Whether it’s the promise of finishing a story that ended prematurely or breathing life into long-dormant franchises or genres, Kickstarter has undoubtedly had a huge impact on the gaming industry over the last few years. It is an unfortunate fact however, that the final products aren’t always what the backers originally hoped for. Mighty No. 9 was supposed to fill the Megaman-shaped hole left in many gamer’s hearts, yet upon release it sat at a disappointing 52 on review aggregate Metacritic. It was with some trepidation then, that I sat down to play Yooka-Laylee, Playtonic Games’ love letter to Banjo-Kazooie, and Nintendo 64-era 3D platformers in general.
From the outset, Playtonic made no secret of the fact that they wanted to make a game that hearkened back to golden age of 3D platformers, a rare but not quite extinct breed these days. Yooka-Laylee certainly ticks all the appropriate boxes. Capital B of Hivory Towers has activated a giant vacuuming machine that is sucking up all the world’s books in order to turn them straight into profit. Not one’s to simply sit back and watch this war on literature, titular buddy duo Yooka and Laylee set off to stop Capital B and his underling Dr. Quack by venturing through five Grand Tomes (see: worlds) collecting Quills, saving Ghost Writers, unlocking abilities and of course rescuing Pagies. It’s a deliberately familiar formula, but is it enough to carbon-copy what worked nearly twenty years ago and call it a day?
The game certainly looks the part. Even as early on as the menu screen you’ll be beaten around the head with nostalgic visuals and sound effects. Yooka-Laylee’s dialogue is presented as text with gibberish voice overs, the humour is shamelessly self-aware and pun-based, and the music is by original Banjo-Kazooie composer David Wise. For the first few hours I was having a blast, soaking in the vibrant colours, jolly tunes and simple, story-light gameplay. Unfortunately, this honeymoon period soon wore off and the fun was replaced with frustration.
Just in case it isn’t clear: collecting things is the entirety of this game. Each of the five worlds is essentially a series of mini-games, each of which grants you a Pagie upon completion. These activities range from obstacle courses, racing NPCs, killing a set amount of enemies, hitting a set amount of switches, and running from A to B before a power up runs out. Most of these mini-games have a timer because… well… why not? Collect enough Pagies and you can unlock another Grand Tome, or expand one you’ve already visited. Collect 100 Pagies and you can take on Capital B. You unlock moves by giving the Quills you collect to a snake called Trowser, but by around the six-hour mark I had easily unlocked every single ability. Not only did this make collecting Quills utterly pointless, it also allowed me to use certain abilities to completely break challenges from earlier worlds. There definitely needed to be a better way to gate player progression, perhaps even by disabling certain powers in the earlier worlds.
The first Grand Tome, Tribalstack Tropics, is great, and definitely reminiscent of the better worlds in Banjo-Kazooie. It has some stunning vistas and an incredibly pleasing jungle-ruin aesthetic. It feels like a land worth exploring and there are several Pagies that can be found by doing just that. To my great disappointment, Tribalstack Tropics is the only world in the game that feels like this. Every single one of the remaining four worlds feels like a disconnected mess of challenges instead of an actual place. None of them really encourage or reward exploration, instead they’re just claustrophobic and uninspired. The casino world tries to shake things up a little by making you collect coins instead of Pagies. You turn ten of these coins in to vendor to get a Pagie which… just adds an entirely unnecessary step to the process. Most of the worlds are also laid out in a confusing way. Despite visiting each world several times, there were one or two that I could never manage to map out in my head, which made backtracking an absolute nightmare. A series of worlds being made up of a selection of smaller activities isn’t an inherently flawed concept, Yooka-Laylee just presents it in as tedious and dull a way as possible. I unlocked all five worlds and expanded each one; none manage to top the first.
The feel of the platforming itself isn’t atrocious but it’s nothing special either. Think of the more frustrating moments of Psychonauts rather than Mario Galaxy, but without the great characters and wit of the former, nor the awe-inspiring level design and tight controls of the latter. I found myself getting frustrated more often as my time with the game went on. An example: one kind of challenge you’ll do many times is the obstacle course: glide/jump through hoops within a set time limit, that sort of thing. So many times with these I’d accidentally glide too far or hit thorns and bounce backwards due to taking damage, which would then knock me down to the ground below. Instead of automatically resetting you or having some kind of safety net, you have to continue from wherever you land. Depending on the world, this could be in a poisonous swamp that damages you every few seconds, a long, long way down, far from where you need to restart the challenge, or perhaps just in a weird corner among some thorns that you can’t get out of. Take your pick. Wherever you end up, it just feels like a chore to get back to where you were. It’s poor level design where nothing but frustration can come from punishing the player so severely.
There are other criticisms to make: each world has a boss encounter, most of which feel as clunky as something from a low-budget, early access game. The frame rate is rarely solid, and while it never dips to ridiculous levels it’s enough to be annoying here and there. The Quills collectables have no shadows which sometimes makes it hard to pinpoint exactly where they are, and you have to hit them very precisely to collect them. Oh, and I love David Wise but his work here is forgettable at best and rehashed at worst.
It’s been twenty years since Banjo-Kazooie and some phenomenal platformers have come along in the meantime. With Yooka-Laylee, Playtonic seemed content to ignore the innovations of the last two decades and just set their sights on recreating Banjo-Kazooie with a prettier coat of paint. To be fair this is largely how the project was kickstarted, and it’s undeniable the demand for an old school Rare platformer is there. Perhaps there are those who will be content with this lacklustre imitation. In a post-Mario Galaxy/Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze world it’s not enough to just mimic the glory of days long past. More polish, a far tighter design philosophy and some ambition would’ve gone a long way. Instead, Yooka-Laylee arrives lacking on almost every front and is my first big disappointment of 2017.
Yooka-Laylee was reviewed using a review copy for the Playstation 4, as provided by the Publisher.