It didn’t take long for those familiar feelings of playing Banjo-Kazooie to return. As soon as I heard the same repeated grunts of dialogue over quirky and funny text, it all came back; getting lost in the hub world, laughing at things Kazooie would say, and being terrified enough the first time I saw Clanker to go back to the hub world and see if I could play a different level first… I remembered it all!
And for that reason, Yooka-Laylee does what it sets out to do very well. It was pitched as ex-Rare developers bringing us a Banjo-Kazooie experience and bring it back they succeeded in doing. It doesn’t try to go above and beyond that mission and is a game with a clear, focused vision which doesn’t take long to click.
The first thing that struck me is just how nice the game looks. It’s colourful and vibrant, with plenty of variety; the graphics are smooth, the animations are fluid and well-done, and overall it was a game I loved to look at. I loved seeing each new world light up with colour palettes wildly different from the last, framing the familiar bright green and purple of the main characters.
You control Yooka and Laylee. Yooka’s the green lizard, and Laylee is the purple bat, and they echo the old duo of Banjo and Kazooie well. Yooka isn’t quite as dopey and simple as Banjo was, showing himself to be a quite thoughtful and smart, whereas Laylee captures what I loved about Kazooie very well. Constant quips at other character’s expenses, and even to the developer itself.
Playtonic have no problems taking the fourth wall and breaking it against their knee. At the start of one “Boss Fight”, which is simply a quiz, Laylee muses at how it’s obvious the developers ran out of budget for an actual Boss Battle. The game is shrewdly aware of the content and the characters it contains, and has no problems cracking a joke or two at its own expense.
The story is a simple one. An evil corporation is stealing all the books, one of which Laylee intends to sell for quite a bit. When the books are being sucked up by what I would describe as a mega-vacuum, the pages of the book fall out all over the world and it’s time for an adventure to collect them all!
The controls are tight enough to not show any immediate problems, and the game drip-feeds you new ways to explore at the same fast rate Banjo-Kazooie did. Every big, sprawling level will feature new ways to traverse and new ways to explore which left every level being an event you had to learn.
The uniqueness to the gameplay is well done for this reason. You’ll never get into a comfort zone of moves like other titles can often treat you to. The game will constantly push you to use your newest ability or power in order to advance and it won’t be long until your controller goes from just a pad you move and jump with to an entire Motherboard of abilities you’ll need to remember.
Enemies won’t often provide much problem for you. They seem to exist more as nuisances than offering any real challenge; challenge comes from finding what to do next and in discovering the secrets in all those nooks and crannies.
Progression is also very fluid. There’s no set standard like in a Zelda game; you need the Fire Arrows to get past this part so go and get them! In Yooka-Laylee, you can use a new currency to acquire any powers you wish at any time. And you can then progress through the level depending on which you chose to acquire. It’s an organic and more free way to do it, and I do enjoy being able to pick and choose a bit more rather than just be told “Go learn that ability or you can’t do anything!”
Yooka-Laylee does levels a bit differently as well. It features the same open “playgrounds” for you to explore and collect Pagies, which is this game’s version of Banjo’s Jigsaw pieces. When you’re done, you can then spend Pagies to either unlock brand new levels, or further unlock more content in the existing level. It’s a novel idea, but staying for too long in one level can have it over-stay its welcome and that did happen on more than one occasion.
The level designs themselves are fun, but nothing particularly ground-breaking. Everything functioned well and connected in interesting ways, but some lacked the character of others. There was a lot of high highs when it came to the level design, moments of “Wow, look at that!”, but then there were moments where it felt a little lacking, especially near the end.
The variety to the enemies and to the design of the levels are very well done on the whole, however. Like Banjo this is not one connected world and so there’s no problem of a coherently-made game. One world can be nothing like the next and it works. You’ll be rolling around a tribal village in one minute stopping a skeleton from becoming soup, and the next you’re sliding down an ice slide towards a little Yeti with a hat.
You’ll also find a variety of arcade-like games you can enjoy playing against friends. These are all very simple and not mini-games which, on their own, will be likely to offer you much satisfaction. But with friends they’re arcade enough to provide some simple, fun competition.
It’s difficult to point out any particular glaring flaws in the experience as it’s the game itself which is the flaw to some people, if you want to argue that. Playtonic promised a return to what made people love Banjo-Kazooie and that’s what they did. But we exist in a progressive industry. And no matter how fun past experiences are, we’re always looking to move forward. And Yooka-Laylee does seem like a time capsule you step backwards to enjoy, rather than you re-discover by going forwards.
Genres fade in and out of popularity. There was a time horror titles were virtually non-existent before Amnesia and Outlast brought them back enough for Resident Evil 7 to burst into the scene with a horror title of its own again. And collect-a-thon platformers seemed to have faded as well. But Amnesia didn’t bring horror back by regressing; it brought it back by progressing, and showing what could be done.
And it’s that which Yooka-Laylee sadly doesn’t do. It doesn’t progress the medium in order to show what you can do, rather it regresses back in a “Hey guys, remember this?” way which doesn’t quite cut it anymore. It does what it set out to do and what was promised. But if you’re looking for more than that, you won’t find it here.
But if that’s what you are looking for, then you’re in for a treat. The waves of nostalgia don’t quite go away; you can get distracted from it by the fun puzzles and challenges that await you, but Yooka-Laylee loves to slap you across the face and remind you of that first time you jumped into Mumbo’s Mountain and met good ol’ Mumbo.
One of the more disappointing areas of the game for me, however, was in the characters. Yooka and Laylee are fine, with Laylee’s personality being vibrant and brash and a real throwback to our pal Kazooie, and your friend Trowzer, a snake wearing a pair of pants (you kind of need to see it to believe it) also features a lot of funny and colourful dialogue. Conversations with him are always fun.
And though many of the characters are well designed, I think they stray a bit too much towards the random. Banjo-Kazooie featured a colourful cast, but a cast who fit. Yooka-Laylee’s cast is just as colourful and crazy, but perhaps a bit too random and crazy; they don’t seem to fit in the worlds they’re in. It’s like when games use free assets from different sources and try to cobble them together. There’s no uniformity, there’s no coherency, and it’s jarring to see characters you can’t justify existing at all in where you find them.
But what everything comes down to: Is it fun? And yes I had fun with it and would recommend it for those who go in with their expectations in check; this is a title which brings back the nostalgia of Banjo-Kazooie for fans who miss it, but it doesn’t try to extend from that simple goal at all. It doesn’t deviate. It’s not looking to bring back collect-a-thons, but rather give us a taste of how they used to be.
I’m a big Banjo fan. And this gave me what I wanted; more of it! It’s not going to change the industry and it’s not going to change how you view games, but it’ll put a smile on your face and sometimes that’s all you need.