As a gamer who grew up in the 90’s and early 00’s I developed quite an affinity for platforming games with lovable anthropomorphic characters as their stars. Sly Cooper, Ty the Tasmanian Tiger, Glover, Gex, and a few others come to mind. My personal favorite being Banjo Kazooie. Needless to say when I heard the announcement that ex-Banjo Kazooie and Donkey Kong dev’s were teaming up to help revive the mascot platformer genre with Yooka-Laylee, I was ecstatic. This combination of developer veterans formed together to create Playtonic Games and came forth with a project I could definitely stand behind. But as much as I wanted to love Yooka-Laylee, I found some of its entrapping of nostalgia driven “pun-tastic” dialogue, solid platforming mechanics, and wealth of puzzles to be hampered by needlessly long levels, often confusing game direction, and sometimes shallow design elements.
From the beginning, the game introduces you to the main villains the miserly bee, Capital B, and his assistant, Dr. Quack, whose penchant for capitalism is deplorable at best. Capital B has completed a corporate takeover and renamed his new factory as the Hivory Towers. He unleashes his newest scheme to make more money for his shareholders. The duo activates a giant vacuum to suck up all the world’s books so they will become the only booksellers in the world. In the process of doing so, they suck up an artifact known as The One Book which scatters its “Pagies” all over the game world. Yooka and Laylee, the owners of this book and the do-gooders they are (Yooka at least) set out to retrieve the scattered Pagies. It’s a novel plot and one that’s just goofy enough for the setting.
The game itself looks great. Playing on the PC version I never had any performance issues with the game. The textures, character models, and lighting effects look gorgeous. The creative design choices throughout the game are impeccable as well. You meet a robust cast of adorable cartoonish characters from the goblin-like corplet enemies to Dr. Bones the haphazard explorer to Trowzer the pants wearing shifty sales-snake. The cast of characters shows a great deal of imagination on Playtonic’s part. The various musical and sound elements are pleasing to the ear with the different confirmation tones and themed music in each level. Everything seems to have been carefully thought out and put together to create a whimsical experience.
The levels themselves look great and are designed to fit a lot in them. Not an ounce of space is wasted in a level as some areas are host to multiple puzzles or challenges. I found myself marveling at the verticality of some spaces and just how much platforming there was to be done. Despite this mastery of design, the levels seem aesthetically uninspired, and feel more like attempts to simply use different texture palettes and platforming levels than to develop realized worlds. I spent a great deal of time navigating all the different environments, looking in every nook and cranny for the last few Quils or a Pagie I had missed more for the challenge then for the sake of exploration. Some of the levels were painfully vast with voids of open space that sported only a few Quils or a handful of enemies that I inevitably avoided. This became abundantly clear even after the first level, “Tribalstack Tropics” which had an Aztec Temple them to it. But outside of a singular village of monsters and a small temple, the rest of the level had nothing to do with the theme outside of the texture palette slathering everything in stone and hieroglyphics. At the end of the day, the levels just felt like big platforming playgrounds suspended in a skybox rather than lived in worlds.
The sheer amount of puzzles and platforming sections in the game are staggering as well. The range of challenges is anywhere from painfully easy matching games to some brutal time based platforming that has you whiteknucking it through the finish line with only a second or two to spare. Even repeated challenges aren’t simply repeated. They’re given slightly different designs in terms of how you approach them. The best example would have to be Kartos’ challenges. Each level has a minecart segment featuring a sturdy mine cart fella named Kartos. The first level is easy enough that has you simply collecting the required number of gems to earn a Pagie. Then each subsequent level not only adds a heightened number of needed gems but throws in new factors like looping pathways, changing the force of gravity and thus how your jumps work, and even a pretty tough boss fight. This sort of variation on a theme is used appropriately yet sparingly.
There are times however where the game lacks a discernible player direction. More than once I found myself wondering why I couldn’t get into specific areas or past certain puzzles only to find out that I needed a move from another world to progress in my current world. Until I realized this I spent an inordinate amount of time running around a level looking for another pathway or a switch to get through a certain area. One early on instance I ran into was of a high up point on the first level where a bunch of wind producing vents were keeping me from advancing. A crate of cannonballs was set in front of the blowers and despite it having the outlined glow of an interact-able element I couldn’t do anything with it. Nor did a prompt ever come up explaining that I needed a move from another level to utilize said cannonballs. I spent a ton of time figuring out how the pieces of the puzzle fit together before giving up in frustration only to come back later. A simple fix of a dialogue box from Trowzer saying, “You can’t use that yet” would have been a simple fix. This happened numerous times throughout my playthrough as things weren’t explained, tutorialized, or even hinted at.
Yooka Laylee isn’t a bad game but it does have some undeniable flaws that can be summed up by saying, it overstays its welcome. I found myself getting bored after spending large amounts of time in the five different themed levels and the over world. The lack of enemy variety or even any threat they presented meant that I just ignored everything that I didn’t need to kill for a Pagie. The vastness of each level meant that searching for one stray Quil or hidden Pagie I missed became a maddening search through every little nook and cranny and one oversight meant doubling back for another exhausting comb over. After the initial excitement of getting to a new level or a new challenge the sheer length of time it took to progress became more of a chore than an exercise in good fun.
That being said, I enjoyed Yooka-Laylee. It has its issues but at the end of the day it was some good old fashioned fun. The solid controls and platforming mechanics combined with a surprising amount of diversity in its challenges makes for a decent play through. The characters themselves are as lovable as any old school, googley-eyed Rareware NPC. And the hilarious writing filled with euphemisms, sarcasm, and puns never lets up from start to finish. I had quite a few roaring laughs during my playthrough. I have a hard time recommending this game outright. If you’ve been looking to a return to the glory days or are just looking for a solid platformer through all the wheat and chaff, I’d say give Yooka-Laylee a shot but be aware of the polish it needs.