Yooka-Laylee is a spiritual successor and love-letter to classic mascot platforming games that piqued in the late 90s. Created by Playtonic Games – a group of ex-Rare developers – Yooka-Laylee is the lovechild of the talent adamant in bringing the genre back and the crowdfunding fans who want a return to a more happy-go-lucky adventure.
Disclaimer: I participated in backing the game in early 2015 when it was revealed. A separate PC version was provided to me by the game’s publisher, Team17, for review.
Developer Playtonic Games came together specifically to revive the mascot platformer genre, because it felt it was the only studio capable – and in actuality, that’s mostly correct. Yooka-Laylee will feel familiar to those who grew up on games like Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64 and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. The game is ridiculously vibrant and colourful, which is a refreshing change from all the gritty, action-heavy games that leap-frogged the genre in the 2000s.
Right off the bat (no pun intended) Yooka-Laylee is cracking jokes and introducing silly characters, really accentuating how much fun the developers would have had creating the game. Yooka is a green chameleon and the character the player will control the most, while Laylee is a purple bat who sits atop her friend and has some tricks of her own. The way the game’s mechanics operate is entirely reminiscent of Banjo-Kazooie, from the characters’ design to how they run, jump, swim and fight.
In fact I would argue that Yooka-Laylee feels too much like Banjo-Kazooie. The game’s hub world, Hivory Towers, works similarly to the classic Spiral Mountain: collect Pagies (instead of Jiggies) to fill up Grand Tomes (instead of puzzles) and unlock new worlds to progress. In each world are different sets of collectables, but the most common that players will seek are golden quills (instead of music notes) that can be spent to unlock new moves. There are also five different coloured ghost writers (instead of jinjos) to find hidden about the worlds.
Even the music is remarkably similar to the style of Rare’s pedigree: veteran games composer Grant Kirkhope returns to score another soundtrack of ear-worms, mostly of similar instrumentation and styles of the past games mentioned. Unfortunately, while all the music is still great, it does begin to feel derivative when you’ve heard the umpteenth marimba melody for the 63rd time, and could swear you’d already heard it almost 20 years ago.
Honestly, I could spend all day talking more about the similarities between Yooka-Laylee and Rare platformers, but it doesn’t take too much away from the fact that it’s still really fun. There’s a lot to do and play around with that it’s difficult to find yourself being bored in the new Hivory Towers hub and its subsequent worlds.
In fact, the game’s level design is different to its predecessors. Out of the five worlds to play in (excluding the hub), each can be “expanded” upon by paying more Pagies after unlocking it. Expanding a world extends its scope outside of its initial, more centralised spaces and further increases the amounts of collectables and characters to discover. While the small number of levels might seem like a downside, the fact that they can be expanded turns that number on its head and gives you more to do.
Yooka-Laylee’s cast is just as ridiculous as you’d expect; the premise centres around all the books in the world being stolen by Capital B in a hair-brained scheme to monopolise on the book industry and make his company filthy rich. His right-hand operative, Dr Quack, was the head of his own company that was acquired by Hivory Towers, and now spends his time devising new and scientifically crooked plans for profits. Dr Quack is a rival of Dr Puzz, who’s experiment went wrong and mutated her into a half-human/half-octopus. Dr Puzz helps Yooka and Laylee by offering them the opportunity to shape-shift into new forms to complete certain tasks. Then there’s Trowzer: a snake who’s coiled in a pair of pants – he is a literal innuendo. Trowzer is also an entrepreneur who sells moves to our heroes for quills.
Plus there’s the myriad of other side-characters that are introduced throughout the game who request certain tasks or challenge you. One character, Rextro, is a T-Rex who operates his own arcade and offers you the opportunity to play his games for Play Coins. These Rextro games are the only points in which Yooka-Laylee is multiplayer – and unfortunately, the experience is pretty much forgettable. Each arcade game is lacklustre, and unless you’re desperate to get your money’s worth out of everything in Yooka-Laylee, you’re better off playing something else with friends.
There are some other aspects where the game falls flat. The game’s camera is super janky, and there were way too many moments where I felt like I was fighting with it to look at anything useful. Boss battles are often tedious, requiring super finicky manoeuvrability in environments that affect your movements too much, in my opinion.
That said, the game itself runs really well thanks to its use of the Unity engine. Apart from a few minor hiccups here and there, Yooka-Laylee performed surprisingly well on the highest settings on my five year old, i5 processor and NVidia GTX 660 Ti rig.
While Yooka-Laylee spends perhaps too much time trying to relive the glory days, it’s still approachable and fresh enough to give newcomers something to enjoy. And thankfully in a new age of independent developers, Yooka-Laylee isn’t beholden any specific platforms – even going so far as to include a sneaky cameo of Shovel Knight, a similar old-is-new icon. It’s still early days for the new Playtonic Games, and it’s exciting to see some talent that helped define a generation are still passionate about where their roots lie. Yooka-Laylee isn’t a perfect game, but it is a solid effort in bringing back the 3D platformer genre.