Former members of game developer Rare joined together to make a 3D platformer in the style of Banjo-Kazooie and the Nintendo 64 (N64) games of old. And they succeeded, capturing a magic we seldom see in games nowadays.
Battle for the books
Yooka-Laylee stars a chameleon named Yooka and his purple bat friend Laylee. The two live an idyllic life in an wrecked and abandoned pirate ship. Laylee has discovered a book of tremendous value within the old ship. But before the two can examine it, the book is snatched up into the air, its pages scattered to the winds.
This turn of events is the result of the dastardly machinations of Hivory Towers, an evil corporation led by the dastardly Capital B. He and his vice president Dr. Quack (a disembodied duck head floating within a gumball machine, of course) have devised a plan to steal all of the world's books.
Hivory Towers' interest truly lies in one book, though. The One Book (formerly owned by Yooka and Laylee) holds the power to rewrite reality within its magical pages (called "Pagies"). Now our heroes must embark on a journey to recover the missing Pagies and thwart Capital B.
The story certainly matches the style of classic Rare games, with humorous and innuendo-laden dialog that breaks the fourth wall more than a few times. Accompanying the text-based dialog are cutesy vocal effects repeated over and over, just like in Banjo Kazooie and Starfox. Not everybody loves these effects, but I find them endearing. And even better, we don't have to hear the nefarious voice of JonTron (which was removed from the game prior to release).
The only downside to these story sequences is that many of them don't allow the text to be sped up. Most mid-level conversations can be accelerated or skipped, thankfully.
Yooka-Laylee is a 3D platformer, a once populous genre that has dwindled in recent times. The core gameplay closely mimics that of Banjo-Kazooie (last seen in the Xbox-exclusive Rare Replay collection). Primary protagonist Yooka can run and jump in any direction while Laylee rides on his head. Those are his only moves initially, but he soon learns more from the helpful snake Trowzer (a snake who wears pants, naturally).
Trowzer bestows our heroes with a spinning attack for damaging enemies and breaking boxes and a roll for climbing steep surfaces. The majority of the remaining moves must be purchased with Quills, a collectible found in abundance throughout each world. Some of these powers include a ground pound, a glide, the ability to eat berries and spit them out Yoshi-style, a sonar wave that reveals invisible platforms, and camouflage for avoiding security cameras.
After completing a quest for the bizarre Dr. Puzz in the first world, our heroes can use the doctor's machine to change into a plant. This allows them to talk to the local flowers, who inexplicably dislike Yooka and Laylee. Subsequent worlds offer their own unique transformations, including a snowplough, piranha, and even a pirate ship. You lose access to the standard moveset while using these altered forms, so they're more of a temporary excursion than core part of the game.
Naturally, the abilities Yooka and Laylee gain from Trowzer and their transformed states enable them to access new areas within the various worlds. The game consists of a five distinct worlds and one hub world to explore. That's half the unique worlds of Banjo-Kazooie, but Yooka-Laylee's levels are much larger. The Pagies our heroes discover can even be spent to expand each world twice, at which point they become truly massive.
This would be a good thing, but using new powers to explore old areas becomes harder and harder with so much real estate within each world. Smaller, more comprehensible worlds would likely be a preferable approach, from a backtracking-for-collectibles standpoint.
Yooka-Laylee doesn't provide a map or much in the way of tracking said collectibles (other than the total count), which is a real shame. More recent collectathons like Crackdown 2 have really honed the process of hunting and tracking large numbers of collectibles, and this game would benefit from those innovations.
The spice of life
Exploring sandbox-style environments while hunting for items is fun enough on its own, a nostalgic experience from yesteryear. The game feels great once you turn off the inverted camera controls. The camera functions well most of the time, though it sometimes tries to look off in the wrong direction – bad camera! Hey, that's how 3D platformers worked back in the day, for better or worse.
Luckily, developer Playtonic has tossed in plenty of additional activities to keep Yooka-Laylee fresh. These include racing against a cloud (you'll want to roll a lot), target shooting in an aristocratic enemy's gallery, side-scrolling mine cart segments, and much more. The mine cart rides (a pleasant diversion in Rare's Donkey Kong Country games) are unfortunately more frustrating than fun, however.
One of the highlights here is the Icymetric Palace found within the game's second world. This area switches to a zoomed-out isometric perspective reminiscent of early rare games like Knight Lore and Sabrewulf. The isometric view meshes well with Yooka-Laylee's core gameplay.
Less enjoyable are the quizzes. Banjo-Kazooie challenged players with a single quiz at the end of the game. Yooka-Laylee inexplicably throws in three quizzes over the course of the game. These consist of general knowledge questions and more annoyingly, questions about how many items and collectibles you've picked up. The text advances at a syrupy-slow pace and can't be sped up.
Like Banjo-Kazooie before it, Yooka-Laylee offers a variety of minigames to play. Scattered throughout the game's worlds are eight oversized arcade machines belonging to Rextro, a polygonal dinosaur. Each machine offers a different game to play. Beating these and achieving the high score in them gets team Yooka-Laylee Pagies and other rewards.
The arcade games vary wildly in quality. The first, Kartos Karting, is a top-down racer in the style of Super Sprint. It controls terribly, and the high score target is rather unforgiving (though I eventually got it). It would've been so much better to style the gameplay after Rare's RC Pro-Am, an isometric racer that remains enjoyable to this day.
Other arcade games fare better, but they all need a quick restart option. If you mess up, you'll have to go through several seconds of loading back into the arcade before you can even choose to start again.
Rex's arcade games can be selected directly from the main menu, even if you haven't encountered them in the actual game yet. They support local multiplayer for up to four players, which could be a fun diversion for the kids.
Whereas Banjo-Kazooie and its sequel only offer a paltry 12 Achievements each, the Xbox One version of Yooka-Laylee ups the ante with 35 Achievements worth a total of 1,000 Gamerscore. For a lengthy game like this with so many collectibles to find, having lots of Achievements is a big plus – it gives players so many more milestones on the way to completion.
While many of those Achievements will come simply from playing through the game, you'll have to be in it for the long haul to get them all. Yooka-Laylee has a whopping 145 Pagies and 1,010 Quills to find. With no map and only an overall stats list to help guide you, finding all of those items is going to be tough.
Playtonic and Team17 set out to make an N64-era 3D platformer on modern consoles with Yooka-Laylee. They really have succeeded, bringing all of the good and bad aspects of those classic games to a new generation. The platforming is fast and delightful, with plenty of abilities to use, items to find, and areas to explore. Charming characters, clever humor, and lots of bright colors all serve to enhance the gameplay as well.
It's interesting that the developers leaned so heavily into the collectibles, seeing as how N64-era Rare platformers were criticized for their overabundance of items to find. I don't see that as an inherent weakness, because I quite enjoy exploration and seeking things out. But the game definitely needs a better way to track items you have and haven't found. These worlds are just too big to search for one little missing thing with no map or guidance.
Hopefully Playtonic continues to support Yooka-Laylee with updates and refinements. But even with a few rough edges here and there, this is still a huge game that platforming fans must not miss.
- A genuine N64-style 3D platformer made in the modern age.
- Bright, colorful worlds and memorably bizarre characters.
- There's so much to see and do, platforming fans will be enthralled for ages.
- Text often can't be sped up or skipped, making the quiz sections irritating to play.
- There are no maps, so it's easy to get lost or forget where unexplored areas are in the vast worlds.
- Poor collectible tracking makes it tough to find the last few collectibles in any given area.
Yooka-Laylee is available for $39.99 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Windows, Mac, and Linux. A Nintendo Switch version is expected to arrive later this year.
Xbox One review code provided by the publisher.