Disclaimer: I backed this game on Kickstarter so it’s fairly safe to say that I was very excited for this game and the return of the 3D platformer genre as a whole.
Yooka-Laylee is the long awaited spiritual successor to the Banjo Kazooie series and the other classic Nintendo 64 platforming games released by developer Rare way back when. It is released by Playtonic Games, a small team started by former Rare employees who had left the shell of what the company had become. Yooka-Laylee came about through one of the most successful Kickstarter game campaigns and promised a return to an older style of game that barely exists anymore. They delivered exactly what they promised, for better and worse.
Make no mistake, this is Banjo Threeie. The fonts are the same, the voice acting is the same and the titular duo are similar but with less charm/pants and you are tasked with chasing gold collectables (notes became quills, jiggies became pagies). This means that comparisons must be drawn between this and the previous series and it rarely is in Yooka-Laylee’s favour.
Story-wise, it’s all fairly simple and it feels underdeveloped. Yooka and Laylee find a magical book which is then stolen by Capital B who sucks up all the books to retrieve this magical book. The pages scatter to avoid capture and become the primary objective for the duo, the pagies. The premise is fine but it is missing the personal connection and drive for the duo to go on their quest. In Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo’s sister is kidnapped and is going to have her youth and beauty sucked out of her by an old witch. This time round Laylee just finds a book and assumes it’s valuable so we need to get it back. It just doesn’t resonate as well.
The pagies are a good addition to the game though and give the collectibles a personality that I didn’t know they needed. Their magical powers allow each of the 5 game worlds to be expanded to reveal new challenges and areas. This is one of the game’s first downfalls. The levels in Yooka-Laylee pale in comparison to the ones seen in previous games.
The levels are too wide open and empty. There doesn’t feel like there is as much to do in each level even though there are 25 pagies to collect in each of the world. Enemies do not feel connected to the worlds they inhabit; it just feels like they are there just to have something for the player to do. The level designs feel uninspired when compared to Kazooie’s, with large open areas of nothing between points of interest. The world expanding feature doesn’t help with this either as it just feels like an extra building or pathway is tacked on. The expansion doesn’t feel organic like it should.
Of the 5 main worlds, I only liked the first (Tribalstack Tropics) and the third (Moodymaze Marsh). The last two were ok but uninspired with poor design choices (Receiving casino chips instead of pagies ruins the enjoyment of finding pagies. Instead you just buy them which feels lame). The second world, Glitterglaze Glacier, was just terrible. Massive wide open areas with nothing to do with all the pagies hidden away in small caves and the “Icymetric Palace”, a series of fixed camera style rooms where most of the pagies are found. It just felt like a chore to play through this world.
There is also no reason not to expand the worlds if you have enough pagies. I expanded worlds 3,4 and 5 immediately and just played as normal. This element which is crucial to the game just feels tacked on and disappointing.
Onto a more positive note, the cast of supporting characters in this game are great. While Yooka and Laylee feel a bit dry and a worse version of their predecessors, the supporting characters are diverse, funny and well designed. Trowser is a hilarious concept and a great design and Rextro the dinosaur has many amusing jokes at his expense. The voice acting and humour is very similar to Banjo Kazooie which may turn some people off due to grunts and squeals making up most of the audio but fans of the series are knowing what they’re getting into. The music is also once again fantastic with Grant Kirkhope and David Wise, ex-Rare composers, returning to score the game. While it isn’t quite as memorable as the old ones were (nostalgia may have had a say here) it is definitely one of the high points of the game.
Transformations return with Mumbo’s magic being replaced by the power of science. The transformations are very creative and incorporate the main character’s features into their designs well. The abilities that our duo use are all pretty good and work well with the animals the characters are based on. The addition of the energy bar removes the need for extra collectibles for flight, shooting and transforming but isn’t a change for the better in my opinion. It just means that using your abilities too much can leave you defenseless and forces you to sacrifice your health pickups to use for energy instead.
Rextro’s character allows the player to play some “old school classic” arcade games but these just feel underwhelming and tacked on. The same goes for the majority of the boss fights. These fights are repetitive, tedious, boring and often cause camera problems when a fixed camera is used. In my opinion, Playtonic had too many different, varied ideas and included too many stretch goals in the Kickstarter campaign. They weren’t expecting such a positive response and as a result all stretch goals were met and had to be put in the game, regardless of their fit. The result is a mishmash of extra ideas that are just not fun to play to be honest.
The game does look nice and the characters are the standout. They are all very well animated with Yooka and Laylee moving fluidly. It is a little rough around the edges though and the Unity engine does show its limits in some cases. The opening of the game shows some very underwhelming mountains in the backdrop that can demonstrate this. This brings me to an interesting point to make about the gaming industry as a whole though.
Yooka-Laylee was a passion project to revive a dead genre using a small team to do so. According to their website, Playtonic Games currently has 22 staff members who work on the game itself. This type of game is essentially never made anymore as it is seen as not viable financially. This is the reason why Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts made such a sudden departure from what the series was known for. The only recent 3D platforming game was the Ratchet and Clank reboot but that game has more similarities with a third person shooter than a platformer at this point. Games cost a lot of money to make these days and often have thousands of people working on them to achieve the Triple-A level of polish. Yooka-Laylee was never going to be like that and I think that the developers did a great job visually by creating a distinct visual style with the small team that they had.
In the end I have very mixed feelings about Yooka-Laylee. I really liked 2 of the levels, thought another 2 were ok and hated 1 of them. When it is at its best, I was getting the same feeling I used to get with these games. At its worst, I just wanted it to be over. Something that dawned on me while playing this was that bigger isn’t better. I would have preferred just 5 or 6 smaller levels with just 10 pagies in each if it meant having consistently good levels and challenges. I also realised that what I really wanted was a spiritual successor to “Banjo-Kazooie” but what I got was the successor to “Banjo-Tooie” which had the bigger and more complex worlds. My best memories were with the simplicity of Mumbo’s Mountain and Treasure Trove Cove where many of the jiggies were found by just looking around.
As a backer of the game I am still happy with my decision. While this game is disappointing, I did get what I asked for when I backed it. I loved some parts and I am excited to bring the genre of my childhood back to life. I can’t wait to play the sequel when they hopefully sort some of the issues out.