Yooka-Laylee’s very existence is the answer to ‘is there an audience for colourful, mascot-driven 3D platformers in the modern gaming infrastructure?’ but does it deliver on its promise of a return to late 90’s platforming? And will that be enough in 2017? The answers are sadly not all as positive as I’d hoped, but there’s still plenty to love about Yooka-Laylee as well.
A band of former Rare employees formed a new studio in Playtonic, and embarked upon their mission to resurrect the kind of 3D platformer they made their name with in the bear, and bird-fronted Banjo-Kazooie. Yooka-Laylee is the crowdfunded result of that mission and you can say, to Playtonic’s immense credit, they’ve captured a lot of what made that series special perfectly. The sassy titular duo are witty and sarcastic. The speech is all in mumbo-jumbo, the visuals are bold and bright, the music is upbeat, and cheerful, and the writing is laden with innuendo (helping a cloud out with a ‘performance’ problem was an early highlight) and digs at gaming tropes old and new. When these things click, there’s no denying the effervescent warmth of nostalgia is wholly welcoming. Of course the problem with nostalgia is that it often blinds you to necessary change. Yooka-Laylee does make some concessions for a modern audience, but not all of them are the right ones.
Before we get there though, let’s have a look at the what and the why of Yooka-Laylee’s world. A power-hungry bee, and his duck head in a jar assistant are stealing all the books of the world in order to find a particular special tome. Our reluctant heroes discover they were in possession of a special book themselves, before its pages were scattered across several zones, begging to be collected (and boy, does Yooka-Laylee have a whole bunch of collectables). It’s simple, goofy, and exactly what it should be.
To obtain these Pages, you’ll be running, rolling, jumping, swimming, and battering your way through every obstacle thrown at you like it’s 1997 again. As you start out in Yooka-Laylee, this is the heaviest hit of pure nostalgia you’ll get in your time with the game. In the sense you’ll have that toothy grin on your face because it’s just the right balance in those opening hours to evoke a cheerful, rightful reminder about why you loved such games in the first place. It’s good to remember all this when the criticisms come later.
Yooka and Laylee are a good little duo, designed in that same mould that birthed any number of successful (and horrifically unsuccessful) character platform heroes, but thanks to the pedigree behind them, this duo have far more personality than most. The only downside of them is the aggravating pitch of Laylee’s garbled voice. It’d probably be more tolerable if it was actual words, but as Yooka-Laylee sticks rigidly to the nonsense language of Banjo-Kazooie, we don’t get that. A minor complaint I suppose, as sidekicks in this sort of game almost always have a God-given blessing to have an irritating trait or two, but regardless, it can’t be ignored, especially when every character has delivery quite similar. Other characters are in keeping with the design aesthetic at least, and there’s no denying that there’s much to love about a snake wearing trousers, and a dinosaur who acts as a meta comment on kickstarting nostalgia.
The basic moveset for our titular two features jumping and spin-attacking, but you can buy new moves with your collection of Quills (a prominent collectable). Among the first you receive are a jump slam (for attack, and activating switches), a sonar for Laylee (it finds hidden things and stuns enemies) and the ability to gobble down the themed fruit strewn about the levels (fire, water, and ice) and use them as projectiles to attack enemies or solve puzzles. There’s more to it than that, and some temporary abilities crop us alongside them as well (there’s some wonderfully daft D.N.A. altering ones especially). On top of this you can purchase tonics through a walking, talking vending machine. The tonics act as the ability toggles and fun cheats that added longevity and novelty back in the day (you see the pattern here, right?), letting you do things such as boost your stamina, and make our heroes look like real throwbacks. This all makes for a good bit of variety as you settle into the standard (though admittedly comforting) platforming pattern.
The primary audience for Yooka-Laylee is of course those who revel in reliving the glory days, and that, as you’ve probably surmised, is an audience that’s well catered for. As for those who haven’t grown up with this kind of 3D platforming? Well, that’ll likely be on a case-by-case basis, but some of the frustrations that come with replicating a game style from 1997 are not going to be so easily forgiven by that audience, but that isn’t to deny newcomers cannot be charmed. Either way, there are some grievances for all.
The camera is the most pressing issue, one that is irksome enough that it could well bother anyone who plays the game. I know the ethos is to recreate Banjo-Kazooie in all but the most obvious ways, but that doesn’t mean you have to bring back the lurching, wild camera that other games have since tamed. For the most part it’s not a major issue, but when you have to restart a series of quick maneuvers for the eighth time because the camera didn’t correct properly, it spoils your fun. Yooka also tends to be a touch over-responsive, meaning you compensate for that as well as the camera, and in certain sections, this combination can be absolutely maddening. All the rose-tint in the world isn’t disguising the fact that things like this aren’t welcome in modern gaming.
Next up is the frame rate. I don’t wanna be that guy, but in places, especially busy places, Yooka-Laylee has some severe hiccups that, much like the camera, can affect your enjoyment and control. Not much more to it than that, it’s hopefully fixable to some degree, but this is not the first time the Unity engine has caused this kind of grief. Another, likely Unity-based, problem comes from the glitches, that include falling through the floor, and vital platforms getting stuck until you begrudgingly reset the game or fudge your way to victory. The net result of these issues is that what starts out as enjoyable and wondrous, then turns into irritating and routine. Without these problems, you’d have a pretty good game on your hands, but with them, you merely get a decent one.
It’s unfortunate because Playtonic has done a marvelous job of creating cheery, colorful worlds, filled with cool secrets and plenty of character. There’s plenty of enjoyment on a basic level for newcomers, especially the younger among us; and for the people who backed this game, or were revelling in the return of the genre, it’s easier to pay the price of Yooka-Laylee’s foibles to experience the brightly-colored charm, detail and depth of a honest-to-goodness 3D platformer once again. I see this as a starting point for greater things for Playtonic, and others. Hopefully the next one will be in a better engine, because the negatives generally come from that, and not the small development team’s efforts.