Yooka-Laylee

PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES -

The al­most to­tal lack of guid­ance can make those lit­tle mo­ments of dis­cov­ery all the more grat­i­fy­ing

De­vel­oper Play­tonic Games Pub­lisher Team17 For­mat PC, PS4 (tested), Switch, Xbox One Re­lease Out now (Switch TBA)

While Yooka-Laylee may do a fine job of pre­tend­ing oth­er­wise, it isn’t 1997 any­more. But that’s the point. It’s why more than 73,000 back­ers col­lec­tively com­mit­ted over £2m in fund­ing to it, their in­vest­ment based on a spe­cific prom­ise to re­cap­ture the spirit of N64-era mas­cot plat­form­ers 20 years on. And who bet­ter than a cadre of ex-Rare staff to do it? But Play­tonic also as­sured its sup­port­ers it would aim to mod­ernise those creaky ideas a lit­tle; to elim­i­nate some of the frus­tra­tions of the old games with two ad­di­tional decades of col­lec­tive de­sign know-how. Al­most in­evitably, it has had more suc­cess with one of those goals than the other.

At first it’s like step­ping out of a time ma­chine, al­beit one ca­pa­ble of ren­der­ing Rare’s golden era with nos­tal­gia’s for­giv­ing fil­ter, those orig­i­nal blem­ishes – muddy tex­tures, jagged polys – taste­fully air­brushed out. The open­ing hub area is lively and brightly coloured, while a cutscene in­tro­duces the epony­mous duo along with an­tag­o­nists Cap­i­tal B and Dr Quack (whose evil plan in­volves the theft of all the world’s books) in brisk and amus­ing fash­ion. The gib­ber­ish speech sounds are fa­mil­iar; the tunes are au­then­ti­cally jaunty. And Yooka and Laylee them­selves are a delight. The for­mer is a quiet, friendly chameleon, the straight man – OK, straight lizard – to a funny, snarky bat com­pan­ion.

To­gether, they con­trol and an­i­mate beau­ti­fully. Yooka grabs his flap­ping friend’s legs when he needs to hover briefly to cross a larger gap be­tween plat­forms; Laylee jumps on top of her col­league as he tucks into a roll to climb slopes, or just to get around more quickly. Over the course of the game their reper­toire de­vel­ops, tak­ing in a cloak­ing tech­nique, a sonar shot to stun ene­mies and ac­ti­vate dor­mant totems, and, even­tu­ally, the abil­ity to fly. Th­ese are all bound to an en­ergy gauge that au­to­mat­i­cally re­fills af­ter a short while, but which can be in­stantly topped up by col­lect­ing but­ter­flies. Th­ese dou­ble as health pick­ups when you’ve taken dam­age from falls or col­li­sions with haz­ards and ene­mies, but only when snared by Yooka’s pre­hen­sile tongue. It’s a smart idea that fac­tors into a race along a dry riverbed in the game’s first world, your path partly de­ter­mined by the flut­ter­ing snacks that line the route. Only by eat­ing enough of them will you have the juice to sus­tain a non-stop roll to the fin­ish line.

For a while, Yooka-Laylee looks like it might have sim­i­lar mo­men­tum. Open­ing area Trib­al­stack Trop­ics is a lush and vi­brant jungle world of ad­mirable range and tow­er­ing ver­ti­cal­ity. That riverbed will later be filled with wa­ter (cour­tesy of an in­con­ti­nent cloud) and then frozen over; else­where, rustling thick­ets hide a mul­ti­tude of se­crets and an im­pos­ing tem­ple begs to be climbed. Be­fore long you’ll have amassed enough of the game’s main col­lectible, Pa­gies, to make a de­ci­sion: ex­pand this world, or un­lock the next. The for­mer presents you with a colos­sal mon­u­ment hous­ing a wide va­ri­ety of ad­di­tional ob­jec­tives and char­ac­ters. And the whole pack­age is rounded off with a sound­track that’s old­fash­ioned in the best pos­si­ble way, as Grant Kirkhope’s bouncy and in­fec­tious num­bers dove­tail with David Wise’s mel­low, lay­ered themes to cheer­ing ef­fect.

The se­cond world’s se­cret, hid­den within a Dis­neyesque ice palace, is pos­si­bly even bet­ter, a treat for fans of even older games that re­calls Gareth Noyce’s like­able Lumo. Yes, the clas­sic traits of ice worlds are present and cor­rect, though a new abil­ity to as­sume the state of items you eat means you can slurp sticky honey from a bee­hive to ad­here to slip­pery ramps. It’s an­other il­lus­tra­tion of a laud­able com­mit­ment to va­ri­ety. Play­tonic in­sisted that, be­yond the col­lectibles, no two ob­jec­tives would be alike – and for the most part that’s true. Where the pre­vi­ous world trans­formed you into a pollen-spray­ing plant, here the pair’s DNA is re­con­fig­ured into the form of a snow­plough, de­signed pri­mar­ily to un­earth clothes for de­nuded snow­men.

There are, how­ever, a few signs of trou­ble to come. At 15 Pa­gies of a pos­si­ble 25, we weren’t merely won­der­ing how to ob­tain the rest, but where we should be look­ing in the first place. Climb­ing to the top of a level doesn’t help much: their sheer size com­bined with a nec­es­sar­ily lim­ited draw dis­tance means you won’t al­ways be able to spot dis­tant quills (of which there’s an in­tim­i­dat­ing tally of 200 per stage), nor Pa­gies, nor key NPCs. With no map, and few en­vi­ron­men­tal or di­a­logue clues, un­der­wa­ter ar­eas and in­te­ri­ors need to be combed metic­u­lously for miss­ing pick­ups and hid­den pas­sages. Some chal­lenges aren’t ac­ces­si­ble un­til you re­turn with an abil­ity un­locked at a later stage, and it’s not al­ways im­me­di­ately clear you lack the nec­es­sary tools un­til you’ve failed an ob­jec­tive a few times.

In the­ory, none of that is a prob­lem for an ex­plo­ration-fo­cused plat­former, and the al­most to­tal lack of guid­ance can make those lit­tle epipha­nies and mo­ments of dis­cov­ery all the more grat­i­fy­ing. Equally, it can re­sult in long pe­ri­ods of aim­less wandering, par­tic­u­larly once you’ve un­locked and en­larged all five stages and still find your­self 20 or so Pa­gies shy of the re­quire­ment to ac­cess the lift that takes you to the fi­nal boss. Play­tonic has taken great pains to high­light how Yooka-Laylee’s ‘ex­pand-or-progress’ struc­ture gives the player a de­gree of free­dom over their route through the game, rather than forc­ing them to com­plete ac­tiv­i­ties they’d pre­fer to avoid. Yet by the end, you will in all like­li­hood need to lo­cate that gig­gling, in­vis­i­ble ghost for which you’d been vainly scour­ing the third world, or to com­plete that mine-cart se­quence you’d been putting off with good rea­son.

If the game’s ver­sa­til­ity is to be praised, that doesn’t mean all ob­jec­tives are cre­ated equal – not least when

the rule of three be­comes the rule of five, or in­stakill haz­ards are sud­denly in­tro­duced. A de­gree of trial-an­der­ror de­sign is to be ex­pected given the games Play­tonic is aim­ing to im­i­tate, but that doesn’t make some of the more ex­act­ing tasks any more palat­able. In­deed, the dif­fi­culty level is er­ratic through­out, with some chal­lenges ap­par­ently sim­pli­fied to com­pen­sate for de­sign short­com­ings. Take, for ex­am­ple, the au­to­tar­get­ing for Yooka’s tongue-lash, a sur­ro­gate hook­shot that lets him drag objects or grap­ple across to cer­tain plat­forms. Its suc­cess rate is vari­able, to say the least, and only a gen­er­ous score tar­get pre­vents a star-fish­ing minigame (catch the fall­ing yel­low stars while avoid­ing the reds) from be­com­ing ex­as­per­at­ing. Mean­while, any­thing in­volv­ing jump­ing and pre­ci­sion aim­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously is a write-off, since pro­jec­tiles aren’t so much launched as drib­bled out, re­quir­ing you to get un­com­fort­ably close to the ob­ject or en­emy you’re tar­get­ing in or­der to guar­an­tee a hit. Nat­u­rally, this idea fea­tures heav­ily in the cli­max, an ex­tended boss fight you’ll be heartily glad to see the back of. Sadly, it’s not the only bat­tle that out­stays its wel­come.

That most play­ers will likely per­se­vere long enough to see the cred­its speaks vol­umes for the sim­ple joys of its he­roes’ move­ment, the sur­pris­ing di­ver­sity of that ever-broad­en­ing hub and those first two worlds, as well as the un­abashedly atavis­tic pre­sen­ta­tion. For a cer­tain au­di­ence, this will un­doubt­edly feel like a sen­ti­men­tal jour­ney back to those heady days of the late ’90s, and Rare’s ex­tra­or­di­nary hot streak. Yet surely even the most dewy-eyed of play­ers can’t fail to ig­nore the marked down­turn in qual­ity dur­ing the game’s se­cond half, where the strug­gles of a project whose reach seems to have ex­ceeded its cre­ators’ grasp are made plain. With hind­sight, that was al­ways likely once its crowd­fund­ing cam­paign smashed its goal, and the team’s more mod­est plans went out the win­dow with it. But it’s a cu­ri­ous irony to wit­ness a re­cur­ring cameo from Yacht Club Games’ Shovel Knight, a markedly less am­bi­tious project in many re­spects, but one whose de­vel­oper savvily im­posed lim­i­ta­tions upon it­self to en­sure the fi­nal work would be of a con­sis­tently high stan­dard.

By con­trast, it’s clear Play­tonic had to rush to get this shipped, per­haps be­liev­ing it could make a game with com­pa­ra­ble man­power to its Rare hey­day in a sim­i­lar timescale with­out com­pro­mise. Brave, but wrong. That’s ap­par­ent in ef­fects that look like place­hold­ers, a baf­flingly murky third world and phoned-in minigames through­out the fourth. And while the game is keen not to hold your hand, the cam­era fre­quently at­tempts to as­sert its au­thor­ity with sharp, ag­gres­sive yanks. Whether it’s a fail­ure of per­spec­tive or of stage de­sign, you’ll of­ten find your­self bar­relling past en­trances, objects and even char­ac­ters that should re­ally be draw­ing your eye. Some­times it’s only on a third or fourth pass, when you ap­proach a lo­ca­tion from a dif­fer­ent an­gle, that you’ll even spot them.

Some of th­ese complaints were true of Ban­joKa­zooie and its ilk, and in that re­gard you could ar­gue Yooka-Laylee has achieved its main aim, even if it hasn’t learned enough lessons from the past. This char­ac­ter­ful, sprawl­ing throw­back might well have been con­sid­ered a clas­sic two decades ago. But, as its cre­ators have patently dis­cov­ered, it isn’t 1997 any­more.

Though the lim­i­ta­tions of Unity are some­times ap­par­ent, Yooka-Laylee cer­tainly gives good screen­shots. It helps that the HUD van­ishes when not re­quired – a rare note of moder­nity in a work of such nos­tal­gia

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