Yooka-Laylee is an action platformer from indie developers Playtonic. The devs have come from the biggest and best-loved platform game creator studio of all time - Rare. It’s been nearly 20 years since Banjo-Kazooie, so have the creators lost any of their magic? I can safely say that, if anything, it’s improved. Not only does Yooka-Laylee manage to deliver in gameplay and presentation, you can clearly see that the developers have used all of their industry knowledge to make it the best it can be.
Funded in huge part by a Kickstarter campaign, the developers have been showcasing Yooka-Laylee since they began work on it. I was lucky enough to meet some of them at EGX 2016, and could see the level of love and partnership that went into it. The game was a huge success at every convention it went to, and nostalgic platform fans have been waiting for Yooka-Laylee excitedly. Team 17 are publishing Yooka-Laylee, and it is sure to be a success.
The premise is simple, but that’s what makes it so easy to play casually. I say casually in terms of pick up and play. It’s not a cinematic family-friendly story along the lines of Ratchet & Clank, rather a great excuse for level designs and prop models to be shown off to their fullest potentials.
Capital B (a bee, no less) and his sidekick Dr. Quack (yup, duck) have stolen books from all over the land in order to turn them into a very lucrative and evil business. They are also hoping to find one book in particular, the “most valuable book in all existence”, and essentially hold it to ransom. Capital B has to answer to his board of directors, and is under pressure of his own to deliver on his promises to them.
Yooka (the soft-spoken, friendly chameleon) and Laylee (the sassy, quick-witted bat) are living in the best clubhouse ever - an old wrecked pirate ship - and spot the trouble. They head straight to the source; no traversing levels to get to the big bad, and no messing about. Whilst exploring the “Hivory Towers” of Capital B’s business, they discover portals to other worlds; unlocked by collecting “Pagies”. These are sentient pages of the aforementioned most valuable book in the world, and they each have their own individual characters. Deciding they have to save the worlds and their Pagies, rather than take on Capital B straight on, Yooka and Laylee are away.
As I say, the story is simple, but has a few twists to keep players of any age invested. It’s easy to follow even with no spoken dialogue - again, to stop players getting bored - and I love the analogy of modern economy…. Is it a real analogy? You’d have to ask the developers that one. As it plays out, however, it becomes clear that Playtonic want the Yooka-Laylee franchise to continue. I know they’ve already said so themselves, but playing the story and seeing how it develops proves it to all.
The story is clear and to the point, and can be enjoyed by any player, young or old, but there is plenty of subplot to dive into if you so wish.
This will be a point of contention for many people, I can see that already. At first, I was unsure of the character design, thinking it was trying a little too hard to recall the Rare games of the 90s and early 00s, but the more I got into it, the more I realised that it was exactly what I had wanted all this time.
I predict other gamers who maybe didn’t see the appeal Banjo-Kazooie had in the world of platformers, or those who haven’t seen the games, may dismiss it all as too cartoony, or indeed too nostalgic, but there’s no way a Rare fan can deny that this is what we have deserved for so long.
All of the characters are quirky and defined, in the same way as any of the games these developers worked on before, and promise to be as memorable. Yooka is sweet and relatable, and Laylee is by far the most fun to look at, and I love her personality. Capital B has a distinctive Despicable Me look to him that really works, and Dr Quack lives up to his name as the stressed-out evil scientist, with body modifications that only raise dark questions - and that’s another charm carried over from the old days. There is some serious innuendo and black humour hidden in the characters. Take Trowzer, for example. He is the go-to-guy for all your new moves, which help you access new areas and take down enemies, and he’s a snake…..You can get away with it as far as the kids are concerned, because he wears trousers. It made me laugh way longer than it should have.
As with the Playtonic team’s repertoire, Yooka-Laylee’s gameplay is solid and responsive. I played on the PlayStation 4, and had no trouble with getting where I wanted to go, once you take out all those infuriating moments where you overshoot or underestimate yourself - you know, the elements that make a platformer a platformer. There are several mini-games in each level, from racing to boss fights - all to collect Pagies - and they are all made to perfection. Go back and retry those races and climbing puzzles, cos they will bite.
I only hope that the Switch version has no issues, because I can see this being one of the best games to enjoy on the system. Yooka-Laylee lends itself so well to Nintendo’s pick up and play mantra that has been perfected in their system builds.
Your arsenal of moves expands as you collect golden feathers to take to Trowzer - an expert on smooth moves - and as you do this, the button combos increase, as does the difficulty. It might be a classic formula, but it’s from the people who perfected said formula in the first place.
The levels, or worlds, are diverse and interesting. Again classic in design and features (water, ice, jungle, industrial etc), they are huge areas that you can explore almost endlessly to collect items, meet new characters, defeat enemies and rescue those Pagies. Each world has an area you can meet Trowzer to get your new moves, an area for playing arcade games and other hidden items, mini-games and easter eggs. It makes for some serious replayability and continual enjoyment. There is always something to hunt for and somewhere you haven’t explored yet.
The story for Yooka-Laylee might be fairly linear, but there’s no way that you’re heading in the right direction for it all the time. I don’t want to keep mentioning Banjo-Kazooie, but it’s hard not to. Maybe I can say Jak and Daxter, or Super Mario Galaxy. If you have enough Pagies, there is the option to expand a world you have already unlocked, so there’s potential for even more. Be aware that enemies respawn, so there’s no “cleared area” situation, and they can sometimes surprise you a little more than you’d like.
The camera moves with you in a way that only the best platformer developers can manage, the moves are diverse, exciting and easy to pick up, and the puzzles are easy enough for anyone to continue the game. There are mini-games and areas that are for the more experienced and skilled players, and it is by no means a children’s game, but with some practice, they can enjoy the replayability too.
The only thing that made me stop and go “You what?” was Dr. Quack’s quiz. You need to answer his questions in order to move forward, and if you aren’t savvy, it will throw you off. The answers are easy to find in your inventories, or by going back to previous worlds and opening your eyes a little more. It’s a way for the developers to encourage you to go back and do it properly, but it did feel somewhat jarring. However, upon reflection, I realised it was another way of coming back to the old way that games would keep you engaged, and I wonder if it was another tongue-in-cheek moment for the developers to giggle at us. It’s appropriate that Dr. Quack is the orchestrator of these quizzes. I wonder how popular the quizzes will be with the broad audience though.
There are many options for local multiplayer, though I haven’t tried these as of yet. However, you can read a little about it here.
Graphics and Sound
I know that some might find the vocal sound bites off-putting, as I did at first. I thought that they may have changed the method for Yooka-Laylee, but it seems to me that Playtonic decided to go the full whack. I guess they thought it would have been more odd to have some elements from the Rare days and not others.
Some voices are less pleasing to the ear than others, but once you’re into it, it adds to the overall aesthetic and feel of the whole game. It would have been weird to use voice actors, and of course it would have bumped up the bill. My personal favourites are the voices of the Pagies. They each have a defined tone and pitch to separate them, and make them feel like distinct characters, which is a stroke of genius. I never thought I’d find ripped paper endearing.
The music is as nostalgic as the rest of the game, and each world has an appropriate theme. The character themes are also fitting, and add perfectly to the package. These are the same guys who made Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Country sound the way they did. It would have been nigh-on impossible to get it wrong!
The best thing about it is that if you dive underwater at any point, the music switches to a dreamy, lullaby version of the same melody, which is a wonderful touch.
The graphics are smooth and always pleasing to the eye. The style is very much as you expect it to be, of course, with over-exaggerated sets and props, and colours everywhere. I didn’t see any frame drops on the PlayStation 4 version I played (though loading was jumpy and took ages), and the draw distance was huge. Get up high and have a look over all the areas you haven’t explored yet. Playtonic have taken advantage of the power they have now, and built a game worthy of it. It’s the most AAA indie game I think I’ve ever seen.
This is the basis of gameplay, of course, and it’s what keeps you coming back to Yooka-Laylee for hours on hours. Obviously, the Pagies are the most important thing to collect, as the more you get, the more areas and worlds you unlock. You don’t need to collect all the Pagies in order to complete the story, so you can head back to get them and expand your worlds later on if you like.
In order to collect Pagies, however, you need to complete challenges and puzzles. Some of these require specific powers only given to you by Trowzer in exchange for golden feathers. So maybe the golden feathers are actually the most important thing to collect. Feathers are found all over each level, and you need a certain amount each time you want to buy a new move. You can head back to previous worlds to pick up ones you may have missed, and the numbers will carry through to each world.
You can also collect Play Tonics, which is a great nod to the devs, and the Playtonic logo is plastered all over the Play Tonics menu. These items give you boosts, though you can only use a certain number at one time. The menu is accessed through Vendi, the Mrs Potts-like vending machine, who can be found somewhere in each level.
Rextro Sixtyfourus is the owner of the arcade machines, and you exchange hidden collectible Play Coins with him in order to try and beat his score on his arcade machines. If you do, the game you’ve played becomes unlockable at the menu for you to play any time. It’s a great extra element to add, and breaks up the game whenever you need it. Plus, it’s another nod to the 90s, and the system that allowed the Rare developers to shine, and that’s only a good thing.
Ghost Writers are tricksy characters that you have to catch with certain moves and precision. There are 5 to collect in each world in order to get another Pagie.
The other important collectible items in the game are butterflies. Much like a real chameleon, Yooka eats butterflies in order to regain health and power to execute certain moves. This mechanic was a little confusing at times, as you have to hit a button to eat the butterflies rather than run into them as you do with other collectible items. The butterflies are generously placed over the worlds, and I had no problem with health levels or power, what with use of Play Tonics.
There is no doubt that the success of this title will determine the longevity of it, but from the hype and excitement, I don’t see it even being a topic of discussion. The creators know their audience (like, personally), and they know how to make the best platformers in the world.
It might not be up everyone’s street, and while it may seem like a children’s favourite at first, there are elements which will frustrate or confuse younger players. It’s much more of fan-service to those older players like myself who were fed on Rare and its incomparable way of showcasing characters, and keeping the player involved.
No longer constrained by a large company, Playtonic were able to create the Banjo-Kazooie game we all wanted for so long.
Yooka-Laylee is funny and engaging, has massive replayability, and a responsive control system. It will be one I’ll play for a long time yet, and I’ll look forward to the next instalment.
Yooka-Laylee gets a 5/5 from me.