Yooka-Laylee Review: Party Like It’s 1997

Back in the mid 90’s, Rare was one of the strongest developers in the industry. Working as a 2nd party company to Nintendo in the 32/64bit era of gaming, Rare crafted some of the best 3D platformers to ever grace a home console. With titles like Banjo Kazooie and Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Rare held a spot with Nintendo and the Super Mario franchise as the kings of the genre. Fast forward to year 2015 where Rare was now a shell of its former self and the 3D mascot platforming genre dried up with modern gamers fleeing to online action titles and epic sprawling RPGs. Most of the original staff at Rare during its heyday such as Grant Kirkhope, Gavin Price and Chris Sutherland decided to band together to form Playtonic Games, an independent studio seeking to tap into genres that have seem to been forgotten in the modern gaming industry. After launching a successful Kickstarter campaign, the team’s first title was set to deliver a spiritual successor to their popular Banjo Kazooie franchise while also bringing 3D platforming back to the spotlight. That game is Yooka-Laylee. Now that the game has released, is Yooka-Laylee the game us platformer fans have been craving for, or should Playtonic have left their ideas back in the 90’s?

Yooka-Laylee is a 3D puzzle platformer starring Yooka the chameleon and Laylee the bat. The story surrounds a greedy business owner named Capital B and his scientist companion Dr. Quack who hatch a plan to absorb all of the books in the world in hopes to find the one special book, called the Grand Tome, that will aid them in ruling over the world using corporate greed. Yooka and Laylee get sucked into the conflict by having one of their own precious books stolen by Captial B’s Hivery Tower corporation and in the process discovering that the Grand Tome has ripped out its own pages and scattered them around the world in hopes to prevent Capital B from using the book for evil. In an attempt to stop Captial B, Yooka and Laylee set out to help gather the pages of the Grand Tome and prevent it from getting into the wrong hands.

After booting up Yooka-Laylee for the first time, it won’t take long to realize that the game is absolutely designed to be a Banjo Kazooie successor. Everything about Yooka-Laylee, from its gameplay mechanics, level design, art style and humor, matches up perfectly with the two Banjo Kazooie titles on the Nintendo 64. Players will traverse through 5 massive levels solving puzzles, conquering platforming challenges and engaging in mini-games in order to earn new Pagies, which are the lost pages to the Grand Tome. Golden quills are also gathered and used as currency to purchase new moves and abilities from a shady salesman named Trowzer the Snake. Essentially, Banjo’s puzzle pieces (Jiggies) are the equivalent of Yooka-Laylee’s pagies while the quills are the equivalent of Banjo’s notes. There are even colorful ghosts hidden in each stage that can be collected which resemble Banjo Kazooie’s Jinjo creatures. Boss battles are sprinkled in and discovered while expanding the stages later into the game. These bosses are handled about the same as they are in Rare’s classic platformers; as in, you just kind of run into them. One boss in particular in the first world made me want to pull my hair out and a few others I found tedious, but nothing that made me want to rare quit.

Playtonic took a different direction in terms of the stages and themes this time around. Instead of having a larger number of stages within smaller scopes like the Banjo titles, this game instead opts for less stages that are significantly larger in size. At first glance, each stage looks to be around the same size as a Banjo level but each of the five stages can be expanded by spending the pagies found by the player. The cool thing here is that the player can choose to continue playing in the stages they’re already in by spending their pagies to expand them which results in unlocking new areas and challenges, or continue to explore the hub world (Hivory Tower) to spend their pagies unlocking new levels instead. I personally moved forward by unlocking all five levels as soon as I could and then started expanding the levels I enjoyed the most afterwards.

As the player explores each stage they’ll come across many puzzles, challenges and mini-games that net them pagies. Some of these challenges include collecting gems in a mine cart mini-game, reaching the top of a treacherous mountain or finding hidden items deep within the stages. Everything you do feels exactly like a challenge you would find in Rare’s classic platformers. Some of the challenges are given by characters hanging out in the level or discovered by playing with new abilities purchased from Trowzer. The problem with Yooka-Laylee’s levels is that once they become expanded, they tend to become a little overwhelming to explore. I found myself getting lost or having trouble finding something of interest that I needed to return to once I walked away. Giving the levels a larger open world approach makes the game a little more tedious to navigate but luckily Playtonic included several shortcuts and abilities that can help alleviate some of that tedium.

Level design in Yooka-Laylee is a mixed bag. I thoroughly enjoyed the first world, Tribalstack Tropics, as it felt like a throwback to Rare’s Donkey Kong 64. The second and third stages, while enjoyable, were not as strong as Tribalstack due to large batches of barren land and generally uninteresting objectives. Luckily, the game rounds out the fun factor in the last two stages and I started digging the level design again. I wish Playtonic shrank the levels down a bit and made more themed worlds instead since I found myself getting lost easily. I also found that I struggle to find pagies to collect once I obtain the obvious ones that stick out like a sore thumb. Utilizing a hint menu prior to entering the level, similar to Super Mario 64, would have been nice in order to steer players in the right direction once they get to the point where pagies are harder to track down.  Still, Yooka-Laylee’s level design isn’t as strong as previous Rare efforts but I still enjoyed my time with them.

Speaking of the hub world, the Hivery Tower is set up just like Gruntilda’s Lair in Banjo Kazooie. Hivery Tower acts as sort of a level in its own as players must explore it, solve puzzles and unlock new abilities in order to reach new areas that house the five main stages. Trowzer will give the player free abilities that will aid them in finding new levels; although some of them cannot be reached until the player has unlocked abilities purchased within a previous level as well. Hidden pagies are also scattered around the Hivery Tower that give players more incentives to explore every nook and cranny of the hub world. I found the Hivery Tower much more interesting to explore compared to Gruntilda’s Lair and was pleased that Playtonic injected a bit of Metroidvania styled progression into it.

The cast of characters in Yooka-Laylee are all goofy and fun while the humor is also well written. Yooka himself seems to be the straight shooter character while Laylee is a snarky, wise cracking sidekick that can’t seem to keep her mouth shut. The humor references video game tropes quite often while also making references to popular modern titles. Yooka-Laylee is a very self-aware game that even takes stabs at itself and what it’s trying to accomplish. I ran into numerous jokes about elements in the game being outdated and forgotten.

One character in particular, Rextro, put a huge smile on my face when I first ran into him. Rextro is a polygonal retro dinosaur that operates an arcade full of mini-games. He’s always making references to gaming elements from the 90’s and even has scan lines running through him. The dialog between Laylee and Rextro made me laugh on several occasions due to Laylee shaming him on being a product of the 90’s, lending to the game’s self awareness. Players will also run into several other colorful characters including an evil duck scientist housed inside of a gum-ball machine, a squid girl who transforms Yooka into various forms, and a gang of medieval pigs on a valiant quest. I found most of these characters cheeky and fun to interact with which gives the game a huge amount of charm.

Graphically, Yooka-Laylee looks pretty great. The art direction feels right at home in the Nintendo 64 era with its Saturday morning cartoon vibe. Everything feels like a Dreamworks CG movie. The characters are creative, the levels are designed using typical themes (aside from the Casino stage which stands out) and the heavy use of humor and parody ties the package together nicely, making for a pleasing game to progress through. I played the game on PC via Steam and everything performed very well. I mostly hit 60 frames per second using an Nvidia GTX 970 graphics card and I rarely noticed any frame dips, poor field of view or pop-in textures. Although I didn’t experience any performance issues, the console versions of the game are said to suffer from some nasty frame rate drops, so be prepared for that before jumping in on the Xbox One or Playstation 4. Sound design is typical for a game of this nature. Dialog emulates Banjo Kazooie’s same grunts and squawks from characters during dialog that can sometimes drive you nuts. The soundtrack from Rare veteran Grant Kirkhope fits the game nicely but doesn’t stand out as much as his previous works. David Wise, another legendary composer responsible for the Donkey Kong Country soundtracks, lends his talent here as well but only within some of the arcade mini-games. Too bad I mostly wanted to stay out of those mini-games.

I played Yooka-Laylee using an Xbox One Elite controller connected to my PC and mostly had a positive experience with the controls. The game automatically knew I was using an Xbox controller and mapped tutorial messages and button prompts accordingly. The control scheme makes sense, especially if you’re used to playing the Xbox Live port of Banjo Kazooie, so I felt right at home with the default control scheme. A character in the game named Dr. Puzz (the squid girl mentioned before) allows Yooka to transform into different objects, such as a snow plow or an airplane. The control schemes associated to some of these transformations would result in slippery, inaccurate controls that made their portions of the game somewhat annoying. Rextro’s arcade games all controlled very poorly too, but thankfully those are optional unless the player is seeking a 100% run. Swimming controls are always a sign of controversy in 3D platformers and Yooka-Laylee is no different. Every time I attempted to swim straight forward under water I found myself oddly pointing up or down while struggling to swim in a straight line. An ability to move underwater inside of a bubble that’s unlocked later into the game helped with tackling some of the annoying swimming segments. Otherwise the game controls sharply most of the time.

I did run into an issue early on where rotating the camera would throw off the left analog stick to the point where I couldn’t make Yooka run straight forward accurately. Fortunately, once I left the starting area that issue seemed to resolve itself. Also, the camera can become a nuisance at times even though the player has full control over it. I found that some tricky platforming attempts would result in the camera swinging around in positions that were not beneficial to me. Controlling Yooka as one of Dr. Puzz’s transformations would make the camera spazz out at times. Soaring into the air with abilities earned late into the game also suffered from camera issues. Nothing that broke the game from me, but it happens. Often I found myself getting Yooka stuck in geometry in the game that forced me to exit back to the hub world and re-enter the stage, which can be totally annoying if you’re in the middle of a tricky puzzle.

Not everything in Yooka-Laylee are remnants from the past. I loved how segments of the hub world were sectioned off by quiz mini-games given to the player by Dr. Quack. Make sure you pay close attention to the details in the game because you will be quizzed on them in order to progress at times. The Capital Cashino stage takes place in a massive casino where pagies are obtained by collecting tokens and cashing them in. Switching from pagie hunting to playing casino-styled challenges for tokens changed the pace of the gameplay a bit which I found refreshing. A vending machine character named Vendie also introduces a perk system to the game that allows Yooka and Laylee to equip a special perk, such as extra health or a sonar that detects hidden items, by meeting a specific set of goals. I haven’t seen a perk system in a platformer before and I found that pretty cool too.

Enemies in Yooka-Laylee are pretty dumb. Most of them just stand around and scream at you and do not pose much of a threat. Yooka can tail-spin into them or consume certain plants that give him elemental attacks. I also noticed many enemies would reappear in basically every stage in the game but with a simple skin swap. While some stages to introduce new enemies, many of them feel very similar and the variety is limited. There is an enemy that’s basically a set of eyeballs that will jump on objects in the environment and turn them into googly-eyed adversaries; these things were pretty obnoxious to deal with due to collision detection not knowing if I hit them or they hit me. For the most part the game’s challenge comes from the actual objectives I completed instead of the enemies themselves. Yooka has a health bar represented by a series of butterflies. Once the player takes damage it will deplete the meter by taking a butterfly away. Regaining health consists of consuming butterflies that hang out in the environments or appear after enemies are dispatched. All of Yooka’s special moves utilize a power meter too which can be replenished by collecting butterflies instead of consuming them.

Yooka-Laylee is a pretty lengthy game. Players can unlock all of the stages in about 6 hours of play time. However, in order to fully complete the game the player will need to collect at least 100 of the 145 pagies in the game to progress to the final boss. Reaching the end game can take upwards to 15 hours while earning that 100% will shoot the play time up even higher. In a nutshell, Yooka-Laylee offers a lot of content for the money but unfortunately players will be scouring the same five stages in order to find all of it. I honestly predict that most players will probably give up before reaching that 100 pagie goal. Several of the abilities earned towards the end of the game allow players to sort of go back to challenges they had trouble with before and cheat the system. For instance, one challenging segment in the second level, Glitterglaze Glacier, tasks Yooka & Laylee to navigate a dark tunnel while illuminating themselves using a lightning bug ability and completing platforming challenges. I found that using the late game flying ability allowed me to simply fly to the end and collect the pagie, skipping the challenge completely. Funny enough, I found this humorous and also a way to sort of make the game a little easier for those who put the time into it.

Enjoying Yooka-Laylee all comes down to the player (obviously). The game unapologetically basks in its retro roots and gamers who dig the old Nintendo 64 and Playstation era 3D platformers to this day will eat Yooka-Laylee up. Those of you who feel these games are outdated or never enjoyed old school 3D platformers from the get go will find that Yooka-Laylee will not change your mind. Players with a strong desire to play something completely refreshing and modernized will probably want to look elsewhere as well.

I personally had a blast playing through Yooka-Laylee, as I’ve had a strong urge to play another game of this type for many years now and was not disappointed. Playtonic delivered exactly what they pitched to the public and I felt that is exactly what I expected and received here. That’s not to say that the game isn’t without its faults. The level design could have been stronger, the camera certainly needs some love and a few elements and challenges were frustrating to control. I found that some players may give up before reaching the real endgame since poking around the same five levels may become tiresome. Anyone who isn’t into the genre won’t feel any different playing Yooka-Laylee either. Still, I personally feel the game fills a huge void that this genre left over the past decade. Each stage is aesthetically pleasing and I was excited to meet new challenges. Playtonic jammed in a lot of humorous dialog that was self aware, satirical and poked fun at the gaming industry as a whole. The great cast of characters helped add a lot of the enjoyment here too. Yooka-Laylee is basically the Banjo Kazooie 3 we’ve all been waiting for and I highly recommend fans of the genre give it a fair shot.

Yooka-Laylee was reviewed on PC via Steam. The game was provided to The Gaming Outsider by the publisher.

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Josh Faulkner

Josh is a native Ohio-an who grew up in a small town that had very little for kids to do. As a result, Josh picked up video games at a very young age. Video games played a huge part in his childhood and continued to do so in his adult life. Starting out on an Atari 2600 when he was 3 years old, gaming has sort of grown up alongside with Josh and continues to be his biggest hobby. As an IT technician by day, Josh is an aspiring gaming writer by night who founded a few websites including 16 Bit Heroes and Too Busy Gaming, while also dabbling in retro gaming YouTube videos and live streaming events.