Yooka-Laylee accurately replicates what it was like to experience Banjo Kazooie and Banjo Tooie.
Rare’s troupe of turn-of-the-century platformers (with help from Donkey Kong 64 and Conker’s Bad Fur Day) pushed Super Mario 64’s approach to 3D platforming to amorphous extremes, imbuing gorgeous worlds with distinct challenges and incessant stuff to collect. Coming of age in the Nintendo 64 era conceived a fondness for colorful platformers with lavish content that, back in 2015, Kickstarted a follow-up from much of Rare’s original team. Yooka-Laylee was created to fill that highly specific hole in the hearts of Rare’s fans.
It begins at vibrant meadow with an adorably out-of-place shipwreck as its centerpiece. Yooka and Laylee, a chameleon and bat duo, need to locate an incredible amount of “Pagies,” pages ripped from books, in order to stop whatever book-burning enigma the nefarious corporation at Hivory Towers has devised. This translates to scouring the de-facto hub world at Hivory Towers and locating Grand Tomes, humungous books masquerading as levels, to dive into and explore.
What follows is the model of an early 3D platformer. Each of Yooka-Laylee’s five Grand Tomes are loaded with oblique and obvious challenges designed to reward the player with Pagies. Collecting Pagies builds toward Yooka-Laylee’s endgame, but Pagies can also literally expand each Grand Tome. Levels begin, essentially, unfinished and pumping in a meager number of Pagies fleshes out the level in full. This process differs from level to level; in Moodymaze Marsh and Tribalstack Tropics it greatly expands the scope of each area, wheeling in brand-new pieces of the environment and seamlessly integrating them into the level. In Capital Cashino and Glitterglaze Glacier, however, it essentially adds one-off challenge rooms inside of caves or doorways.
As expected, Yooka-Laylee exhibits a painstaking dedication to collecting different objects. Each Grand Tome has 200 Quills, used for currency to buy new moves, nestled between its confines. There are also five different Ghost Writers hidden somewhere, each requiring their own specific methods of acquisition. Pirate’s Treasure, Yooka-Laylee’s ultra-rare collectible, are also present in each level. Requisite boosts to Yooka and Laylee’s health and special-move energy are also present, along with tokens to play a retro arcade machine and Mollycools to facilitate Dr. Puzz’s morphing machine. Yooka-Laylee’s suite of collectibles aren’t as egregious and exacting as Donkey Kong 64’s, but there’s still a lot of stuff to find.
It is impossible to enter a Grand Tome and accomplish everything in one go, even after creating an expansion. Trowzer, a merchant snake with a penchant for the letter S, has new moves to sell inside every Tome. He also gives away free moves as you progress through Hivory Tower. Being able to summon a gravity-inducing ball under water, employ a high-jump, or turning invisible essentially gates progress inside each Tome. If you want to do everything you’re required to explore more of each level later on with a full set of available mechanics. This is either a smart way to spread content across a whole game or a delicate misdirection of the fact that Yooka-Laylee only has five (quite large) levels.
Rationing mechanics is a point of frustration due to the nebulous nature of Yooka-Laylee’s goals. Each Grand Tome has a certain number of guaranteed Pagies via basic collectibles, as well as clearly marked challenges through friendly NPC’s or caged Pagies. You’ll be told what you have to do specifically to earn a Pagie, and accomplishment is as simple as conformity. Others, in my experience 1/4th of available Pagies, are buried in the corners or other obscure places of each Grand Tome. This can be frustrating, especially if you’ve climbed Tribalstack Tropics’ summit before expanding the level or completed Glitterglaze Glacier’s “random door” challenge room prematurely. You’re not aware of what you need, and it’s impossible to know if you’re unequipped, need to expand the level, or just missing some obscure detail.
The remainder of Yooka-Laylee is filled out with standard platforming challenges. You’ll race through a bunch of hoops under the stress of time, board a mine cart and navigate a slipshod roller coaster course, and physics-battle a golf ball into a faraway hole. Of course, you’ll also ascend any number of vertically oriented platforms in pursuit of hard-to-reach Pagies. There are also a few temporary mechanics, like ingesting a fire plant to breathe flames or swallowing cannon balls or hot coals to pass rudimentary challenges. In Yooka-Laylee, execution often feels subservient to figuring out where the specific challenge is located.
You can actually sense how quickly Yooka-Laylee runs out of steam. The first two levels, Tribalstack Tropics and Glitterglaze Glacier, evoke the revered facets of Banjo Kazooie; large, nature themed worlds ripe with interconnected opportunity harmonizes with personal nostalgia. By the time you’re dumped into Capital Cashino and Galleon Galaxy, however, Yooka-Laylee has forfeited any attempt at cohesion and defaulted to room-specific challenges. Capital Casino, with bland slot machines, trite physics puzzles, and its own currency system is endemic of the worst Yooka-Laylee has to offer. I get that it’s a casino and the witty, self-aware banter is styled to rip me off, but in practice it all feels assembled instead of created.
Yooka-Laylee’s weaknesses are found in its passionate but irritating ode to its past. It has to have dialogue consisting of gibberish samples alongside snarky text, and Capital B has to constantly interrupt exploration of Hivory Towers with wry commentary. It’s also impossible to button through dialogue, or avoid repetition upon repeating missions. I admire Yooka-Laylee’s dedication to replicating 1998 but lost patience with its practice after about an hour. Along with three inter-level quizzes, which at least include some personal details like how many things you’ve collected, Yooka-Laylee’s writing feels designed to appeal exclusively to the hardest of Banjo Kazooie’s core.
It also doesn’t help Yooka-Laylee’s case that many of the problems from decade’s past persist through 2017. The camera often feels cumbersome in tight spaces, and performance dips can outright ruin well timed jumps. Basic opposition populating each level runs the gamut from mindless fodder to specifically annoying things that shoot hails of projectiles, leaving no room for any action other than to question their exact necessity. Boss battles also feel tossed in not out of any creative spark but rather out of dutiful obligation. It’s all just there with a set of trademark googly eyes to soften the blow.
Yooka-Laylee is almost exactly like Rare’s beloved games from nearly twenty years ago. Which, of course, but this thesis presents a challenging argument. When a game is so rigorously faithful to its source material that it actively dismisses modern amenities and expectations, is its obstinacy a fault or a feature? If a game features momentum-halting pop quizzes, spontaneous and aggravating dialogue, and challenges that were fundamentally exhausted decades ago — all, ostensibly, on purpose — is it defective or dedicated? Yooka-Laylee was deliberately constructed to evoke a time and place, which, specifically is Bill Clinton’s second term and when developers (and players) still didn’t have a handle on pushing objects through the third dimension.
The answer may lie in Yooka-Laylee’s foundation. There’s certain “looseness” to the way Yooka-Laylee operates. Yooka doesn’t exactly run with any sort of pinpoint accuracy, instead more-or-less gliding over any surface he encounters. Yooka-Laylee isn’t unforgiving, but it’s weird and uncomfortable for a platformer of this style to (deliberately or not) lack Super Mario 64’s level of precise control. Movement is the thing you have to get right, before indulging in morphing into different objects or expanding base mechanics, and Yooka-Laylee’s base feels noticeably off center.
This sentiment is exacerbated the first time you get behind the “roll” mechanic. Yooka and Laylee can form into a ball, which is intended for quicker movement and ascending slanted surfaces. Rather than control with 360 degree movement, you instead point and move toward whatever direction you’re presently facing. Later in the game, this same concept applies to flying. I get that it’s supposed to be tricky — beating Laylee’s wings is slightly more interesting than just holding down a button — but it’s near impossible to single out a acquire target (such as a quill) in three-dimensional space.
The foundation upon which a game is built is a strong indicator of its overall quality. If you’re coming to Yooka-Laylee for a nostalgia induction device, you’re going to get an alternate universe version of Banjo Kazooie at a higher resolution with fewer original ideas. It’s no longer an extension of Super Mario 64 or Chameleon Twist 2 or anything. It’s just this weird, out-of-time thing willed into existence by an impassioned market. They deserve this game, and I don’t mean that as a pejorative. I hope people who backed Yooka-Laylee like it. As someone who played and appreciated Banjo Kazooie at the time, I found Yooka-Laylee attractive but ultimately mundane after the novelty of another one faded.
Rare changed. Games changed. Platforming soldiers on in forms both progressive and traditional. Yooka-Laylee’s full use of the color spectrum, Grant Kirkhope, David Wise, and Steve Burke’s endearing score, and its relentless positivity are boons to its medium. It’s also firmly disinterested in twenty years of forward progress, doubling as a paean to Banjo’s banal challenges, mushy control, and distressing tedium. It’s tough to feel bitter—Playtonic delivered what was promised—it’s just awfully easy to feel chafed and bored, too.