*Review based on the Playstation 4 version*
When Yooka-Laylee was revealed to the world in 2015 as a Kickstarter title, it immediately turned heads. A spiritual successor to the Banjo-Kazooie series created by a number of the key members behind the Banjo-Kazooie games (now under their own studio, Playtonic Games), Yooka-Laylee’s crowdfunding was a resounding success. Here we are in 2017, and Yooka-Laylee has seen its long-awaited release. But does it recreate that classic Banjo-Kazooie magic?
The short answer to that question is yes, but maybe to a fault. For everyone who has longed for a proper third entry to Banjo-Kazooie, or felt betrayed by the unnecessary departure the series took with Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts nearly a decade ago, Yooka-Laylee is exactly the game they’ve been waiting for.
Yooka-Laylee really is Banjo-Kazooie 3 in all but name and characters: In place of Banjo the bear is Yooka the chameleon. Instead of the bird Kazooie living in Banjo’s backpack, we have Laylee the bat, who rides atop Yooka’s head. The role of mentor who teaches the duo their moves has been passed to the humorously-named snake Trowzer. The duo of Yooka and Laylee also get transformed, much like Banjo and Kazooie did in years’ past. But instead of a shaman using magic to alter the duo’s appearance, it’s the octopus scientist Dr. Puzz. Finally, in place of the wicked witch Gruntilda is a dastardly businessman (business bee?) Capital B.
The story here is that Capital B, along with his recently bought-out lackey Dr. Quack, have built a machine that is stealing all of the world’s literature, in an attempt to have a complete monopoly on the book industry. In a nearby creek, Laylee managed to find a special book with golden pages in a pirate ship (which she has been using as a drink coaster). This book happens to be the magical “One Book,” which is the real reason behind Capital B’s sinister book-stealing plot. When the One Book gets swept away by Capital B’s machine, it scatters its pages (the Pagies) to prevent them from falling into Capital B’s hands. Thus begins Yooka and Laylee’s quest to Hivory Towers and the magical book worlds contained within, all to regain their stolen book (of which they have no idea of its true nature).
It’s an utterly silly, nonsensical plot. But it’s also original and fun. More notably, the story eventually starts giving hints at a much bigger plot, which Playtonic Games intends to use as the foundation for its own shared universe of games. In a time when shared universes only exist in super hero stories and ridiculous fan theories, the prospect of a shared universe between platforming mascots and other video game characters is certainly promising.
The goal of the game is nearly identical to that of Banjo-Kazooie: to collect a number of key items to progress through the game and make your way through the hub world.
The main collectibles are the Pagies, the same golden pages from the One Book that act like the Stars from Super Mario 64 or, more appropriately, the Jiggies from Banjo-Kazooie. Pagies are used to access new areas in the game, and in a twist to the old formula, can also be used to expand previously unlocked levels.
One of the main complaints with the collect-a-thon platformers of yesteryear was that many of the collectibles only existed for collections’ sake. Where Yooka-Laylee tries to push things forward is that all of its collectibles serve a purpose.
Along with the Pagies, there are also Quills, with 200 of them to be found on every level, and are used to purchase new moves from Trowzer the snake. Five Ghost Writers (literal ghosts responsible for creating the magical book worlds Yooka and Laylee visit) can be found in each stage, which nabs an additional Pagie once all five are found. There’s a single Mollycool and Arcade Token in each stage, the former allows Dr. Puzz to transform the titular duo, while the latter is used to play the arcade mini-games by Rextro Sixtyfourus, a polygonal dinosaur.
That’s the gist of Yooka-Laylee. Exploring a vast hub world and five themed stages to collect the Pagies by accomplishing various tasks, all while nabbing the other collectibles along the way. It’s the same kind of gameplay you remember from Banjo-Kazooie, and it can be a lot of fun.
Yooka-Laylee also benefits from fluid character controls. Many of the abilities Yooka and Laylee gain throughout their adventure are performed in ways that should be familiar to anyone who played the platformers inspired by Super Mario 64 back in the day, but whether through lessons learned from the past or simply by the benefit of modern technology, Yooka-Laylee plays a lot smoother than most of its predecessors. It’s simply a fun game to control.
On the downside of things, the camerawork is no better here in Yooka-Laylee than it was in the early 3D platformers that inspired it two decades ago. As fun as Yooka and Laylee are to control, the camera is just as cumbersome. Even the most beloved of N64 platformers receive flack for their camerawork, and it’s even the one aspect of Super Mario 64 that hasn’t aged gracefully, so it may be disappointing to know that it’s one aspect of Yooka-Laylee that feels like it came from the past, as opposed to being a tribute to it. Granted, the camera in Yooka-Laylee is never a chaotic disaster in the vein of Sonic Adventure, but it’s still unfortunate to see the one continuous flaw of the early 3D platformers is still at play.
On a more positive note, the levels, while few, are varied and creative. Playtonic clearly aimed for quality over quantity, and they’ve produced some memorable stages. Like most platformers, the levels all have their own themes. The first two have expected gimmicks, with the first being a jungle and the second a snow-themed world, but the remaining three are a little more unique. The third stage is a swamp with a mild Halloween theme, the fourth changes up the gameplay by setting everything in a Vegas-style casino, where you have to win tokens to exchange for Pagies. Finally, Playtonic made the smart move by saving the best stage for last, which combines an outer space setting with a sea-fairing pirate motif, and is definitely a standout stage not just for the game, but for the platforming genre.
The stages all leave an impression, with each one housing their own challenges that make for a great deal of variety. Though despite their many differences, the stages do have some elements in common with each other.
As stated, Rextro Sixtyfourus has an arcade machine in each world, with a different mini-game found in each. Each level also contains a different Dr. Puzz transformation, boss fight, and mine cart segment (inspired by the Playtonic team’s earlier work on the Donkey Kong Country series).
The mine cart segments are some highlights from the game. The mine cart sections may not have the same level of heart-pounding action as those found in DKC: Tropical Freeze, but they are a fun change of pace all the same. Boss fights are a little more of a mixed bag. The bosses can get pretty difficult, and not always for the right reasons, with some really bringing out the worst out of the aforementioned camera, but they at least feel like a breath of fresh air in the modern gaming landscape where traditional boss fights are a rarity (though also because of this, I kind of wish the boss fights weren’t limited to one per stage).
In the middle of the road are the transformations. The first two transformations aren’t particularly memorable, with the first being too slow and the second too hard to control. But the rest are all pretty fun, though their uses are varied. The third transformation is one of my favorites, but is only really used to nab two Pagies (one of which you can simply grab after transforming). The fourth and fifth transformations find some good use, however, with the fifth in particular being a whole lot of fun and is used in a variety of ways.
This brings us to the Rextro mini-games which, unfortunately, are the worst part of Yooka-Laylee. The Rextro mini-games simply aren’t fun. At their best, they’re merely forgettable. But at their worst, they are infuriating. The mini-game on the casino stage, in particular, felt unreasonably demanding and difficult. What’s worse, if you want to one-hundred percent the game and get every Pagie, you need to best each Rextro mini-game twice (the first time to get to the end, the second time to beat Rextro’s high score). I’m not exaggerating when I say it took me over two hours to get both Pagies from the casino mini-game.
Now, in all fairness, I think the Rextro games are supposed to be frustrating, as a kind of joke on the nature of a lot of old video games. It might be funny the first time around, and it certainly fits with Rextro’s character, but I think it’s a good example of a joke being taken too far.
The only other notable issue to be had with Yooka-Laylee is that the aforementioned concept of expanding the levels feels only partly realized. After a level has been unlocked, you can surrender a few more Pagies to expand it and uncover all of its challenges. It’s definitely a cool feature, but it would have been a game-changer if there were a little more to it. Perhaps if you could choose which section of a stage to expand piece by piece, it might feel a bit more engaging. As it is, expanding the levels feels like a nice first step to something greater that can hopefully be fully-realized in a subsequent game.
With all this said, any complaints to be had are counterbalanced by the fun to be had with Yooka-Laylee. It really does feel like a labor of love from Playtonic Games. A love of their past work and a love for a genre that has tragically fallen into obscurity over the years. The fun of Banjo-Kazooie is on display all throughout Yooka-Laylee, and it still manages to find some ways to tweak the genre it loves so much for the modern age.
Suffice to say the game is much prettier to look at than the N64 titles it borrows from. In a time when the concept of color seems reserved for games made by Nintendo, it’s great to see a game like Yooka-Laylee come around and introduce so much visual vibrancy. To see a game like this in full HD is a thing of beauty, and the visuals are complimented by a creative art direction, particularly in the environments (the snow stage looks like it was ripped out of Disney’s Frozen), which are then filled with goofy characters.
More important than the graphical modernizations are how Yooka-Laylee adds new elements to the traditional 3D platforming. Along with the level expansion, there are many small tweaks that add to the gameplay: You now have a power bar, which is needed for Yooka and Laylee’s special moves. Butterflies can be found around the stages, and refill both your health and power bar (simply grab them for power, or eat them with Yooka’s tongue for health), which is a fun way to streamline the usual restoration items. Each level also hides secret items to extend your maximum health and power, giving a mild RPG element to the mix.
Then there are Tonics, which can be unlocked by completing various tasks in a way not dissimilar to Playstation Trophies or Xbox Achievements. Once unlocked, these Tonics work as gameplay modifiers, and change up the game in various different ways, like removing fall damage, alerting the player when a rare collectible is nearby, or making the special moves use less of the power bar. The Tonics are a great addition to the gameplay, and since you can only equip one at any given time, it prevents you from taking advantage of them and becoming overpowered.
It’s little touches like these that help Yooka-Laylee rise above being a mere tribute to the genre’s past and showcase it as an attempt to push the platform forward. It doesn’t always succeed, by the effort is front and center.
Of course, a classic platformer wouldn’t be complete without a memorable soundtrack, and Yooka-Laylee certainly has a great one. Playtonic Games really wanted to capture the spirit of their games from times past with the soundtrack, so they got a hold of former Rare composers Grant Kirkhope, Steve Burke, and the incomparable David Wise to compose Yooka-Laylee.
Kirkhope composes the majority of the tracks, which is incredibly fitting, as he composed the Banjo-Kazooie titles. Admittedly, Kirkhope has set the bar high for himself, but his tracks for Yooka-Laylee are as fun, catchy and memorable as any he’s made.
Wise and Burke are used in times that reflect their classic soundtracks, with the Rextro mini-games boasting the “new retro” sounds of Burke (undoubtedly the best part of the mini-games), while the mine cart segments are accompanied by the unmistakable sounds of Wise.
The fact that Playtonic Games brought together all these fantastic composers for a single game ensures Yooka-Laylee has an amazing score, but the fact that Playtonic understood when to utilize each composer to reflect their styles with the gameplay also makes it one of the smartest and most creative game soundtracks in years.
In concept, Yooka-Laylee is exactly what it promised to be. Although the camera still feels like a relic of the past, the world expansion and transformations could be more fully realized, and those Rextro mini-games definitely need to be either rethought or left out entirely from a sequel, Yooka-Laylee is ultimately a refreshing return of one of gaming’s greatest genres. It’s the Banjo-Kazooie 3 we all hoped Nuts & Bolts would have been, though let’s face it, we’re all still hoping for a direct Banjo-Kazooie 3 all the same.
Yooka-Laylee isn’t perfect, but its heart is in the right place. The Banjo-Kazooie legacy is alive and well. And if Playtonic has anything to say about it, so is the collect-a-thon 3D platformer.