By Marty Mulrooney
Yooka-Laylee is an open-world platformer developed by Playtonic Games (a team made up of Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Country Rare veterans) and published by Team17. The game was funded via Kickstarter in June 2015, raising an incredible £2.1 million from more than 80,000 backers. In Yooka-Laylee, Yooka (a green male chameleon) and Laylee (a purple female bat) must work together to collect stolen ‘Pagies’ and defeat Capital B, a wealthy capitalist bee who runs Hivory Towers and plans to steal all the world’s books.
In all honestly, Yooka-Laylee feels a bit underwhelming at first. The main menu looks more low budget than retro and the loading screen features animated characters that stutter as the game loads. Then there’s the opening cutscene, which admittedly looks cute (Yooka and Laylee are absolutely adorable and their world looks inviting) but features text that can’t be skipped and is overlaid with repetitive noises for each character. It feels clunky, sounds annoying and isn’t the most eloquent of beginnings.
Then you take control and these initial worries melt away. Yooka-Laylee controls beautifully. There are only a few moves available to begin with, but it’s clear the main characters have been designed and animated with love. Yooka runs around with ease while Laylee perches on his head. If you take your fingers away from the buttons and leave them for a while, Laylee will even nibble on Yooka’s ear. There’s no mistaking that these two characters are the stars of the show.
The basic plot (and it is basic) is that Capital B has built a machine that has sucked away all the books in Yooka-Laylee’s world. This includes Yooka and Laylee’s own magical book, which ends up scattered across the land as individual ‘Pagies’. These Pagies are what you’ll be spending the majority of your time collecting – they allow you to expand worlds and unlock new ones. There are also lots of other collectables, including feathers which can be used to unlock new moves from a red snake in shorts called Trowzer (and yes, that’s his actual name).
The central hub of the game takes the form of Hivory Towers. As the player learns new moves, they can further explore this hub and unlock new areas containing giant books which serve as portals to the game’s five main levels. That may not sound like a lot of content, but each world is fairly large to begin with and they soon become massive once they have been expanded by spending additional Pagies. Tribalstack Tropics is the game’s first world and it looks stunning – when was the last time you saw a modern game this colourful and bright?
The second world – Glitterglaze Glacier – was this reviewer’s favourite by far. It looks absolutely gorgeous (and genuinely cold) and sounds achingly beautiful, featuring the game’s most memorable song. Former Rare composers David Wise, Grant Kirkhope and Steve Burke have done a wonderful job composing Yooka-Laylee’s orchestral score, more than making up for the lack of voice acting. There’s something truly magical about making Yooka curl up into a ball as Laylee runs on his head, propelling the duo across the snowy landscape.
Each level features a plethora of distractions. Find pixelated dinosaur Rexto and give him a coin to activate his arcade machine and play a new mini-game (some are better – and easier – than others). Find elderly wooden minecart Kartos to ride the rails and collect gems that you can exchange for a Pagie. Glitterglaze Glacier even features an entire castle full of locked-camera isometric levels that are a joy to play. If you can see somewhere in the distance, you can usually get there and this creates a great sense of adventure and discovery in each and every level.
Sadly, the first two levels reach highs the remaining three struggle to meet. The third level is a swamp that’s visually dull, the fourth level is a casino that struggles to hold the attention and the fifth is a space level that does nothing whatsoever with the concept of zero gravity (instead, there’s simply ‘space water’). It’s a shame, because the core gameplay experience is stellar overall despite a somewhat temperamental camera. It’s only as the game progresses that everything starts to unravel.
The final unlockable ability – flying – should be the best, but clunky controls mar what is otherwise a near-perfect moveset. Sadly, this bizarre oversight isn’t an isolated incident. For example, each level features a special transformation that allows Yooka and Laylee to become something else. When you’re a weaponised boat in the space world, you face off against the boss (a giant moon) and the steering/aiming controls are so bad you’ll probably just skip it. What should be exciting instead becomes incredibly frustrating, with each death forcing you to rewatch a cutscene that can’t be skipped. There are many challenges in Yooka-Laylee that feel unfair.
The end result is that, with so much to do in each world, you’ll probably just do the things you enjoy and ignore anything that isn’t fun. Then you reach Capital B’s lair… and he says you can’t face him until you have 100 Pagies (there are 145 in total)! So you’ll be forced to go back to each world and try to complete the things you didn’t enjoy the first time round, just so you can complete the game. Then you’ll face Capital B… and it’s infuriating.
The final boss fight has cutscenes that can’t be skipped, several different stages, no checkpoints, no health pickups and a final confrontation that seems absolutely impossible. It took a prolonged Google search to find somebody else’s review and reveal a solution – an unlockable tonic is required to quickly replenish Yooka and Laylee’s power bar. Without this tonic, the final fight is pretty much impossible to win. Even with it, it’s tough as hell. It’s unfair, badly designed and a sad way to cap off the Yooka-Laylee experience.
If this review sounds overly negative, then please understand – there is a good, almost great game here. It took nearly 24 hours to collect 100 Pagies and defeat Capital B. It was a journey equal parts delightful, beautiful and frustrating. There’s a lot of content here that didn’t work during the Nintendo 64 era and still doesn’t work now. On the other hand, there’s obviously life still to be found within this genre and the genuinely good parts are often effortlessly fun. Combat involves a single button press when facing the standard minions, so it’s no surprise that the boss battles struggle to function properly.
In the end, Yooka-Laylee is a game that’s at its best when you’re simply allowed to explore by jumping and gliding from one platform to the next. The dad humour is inoffensive and strangely charming, the music is warm, the levels are impressive in scope, the graphics can be disarmingly gorgeous (despite looking a bit fuzzy) and the main characters are highly memorable. The endless collectables are addictive despite being overkill, it’s just a shame that the levels they’re scattered across run out of steam and ideas as the game progresses. I hope Yooka-Laylee gets a sequel; these easy to love characters show serious potential, even if the worlds they’re currently exploring are a mixed bag.
7.5 OUT OF 10