PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
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