As you might have guessed from its name, Yooka-Laylee is a tribute to the retro 3D platformers that were first introduced to the world two decades ago, most notably taking inspiration from Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie. It has been crafted by Playtonic Games, made up of several former Rare staffers, and was funded due to a highly successful Kickstarter campaign that grabbed attention by promising to recreate a faithful experience to what fans had expected from games of this genre in the 90s.
From the very first moment that you start up the game, it is clear that this is a title centered around the same quirky aspects that made the likes of Banjo such a success. Whether it is the gorgeous visuals and bright palette of colors, the unintelligible dialogue of the characters, or the comedy that accompanies almost every interaction. The five distinctive worlds are all filled with a cast of zany characters that will almost definitely entertain you as you interact with them.
The story is as simple as you might expect. You take on the role of both Yooka and Laylee, a chameleon and bat combination that works almost exactly like the pairing of Banjo and Kazooie in its basic aspects. Realizing that the book that has been used so far as a coaster is, in fact, a highly valuable magical artifact, the pair set out to reclaim it and its myriad of pages from the grasp of super villain Capital-B. The game essentially revolves around acquiring these 150 pages by completing tasks, solving puzzles, and exploring the environment.
As mentioned just above, the basic gameplay mechanics of this title mimic almost exactly those of the famous bear and bird that have inspired this team. You can double jump and glide around the world using the flight abilities of your bat friend but also gain a host of new abilities as you progress through the adventure. These generous additions, such as the ability to turn invisible, lend themselves to a variety of clever puzzles and obstacles that you have to traverse.
While these mechanics are fun and filled with variety, the combat is a far different story. It can only be described as dull and frustrating. There’s almost no change in the way you defeat enemies throughout the entire game and this makes fighting feel like a chore most of the time. The problem is only exacerbated by a clumsy shooting mode that sees you having to such up berries to use as projectiles – the kicker being that they only last a short time so that you have to be super quick to fire off your shot. This often leads to moments of constant repetition as you try to reach the desired target before the timer elapses. The design choice of this is obviously so that puzzles and challenges can be built around the timing mechanic but it ends up just feeling like work rather than a rewarding task.
One aspect that Playtonic did alter was the fact that the game is far more open that many of its predecessors. You are not trapped in specific areas until it is fully completed with the local boss given a good kicking. Instead, you are free to explore any of the worlds you want, as long as you have the required skills. It’s a better way of structuring this type of game and ensures that you don’t get too bored of an area by being stuck in it for extended periods. Now you can simply go where you want and come back to locations to explore more after unlocking new abilities.
The puzzles and challenges themselves range from the downright clever to mundane. This is to be somewhat expected when there is such a huge number of collectibles to gather from them, though, many of them seem to have been included simply to add an extra layer of difficulty and pad the time. Many of the problems with the most tiresome puzzles can also be put down to the camera and controls. Although they each work perfectly fine during normal platforming sections, extra abilities like flying or new mechanics can cause them both to become erratic, with the camera, in particular, becoming a huge pain. These are all problems that have existed in 3D platformers for years but that the developer has failed to address in any meaningful way.
With the notable exception of the likes of Mario, there have been very few successful 3D platformers over the past decade or so. All of the big players from that age have gone away or transitioned back to traditional side-scrolling games, while the recent resurgence in platformers by indie developers has also been dominated by 2D offerings. This perhaps speaks to the problems that the genre has as a whole, with only certain developers able to overcome those problems and craft a genuinely fun experience.
Yooka-Laylee certainly delivers much of what made the likes of Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 so great but there has been little innovation in the game to bring it up to speed with modern audiences. In trying to stay faithful to what has gone before, Playtonic have fallen into the trap of keeping tired design choices and gameplay mechanics that just seem entirely outdated. However, the studio never tried to hide the fact that they were not trying to reinvent the wheel and in that sense, it seems somewhat difficult to criticize the game too harshly for doing exactly what it has been advertised to do.
For those looking to go back to the days of the Nintendo 64 and enjoy the quirky and irreverent games of that time, Yooka-Laylee is the perfect experience. Yet, those who have grown up without a fondness for the old school 3D platformers that once dominated consoles, it is a much tougher sell and not something that they are likely to fully enjoy.
This review is based on a digital copy of the game that was provided by the publisher for review purposes. Yooka-Laylee is currently available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC for $39.99.