Yooka-Laylee Review: Collecting Memories
Ben Sheene / Apr 4th, 2017 No Comments
Rare, or at least the Rare from the SNES and N64 days, is one of the most venerated and beloved developers in the industry. Responsible for Banjo-Kazooie, Jet Force Gemini, Perfect Dark and Goldeneye 007, Rare once put out a wealth of games that players still can’t get enough of to this day.
Yooka-Laylee is, unashamedly, an unofficial follow up to Banjo-Kazooie 3 and an obvious nod to the Rare games of old. It was pitched on Kickstarter as a game from former Rare employees in the collectathon genre. After years of development and overwhelming support, Yooka-Laylee is here, and it doesn’t shy away from its roots, resulting in a game that feels like a journey back in time, for better and sometimes for worse.
Yooka-Laylee starts with the titular chameleon (Yooka) and bat (Laylee) duo relaxing in their pirate-themed hangout. Suddenly, the bulbous bee Capital B and his duck sidekick Dr. Quack are sucking up all the world’s books in hopes of increasing the profits for Hivory Towers. A victim of this nefarious plot is Yooka and Laylee’s magic book, which is stuffed with talking golden pages called Pagies. Luckily, the Pagies are scattered across the world and locked away across Hivory Towers and five other Tome worlds, waiting to be rescued. Following along?
The plot is absurd and a bit juvenile, but it serves its purpose in explaining why Yooka and Laylee are journeying into the world to collect 145 Pagies. A human drama or comedy of errors this is not. Instead, Yooka-Laylee comes from the school of thought where Bowser kidnapping Peach or a witch trying to steal a young bear’s beauty (Banjo-Kazooie fans know what I’m talking about) is enough of a plot device to fuel a sense of adventure and discovery. Deep exposition or a fully rational, memorable story is abandoned to give players intricate worlds to dive into and a cast of colorful, distinct characters who relentlessly spout puns.
Across my 20 hours of playing the game, I never ached for a compelling narrative. Instead, I got lost in the encounters with fascinating characters and playing through the story until the credits rolled. In place of deep character development and flashback scenes explaining the origins of Laylee’s sassy bat behavior, developer Playtonic Games writes quirky dialog full of fourth wall-breaking dad jokes and reflections on gaming’s past. During loading screens, a joke pops up about how loading would be done if the game was on a cartridge, an obvious nod to the N64 days. An old minecart muses on the time when he was used in games, only to have his sad tale interrupted by Yooka and Laylee asking if he has a Pagie to hand over.
Yooka-Laylee’s humor may not be for everyone, but there was never a time where one of its jokes didn’t land with me. Sure, I rolled my eyes dozens of times, but it was always paired with a chuckle. This is a game that doesn’t try to treat you like a child, but instead instills you with some child-like wonder and a fascination of all things goofy.
Pages in Cages
Do you like collecting things? Do you like ticking off checklists and seeing 100 percent totals flash up on a screen? If so, then Yooka-Laylee is likely for you.
If it hasn’t been apparent, this game takes its cues from a time when mascots were a staple in the industry. People can instantly recognize characters like Spyro, Crash Bandicoot, Mario and Banjo, and Yooka may have been one of those characters if he came at that time.
The crux of these games was bashing enemies, solving puzzles and collecting stuff in massive playgrounds of levels often connected by a hub world. Those who hate being tossed in a game or a level without much direction aren’t going to agree with Yooka-Laylee’s formula.
To boil it down simply, the collectibles spread across each of the game’s five worlds are 25 Pagies, 200 quills, five ghosts and five bonus items to grab. Get each one and you will fully complete that world. Does this sound like an open-world game to you? Well, that’s because it more or less is. The collectathon genre is one that has withered away in recent console generations, paving the way for games like Ghost Recon Wildlands and Horizon Zero Dawn. Where open world games want to give players a narrative and a reason for everything, collectathons are simply about collecting — it’s in the name!
Collecting Pagies requires varying amounts of effort by the player. There are plenty of Pagies that simply hover out of reach on top of a cliff or make you give chase before collecting them, but the bulk of Pagies are locked in cages or rewarded after completing some sort of puzzle or side task. In the first world, players can race a cloud twice for Pagies or complete a seconds-long shooting gallery to be rewarded one.
A handful of extremely well-designed levels and parts of levels make for some of my favorite puzzle-solving moments in the game. Among the snowy peaks of the second world is an “Icymetric” castle with a fixed isometric perspective (get it?). Rooms are interconnected and nearly each one has a puzzle that needs to be solved. The fourth world is a casino where players literally play mini-games to be rewarded coins that are cashed in for Pagies.
The game’s puzzles range from quick and easy to baffling and difficult. A few times, I scratched my head wondering how I would access a locked cage. The game chooses to throw you into these situations with little to no direction, so you must rely on intuition or clues to figure out how to proceed. Yooka-Laylee isn’t necessarily a hard game, but the casual pace does not prepare you for moments where the difficulty spikes.
While this focus on collecting items and completing totals is very clear, it means there sometimes isn’t a great deal to do when filling in the blanks. Combat is very bland and sparse. Enemies that are defeated in one or two hits litter every level, seeming more like simple decoration rather than obstacle. They mostly feel unnecessary although they function as a mechanic to keep you on your toes.
Yooka and Laylee’s move repertoire isn’t quite as vast as you would want it to be. Using quills as currency, players purchase moves from Trowzer, the trouser-wearing snake. Because quills are so plentiful, there is never a moment where you can’t purchase a new move when entering an undiscovered zone. I wanted to like Laylee’s sonar blast, but it’s imprecise and feels useless in combat. Yooka can use his tongue to swallow fruits that allow him to breathe fire, spit grenades or weigh him down. It’s a fun mechanic when used in puzzles, but not in combat. Outside of the traversal moves, everything else feels far too situational to allow players to become creative.
Despite the clunky execution of moves, content is gated fairly. There are inaccessible Pagies that players won’t be able to reach in the first world until gaining a move near the end of the game. I always found a reason to retread old ground. You might be able to go somewhere you couldn’t before.
Nuts and Bolts
Being rooted in the past isn’t necessarily a bad thing for any game. Yet, there are times where Yooka-Laylee seems bogged down by a vision that is trapped in the late 1990s. I fondly remember Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie’s world as big concept pieces that had very little downtime. Snow levels, space levels, giant clocks, forests, and pirate ships — those games had all that and more.
Each of the five worlds in Yooka-Laylee nail their theme. By spending Pagies, players can further expand them to nearly two or three times their original scope. While this may sound appealing, it often comes as a detriment to the environment. The limited hardware on the N64 meant that levels needed to be tightly packed but still full of activity. In Yooka-Laylee, Playtonic takes advantage of newer hardware but also doesn’t reign it in.
These worlds can often feel big just for the sake of being big. Without traversal moves, some of these levels would take forever to navigate, expanded or not. I loved running into a new character or being able to see a Pagie or challenge off in the distance, but levels often feel like a series of puzzles pieced together slightly haphazardly. Yooka and Laylee can be transformed into things like a helicopter or school of fish, but even this mechanic is used for one-off puzzles and nothing more, making for some missed opportunities.
From a visual standpoint, Yooka-Laylee has all the charm and creativity a new IP should have. Every single character — outside of the mindless grunt enemies — is memorable, silly and something ripped out of a Pixar movie. Seeing everything for the first time is a joy, and the general quality of animations and silly sounds made by characters never got old. Special recognition should be given to the excellent score that surges through every inch of the game and provides a memorable theme for every moment.
General platforming controls have greatly improved since Banjo-Kazooie was in its prime, but the camera in Yooka-Laylee is unfortunately stuck in the past. Not only will the camera shift to a temporarily fixed angle at awkward moments, it is hard to move even when the sensitivity is turned up. I didn’t outright hate the camera, but I found myself fighting with it the whole time.
Though I can look past graphics that are rough around the edges, Yooka-Laylee is not safe from some incredibly frustrating bugs. Playing on PS4 Pro, there was rarely a time where the loading screen didn’t buckle and make me think the game was gasping for air. One puzzle that used a beam of light through a window ran smoothly for me the first time, but after I left the room and came back later, the game nearly froze as everything moved to about a frame of action every five seconds.
During the final boss fight, a specific attack cause the framerate to plummet for a few seconds and then continue running smoothly. Of course, after beating the boss, my game crashed, so I had to beat him again to see how things wrapped up. Yooka-Laylee isn’t littered with egregious technical errors but, much like its powers, those can be situational. It isn’t enough to affect the overall product but is something that players should keep in mind.
Yooka-Laylee has one foot in a time capsule and one foot outside of it, effectively meshing classic gameplay with modern trends in the industry. Players funded this Kickstarter because they wanted a game just like Banjo-Kazooie from the people that made it, and Yooka-Laylee is exactly what the backers likely expected.
It is a game with brilliant creativity, a love of humor, and a mission to let players have fun. There was hardly a moment in my time with the game where I wasn’t enjoying myself or smiling ear to ear as if I was a kid who had a 64-bit console and didn’t know any better; you don’t need rose-tinted glasses for that. However, Yooka-Laylee wrestles with the problems most of us put up with for years. There isn’t much of an excuse for the technical flaws, dated camera and empty moments when not solving puzzles.
At the end of the day, we play games to have fun, and in so many ways, Yooka-Laylee excels at that.
Yooka-Laylee was reviewed on a PS4 Pro using a code for the game provided by the publisher.
tags: Playtonic , Playtonic Games , review , Yooka-Laylee , Yooka-Laylee Review