In the digital age, cultural shifts are frequent. Some are good, like comic book heroes becoming mainstream entertainment, whilst others are bad, like reality TV or auto-tuning singers. Some however, are unforgivable; diving in football, or hipsters. Perhaps the worst though is the disappearance of 3D platformers. Yes, that’s worse than hipsters.
Growing up as a 90’s kid meant having to go round to our friend’s house and physically knocking on their front door just to see if they were in. There were three of us on my street and between us we had a Sega Mega Drive II, Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64. It meant we got to experience all the classics of the day, and many of those classics were platformers. Spyro may have been my favourite, Sonic 2 was the game I could ‘speedrun’, but Banjo-Kazooie was always the one I wish I had played more of.
If we are ever to see another Banjo-Kazooie remains to be seen, but after my time with Yooka-Laylee then another one may not be needed.
For anyone who played Banjo-Kazooie, the similarities are very apparent right from the title screen: Big, bold writing for the title and a panoramic view of the starting area in the background – only this isn’t Spiral Mountain, this is Shipwreck Creek. And as the titular names of the characters suggest, the main theme for Yooka-Laylee is done on a ukulele rather than played out on a banjo and kazoo.
The game starts with Yooka (the chameleon) and Laylee (the bat) sunbathing after giving their pirate ship home a good spring clean. during which they find a book. Just as they find this book, all the world’s reading material is sucked up by Capital B and his henchman, Dr. Quack. Yooka and Laylee immediately set off chasing after the book that is now spitting its pages out all over the place and after bumping into resident wheeler-dealer Trowzer the snake, find themselves outside Capital B’s HQ, Hivory Towers.
Hivory Towers is the equivalent to Gruntilda’s Lair from Banjo-Kazooie, acting as an overworld that contains portals into the main levels. These come in the form of books, but Hivory Towers isn’t lacking in detail itself; it’s chock full of secrets and like any good platformer, inaccessible areas that require the correct power-up to unlock.
Surprisingly, towards the end of the game the story contains a bit of depth. Whether this is all to prepare us for a sequel, and there should be no reason for one not to appear, or if it is simply a comically-underhanded comment to a time when many of these ex-Rare developers decided to call it a day at their previous company, due to the way things were handled there, remains to be seen.
The first thing I noticed when I was first able to control Yooka was at just how fluid the movement was and how natural it feels. The sensitivity of moving the analog sticks feels perfect. Platformer players of old would use the excuse that the characters did not jump properly or didn’t move as they expected, but when controlling Yooka, I’m afraid to say that you will no longer be able to use these as excuses. The movement has been fine-tuned to perfection so any errors that occur have to go down to user error.
Your main objective in the game is to recover all those pages that have fallen out of the book, known as Pagies. There are 145 in total and are dotted throughout the overworld and within the five hub worlds also. The hub worlds however cannot all be accessed at once, only the first one can be opened from the start. The other four require a specific number of Pagies to unlock, but Pagies can also be used to expand already unlocked worlds.
These expanded worlds give you some beautiful places to explore. Even without the expansions they are gorgeously detailed cartoon worlds full to the brim with collectibles and you can quite easily become utterly engrossed in them, completely losing track of time back in the real world.
And it’s not just the collectibles that will keep you busy either. There are a wide range of characters to keep you entertained and some of the stuff they say will genuinely have you laughing. Laylee is the loud mouth of the duo and her quips in reply to some of what the supporting characters say is nothing short of hilarious. It offers something for the older generation, with moments of innuendo, but it is all done very innocently and there is nothing offensive for the younger ones.
It could be argued that Yooka-Laylee is purely a Banjo-Kazooie clone. That wouldn’t necessary be a bad thing, but Yooka-Laylee has a host of new features that separates it from the rest. Just like standard platformers, the Yooka-Laylee duo unlock different power-ups to unlock new areas, but these power-ups are limited by the use of a power bar that drains with every use. It might sound like a negative but the developers at Playtonic have used this mechanic to their advantage. For example, the duo’s speed boost can be replenished by charging straight into butterflies, but during races these butterflies only appear at certain points. It doesn’t necessarily make things more difficult, but you will be required to think about things differently.
Speaking of difficulty, I for one always remembered Banjo-Kazooie as a tricky little affair, even in the recent Rare Replay collection where I got the chance to play it again. That may have just been me but Yooka-Laylee isn’t as tricky, making it much more accessible for newcomers. Maybe this was purposeful, or perhaps I was just terrible at Banjo-Kazooie, but I’m going to say that it was a purposeful decision on the developers part.
If, like me, you also found Banjo-Kazooie a bit tricky, then you won’t be pleased to read that the quiz returns. This time in plural form, appearing when the duo first pass into a new area in the hub occasionally and then just before the final boss. Dr. Quack will be your gameshow host for these shorter quizzes, but you will need to pay attention to all the characters and what they say, and it’s well worth checking how many of each collectible you have before you transition into a new area. Overall though, these quizzes are just a bit of extra fun and showcases the creativity of the developers, adding more features into a game that is already bursting at the seams.
The final boss which you’ll encounter in Yooka-Laylee is pure platforming delight as you fight through its different forms and try to figure out how to attack and defend. It’s certainly worthy of final boss status as I will happily admit it took a fair few tries to defeat. But the joy and satisfaction required was most definitely there as I had to figure it out myself, and this alone took me back to a time when word of mouth of how to defeat bosses had to suffice. It was also fun because the boss didn’t rely on summoning its minions in huge numbers to grind Yooka and Laylee’s life down; this boss was overpowered on its own and is something that has been lacking in with bosses in more recent games.
Also included is an RPG-lite feature known as Vendi’s Tonics. Vendi is a vending machine of sorts that has a number of tonics available – these can then be unlocked by reaching milestones such as defeating ten underwater enemies or finding certain numbers of collectibles. These tonics offer ways to tweak your game suited to how you play; if you’re constantly spin dashing round the world, there’s a tonic that drains the power bar slower when dashing. Or if you’re constantly falling off high platforms guess what? There’s a tonic that prevents fall damage. There are also tonics that only unlock after completing the game, so expect to be playing through everything Yooka-Laylee brings more than once to get their full potential. But then hey, you should be playing it multiple times regardless, because it’s truly a fantastic game.
Local multiplayer is also included with co-op in the main game and versus multiplayer. The co-op in the main offering has player two take control of the ‘Bee Team’, which allows that player to fly around the screen with a small swarm of bees. It’s really only designed for adults playing with their children, giving their kids something to interact with visibly and should not be considered truly co-op.
The local versus though includes a series of minigames, many of which are available in the main game with retro dinosaur Rextro, but can also be played locally with four players. The characters are fully interactive with each other and, even with game modes based on Capture The Flag and races as well, will likely descend into utter chaos. It is chaotic, but huge fun.
If all this wasn’t enough, the soundtrack that accompanies your adventure is absolutely sublime. Similar tactics have again been employed from the Banjo-Kazooie days by creating themes that seamlessly transition into each other depending on whether the duo are on land, in water or deep in a dungeon or cave. It’s beautiful, epic and really gives the scale of some of these worlds some great perspective. Many of the supporting characters also have their own set themes and arrangements that are tailored to fit in with the world they are currently inhabiting, with a stand out being Kartos and his minecart themes. These are some of my personal favourites and will no doubt be listening to them long after I have explored every nook and cranny. The trio of Grant Kirkhope, Steve Burke and David Wise have knocked it out of the park with this one.
Yooka-Laylee has done what everyone, developers and players, had hoped it to do and brought the 3D platformer kicking and screaming into gaming mainstream again, spearheading the revival. But it’s also so much more than expected; I keep coming back to the scale of the worlds, but the first time I entered Tribalstack Tropics after just expanding it I was blown away and wondered how I would ever have time to explore it all. But it’s easy to get sucked in to the worlds because even with the cartoon aesthetic, there is a hell of a lot of life in them. My one and only gripe is that there are only five book worlds to explore, and it isn’t enough…and that is simply because I am having too much fun exploring what these worlds have to offer and I don’t want it to ever end.