Yooka-Laylee is all about nostalgia. Developed by a group of former Rare employees, this all-new open-world platformer hearkens back to the days of the Nintendo 64. It’s a far simpler game than what modern audiences may be used to. There’s no engrossing story with developing characters that evolve over time, nor are there the complex gameplay mechanics we’re accustomed to in modern interpretations of the genre.
Instead, it’s just a lizard and bat on an adventure to collect some random objects. Many random objects.
If you’re old enough to remember playing Banjo-Kazooie on Nintendo 64, or have managed to play the HD re-releases on Xbox 360 and Xbox One, Yooka-Laylee is going to feel familiar. The game draws a great deal of inspiration from the ‘90s classic, right down to its buddy-duo characters in Yookya and Laylee. It also adheres to many of the conventions established by not only Banjo and its sequels, but the other popular 3D platformers of the same era.
Yooka-Laylee opens with the titular odd couple debating what to do with the golden book they’ve found hidden under the floorboards of their converted shipwreck home. Meanwhile, the devious Capital B kicks off a plan to suck up all the books in the world so he can obtain the One Book, a tome so powerful it grants the ability to rewrite history. Turns out it’s the same book Yooka and Laylee have in their possession. As Laylee decide she’s going to sell the book, it suddenly floats up into the sky and towards Capital B’s lair, Hivory Towers. Naturally, the pair set off in search of the book.
To complete their adventure Yookya and Laylee will visit 5 vastly different worlds — or Tome Worlds — in search of the golden pages — or Pagies — that when brought together form the One Book. Compared to Banjo and its direct sequel, the number of worlds seems relatively low. Any concern about the game’s length is put to rest once you discover that each world can be expanded, providing new areas to explore, characters to meet, and collectibles to find.
It’s a neat little trick that utilises each unique environment to its fullest. In some instances, worlds can feel entirely new, or add unique areas such as the asymmetrical-inspired castle from World 2.
Expanding Tome Worlds requires you to spend your Pagies, however. The same goes for opening new ones. Banjo never asked the player to spend their collectibles to progress through the game, but I quite like the change here. Yooka-Laylee treats Pagies like in-game currency, providing a bit more meaning to the whole exercise.
There’s a greater sense of urgency, that you absolutely must collect these items to get further into the game. The same goes for Quills, which are sort of like Banjo’s Notes, in that instead of being required to open doors in the hub world, are used to purchase new moves for Yookya and Laylee from Trowzer, the ssssslithering sssalesssnake found in each Tome World; don’t worry, though, your collected total isn’t impacted by spending these items.
The abilities you’ll unlock in Yooka-Laylee are mostly variations on platforming staples — double jump, ground pound, etc. — while others are unique to the lizard and bat duo.
The most notable is Yooka’s ability to use his tongue to lap up items to take on their properties. For instance, lapping up an ice flower imbues Yooka with the power to shoot ice projectiles, while a fire flower lets him breathe fire. These effects are only temporary, and are often tied to a puzzle that requires solving in exchange for a Pagie.
Likewise, other new moves such as Laylee’s flying and Yooka’s invisibility are also temporary, lasting only as long as the new Power Bar remains full. This new addition to the formula is a nice, modern touch — since most games nowadays feature a magic metre in some shape or form — and can be refilled by collecting Butterfly Energy, which are purple butterflies that can be found fluttering around the place. Butterfly Energy can also be used to replenish health by using Yooka’s tongue to lap ‘em up since — as Laylee puts it — Yooka-Laylee is not like those “soft shooter” games where the character’s health regenerates.
Your Power Bar and the amount of health you have can be expanded by locating the Power Extender and Butterfly Booster items found in each Tome World. These are single-placed items, replacing the need to locate multiple items (i.e. heart containers, honeycombs) you’d traditionally have to hunt down.
Likewise, the science-inspired Mollycool item, which replaces the many Mumbo Tokens you had to find in Banjo, has been streamlined into a single item per world, and once found allows you to trigger a unique transformation for that world.
Then there’s the Play Coins and Ghost Writers. The former is again another new single-placed item that once taken to Rextro, the adorable retro dinosaur, can be used in exchange for unlimited play on his arcade machines. Ghost Writers replace Jingos, with 5 being scattered in each Tome World. However, collecting them isn’t as easy as simply finding and running into them, as each requires a different tactic before you can scoop them up.
Yooka-Laylee goes a long way towards refining the “collect-a-thon” formula made popular by Banjo and other similar games from the ‘90s. It cuts down on a lot of the legwork expelled hunting down multiples of the same item, while making its own small improvements by streamlining the collecting process, and tweaking the mechanics of certain items.
Having to utilise a different a method to collect the 5 Ghost Writers is one of my favourite changes here, not to mention they’re pretty cute in their own right, especially the Yellow one. It adds another layer of problem-solving that already sits on a game chock-full of interesting — and some not-so interesting — puzzles.
With its amount of collectibles, completionists are going to love Yooka-Laylee. That said, collecting all of the items hidden throughout the game does require a fair amount of backtracking. This is because Yooka-Laylee hides some of its items in inaccessible places that can only be reached once you purchase a certain ability offered later on in the game. I couldn’t collect everything in World 1 until I’d purchased the flying ability in World 3, which is frustrating since I’m the type of person who likes to collect everything in a platformer before moving on.
Backtracking — at least from what I can ascertain, and if my math holds up — is also forced upon the player even if they just want to complete the game without finding everything. The number of Pagies to access the final area is rather steep — I won’t reveal the number in case some people don’t want to know — and if you’re breezing through the 5 worlds without investing a great amount of time in collecting Pagies, you’re going to be in for a very rude awakening.
Of course it’s all a matter of perspective. If a game is genuinely enjoyable, then being directed to continue to play isn’t necessarily a negative. Yooka-Laylee is, by my admission, a thoroughly enjoyable game. The core gameplay is solid, the soundtrack delightful, and there’s a host of colourful characters to interact with.
It doesn’t have any illusions about wanting to be an old-school 3D platformer, and on that merit alone the game makes me smile. Playing Yooka-Laylee takes me back to being a kid again, to the days where I’d stay up late on a school night just so I could squeeze in a few more hours.
The real issues I have with Yooka-Laylee, however, are related to the wonky camera and jerky controls. With both an automatic and manual camera, you’ll go through a majority of the game without encountering too many issues where it’s concerned. The problems only pops up once you find yourself in tight spaces, wherein the camera begins to position itself in really awkward places. Trying to compensate for this causes more frustration, as it often becomes stuck on in-game objects such as trees, walls and bushes. When married with control issues, itcan result in cheap deaths.
Platformers like Yooka-Laylee demand precision controls, and a majority of the time everything works fine. It’s only when you need to be super precise about jumping on floating platforms, or jumping from one high-up place to another does the issue begin to rear its ugly head.
Yooka can jerk around a little when trying to place him in a certain spot, and while doing so I’ve sometimes watched as he shimmies his way off a platform to certain death. The same occurs when landing on smaller platforms: Yooka spins out of a control just a tiny bit, causing me to loose my place, usually in concert with the awkward camera, and I watch as he drops into the abyss.
These are certainly not game-breaking issues by any stretch of the imagination. At least the facial animations all look amazing. Actually, the whole game looks great. Yooka-Laylee has been developed with Unity, and as a result looks gorgeous thanks to its cartoony art style. There’s some noticeable drop in framerate when a lot is happening on-screen, but certainly nothing that detracts from the experience.
Yooka-Laylee also includes a whole new soundtrack written by Grant Kirkhope, who also gave us the music for Banjo, Donkey Kong 64, and many other Rare classics. His new music is very “Rare” like, with some tunes sounding like they’ve been lifted directly from Banjo. At certain points I would listen to a piece of music and think, “I’ve heard this before…”. It was both a little off-putting and amazingly comforting at the same time. Hearing Grant’s music in a video game is a treat, no matter how much it sounds like his previous work, and transports me to feeling like a kid again.
THE FINAL VERDICT
Yooka-Laylee is a fantastic game that delivers on its aspirations to be Banjo-Kazooie’s spiritual successor. While it features a smaller scope than its inspiration, the game still manages to entertain and delight. There are issues concerning the camera and some control problems, but neither are worth writing home about. There’s also a fair bit of backtracking, but whether that’s an issue really comes down to personal perspective. At the end of the day, this is an old-school 3D platformer in almost every sense. It makes slight improvements on the established formula, but still largely retains everything fans remember about these sorts of games from 20 years ago. If that’s your jam, then Yooka-Laylee will have you playing with a smile.