unlock even more of the world. A lot more. While I’ll give Playtonic for being unique, the “additional level amount” that you get after upgrading a Grand Tome ends up being more than a little jarring. I get that this game is supposed to be a more open-world experience, but that doesn’t really matter if you don’t fill the “open world” with things to do. And Yooka-Laylee tends not to.
Cover to Cover
Yooka-Laylee ended up being bittersweet for me. I did enjoy my time with it, however, despite the pleasant trip down memory lane, rose-colored glasses weren’t enough to stop me from seeing the inherent flaws that the game had. Still, to those interested, I would say that this game’s worth a shot — especially on the Switch.
FINAL VERDICT: 3.5/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC ; Publisher: Team17 ; Developer: Playtonic Games ; Players: 1 – 4 ; Released: December 14, 2017 ; ESRB: E10+ for Everyone Ages 10+ ; MSRP: $39.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Yooka-Laylee provided by the publisher.