Platforms: Xbox One, PS4 and PC
Reviewed On: PC
Review copy supplied free of charge by the publisher.
Reviewing a game like Yooka-Laylee, or indeed Thimbleweed Park, is a difficult thing indeed. Yooka-Laylee was crowdfunded on the promise of it being a nostalgic throwback to Banjo-Kazooie, a brightly colored collect-a-thon full of strange characters and lush worlds. But at what point do you draw the line? When do you criticize it for being too faithful to its inspiration, for refusing to do things better? Yooka-Laylee is full of these moments, full of little things that I look at and wonder why the developers didn’t take the chance to throw in a few things that we can do so much better these days. For everything wonderful about Yooka-Laylee there’s something annoying. If one word could sum it up, that word would be ‘inconsistent’.
The game kicks off with the cute chameleon and bat team of Yooka and Laylee as they relax in the sun. Nothing stays perfect forever, though, as the evil Capital B, who is indeed a bee, enacts a plan to steal all the world’s books in a bid to secure one special tome that Laylee just happens to have found. This valuable golden book floats away, and Laylee would really like it back but the book’s page’s (known in the game as pagies) are alive and have spread themselves among numerous worlds in a bid to stay free of Capital B, although somehow what they have actually managed to do is get themselves trapped in cages.
It’s a bonkers plot, which is exactly what it should be. It also happens to be extremely willing to poke fun at videogames, often breaking the fourth wall entirely to do it. There’s even a retro pixellated character who desperately wants you to come and play his arcade machines which features top-down racers and on-rails shooters. The game even laughs at crowdfunding between its myriad of jokes about golden-age platformers. It’s a type of humor that’s both amusing and sort of annoying. I mean, it’s all fun and games until the game itself makes fun of having unskippable or poor quality assurance despite having unskippable dialogue itself and a wonky camera. I doubt it was intended by the writers, but this referential humor ends up feeling like a constant reminder of how developers didn’t seem quite sure whether Yooka-Laylee was going to be a complete throwback to a different time, or if it would feature some more modern design tropes.
But hey, it is very charming at times. Sure, the game insists on having its unique bunch of characters speaking by taking a few similar sounds and mashing them together into a grating mess just like the used to do back in the good old days, but Yooka and Laylee themselves are wonderfully animated, from the way Yooka covers his ears before a sonic attack or how Laylee runs on top of Yooka while Yooka rolls.
The world can be equally charming. There’s a sort of boring hub where you can access the five different worlds, the first of which – a lush tropical area full of color – feels like the best of the bunch. You can spend extra Pagies to expand these worlds further, adding in new challenges and stuff to discover. It’s a cool idea because it focuses you a little, an encouragement to more fully explore the existing landscape before adding more to it. However, the world expansions don’t tend to offer anything hugely exciting or game changing, they’re just more. After the initial blast of color and fun in the tropical level, though, the quality drops a touch. The seemingly mandatory ice world that comes next is mostly just okay, but after that you hit a crappy swamp that ditches the brightness of the previous areas for a dull color palette and nothing visually interesting. The casino represents an interesting change of pace and will likely end up being a love/hate sort of thing. Finally, there’s a galleon world that makes use of some lovely colors.
At first you’ve got a pretty basic moveset consisting of jumping and a simple attack, but you’ll expand that quickly thanks to a salesman who also just so happens to be a snake wearing trousers. Yes, he’s a trouser snake. Throughout the game he’ll grant new moves required to progress to the next world, but you can also buy new moves using the game’s collecting Quills. Before long you’ll be able to glide, roll up slippy hills, use sonor attacks to reveal hidding items, create underwater bubbles and perform a ground pound. While I say that these moves are optional if you actually want to reach the end of the game you’ll need to collect 100 Pagies out of a possible 145 and most of them are locked away until you’ve bought some of those moves.
And boy oh boy, do you need to be prepared to work long and hard to reach that 100 Pagie total. Yooka-Laylee embraces the good ‘ol days of having collectibles coming out of every orifice and will, therefore, reward you with Pagies for collecting the five ghosts in each world or finding all the Quills as well. Even without doing those finding and then completing the various tasks required to get each Pagie could probably take you 20-30 hours and I’d be lying if I said the game was struggling to keep me hooked after the 15-hour mark. But then I’ve arguably lost that drive that I once had, the drive to collect and do everything that stemmed from the fact I could barely afford to buy a few games a year.
Part of the problem is, once again inconsistency. The challenges needed to grab each Pagie tend to be nice and short so that they don’t overstay their welcome which is certainly nice, and a large amount of them are pretty enjoyable escapades, especially if they make good use of more than one of your abilities. You may find yourself leaping from platform to platform as a clock counts down or gliding through hoops or guiding a ball through a maze. However, there’s also quite a lot of just really boring stuff to do as well. Take Kartos and his missions where you have to ride along rails in a cart, the game attempting to replicate a 2d side-scroller using its 3d engine and largely failing as your forward facing cannon fires off into the background due to little turns. Hitting anything is hard, the controls feel awkward the tracks themselves are not very well designed. There’s a bunch of other challenges that are boring or poorly implemented, leading to a thirty-hour game that actually feels a lot more like a twenty hour one with padding.
None match the sheer horror of Dr. Quack’s Quick-Fire Quizzes, however. In these disasters you get asked a bunch of questions about previous worlds you visited, testing your memory and your god damn patience. Some are okay, like asking what the name of the character in a picture is, but others are just plain stupid. How the hell am I supposed to remember the exact number of quills I have? Or my exact play time thus far? They are by far the worst portions of the game, riffing on the very same concept employed in Banjo-Kazooie, except that Banjo-Kazooie did it much better, quizzing the player on random trivia about the big boss.
In another very direct nod to Banjo-Kazooie there is a scientist on each world who’ll transform you into something else, like a helicopter or a snow plow. In these forms you can complete challenges that you normally couldn’t, such as ferrying pigs about or fertilizing some plants….um. Yeah. Aside from them not controlling too well they’re reasonably fun detours, which makes it all the more of a shame that they feel like a bit of an afterthought. There’s very little to do these alternative forms in each world. For example in the very first world you can get transformed into a plant, but there’s only one Pagie to get like this, not counting the second one that a helpful plant tells you about. By the time you go to the effort of finding the special token needed for the transformation it hardly feels worth the time it took.
But regardless of the problems it would be wrong to say that I didn’t enjoy myself running around the worlds. There’s a relaxing, quiet style to this type of game that you don’t find very often these days, the cutesy graphics and generally great soundtrack lulling you into a chilled state. It’s really easy to spend a happy hour ambling around, picking up a few Pagies and feeling like you made some progress. Another world or two wouldn’t have gone amiss, but the ones the game comes with are large and finding everything requires genuine exploration due to the lack of a mini-map, which is a refreshing change from most 2017 titles.
Scattered around the world is a very small variety of enemies who pose as much danger as a snail wielding a katana, and are defeated about as quickly as one. Given the style of the game it’s understandable that the combat wasn’t beefed up or made one of the focuses, and it does match the original Banjo-Kazooie games where foes weren’t much of a threat, but it’s so simplistic in its current from that enemies could have easily been removed and it would barely make a notable difference. The idea behind Banjo-Kazooie’s foes is that instead of a threat they were more of an obstacle to get in the player’s way, but here they don’t even do that since you can actually run or roll straight through groups of them, and they rarely feature heavily in challenges. If you removed them entirely I doubt it would make any real difference.
Ranged attacks are in the game but are largely useless during combat because to use them effectively you need to enter aiming mode, which stops you from moving around at all and thus makes you a sitting lizard. Mostly they’re used for puzzles since you can only snag projectiles by eating them from specific places in the environment. It’s a fun idea for a power, if one that can be initially annoying since apparently, you can only absorb elements from very specific things, like a brazier but not the torch on the wall.
Many of your abilities, combat-based or otherwise, are limited by a power bar that feels completely extraneous. It’s generous enough even without upgrades that you rarely need to pay attention to it except occasionally when you get a bit carried away. Really it only feels like it gets in the way more than anything else, especially because it limits how much you can use the roll move which is a much faster way of getting around the worlds.
More inconsistency can be found in the controls which bounce from being nice and tight to annoyingly loose. When it comes to running around, leaping across platforms and gliding Yooka and Laylee control easily, but during certain rolling sections the controls become a chore to battle against, although eventually, you’ll get used to it. Worse is the flying power where poor camera often comes into play as well.
Yes, the camera is a constant nuisance within the game, and fighting it became a chore. Some updates have improved it since launch, but it’s still far from being ideal. Much like the controls, though, you get used to patiently dragging the camera around and occasionally beating it into submission.
At least the performance seemed to be generally solid. Running on my admittedly odd configuration of an FX-8350 (don’t worry, it’s getting changed to Ryzen soon) and a GTX 1080 with 16GB of ram it was easily maintaining over the 60fps that my 1440p monitor runs at, with only an occasional drop in framerate during unimportant moments.
If I’m going off overly negative towards Yooka-Laylee it’s only because I feel like it could have been so much more than it is. Having said that it arguably does exactly what it set out to be, which is to be a modern day version of Banjo-Kazooie, complete with authentic strengths and weaknesses. In other words, this is a game geared toward a very specific audience, and reviews don’t really matter. You already know if Yooka-Laylee is for you or not. But for a moment let’s pretend my opinion matters here; it’s a good game held back by its own inspirations, the flaws tarnishing a wonderfully charming return to a genre which often feels like it has left in the cold while shooters and open-world titles have their time in the sun. Perhaps it’s my fault because what I truly wanted was a spiritual sequel to Banjo-Kazooie, one that built upon the series’ charm while recognizing and fixing its shortcomings, the very shortcomings that were created by the time period it was made in. Instead, this comes off more as a clone that a successor. In short, it’s worth playing but unless you’re really itching for a Banjo-Kazooie nostalgia fix you may want to hold off until it goes on sale or drops in price.
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