Developer: Playtonic Games
Format: Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC (reviewed)
Release Date: April 11, 2017
Copy received as backer reward
As a Kickstarter backer of the game, my anticipation for Yooka-Laylee only increased as the release date approached. I couldn’t wait to see what Playtonic could do with a modern-day “Rare-vival,” especially with their all-star team of ex-Rare employees. The Banjo boys were back, and when I first started the game up, I was blown away by the colorful and detailed world Yooka the chameleon and Laylee the bat inhabited.
And then the disappointment crept in.
I struggled to keep myself feeling positively about the game. I wanted it to be perfect; I wanted it to bring me back to those good old bird and bear days. I knew it wouldn’t be perfect, of course, and I made sure to temper these expectations. I was ready to accept the game and all its flaws so long as it gave me a witty 3D platformer that hearkened back to Rare’s classic platforming games. But as I played, I realized that the flaws in the game weren’t simply a part of my high expectations not being met. It wasn’t the minor flaws I could forgive, like the sometimes-difficult camera or the occasional moments when the sound would cut in and out. No, my biggest problems were in the level design and the writing.
What always struck me about the Banjo series were the worlds and how each world felt less like a series of platforms and more like an area where real creatures with real problems lived. In Yooka-Laylee, I get the sense of things being placed for the sake of the player rather than for the sake of the world it inhabits. The small starting area Shipwreck Creek, and even most of the first level called Tribalstack Tropics felt like a proper world. I could believe these places were lived in because things seemed to fit through a sense of thematic characteristics and logical placement. The temples in Tribalstack Tropics felt like fitting structures in the area and like they could have been built by a society of the minions running around in that world. But sadly that’s where the world building stopped and the game levels began.
The best example of a world feeling more like a level is the third level, Moodymaze Marsh. I have a special place in my heart for spooky themed levels, but this is perhaps the most uninspired spooky level I have seen to date. Everything is dark and murky with a sort of greenish-tint to it. This coupled with the level’s random elevated platforms and unmemorable structures really does make the level feel like a ‘maze,’ but not the fun and interesting-to-navigate kind. Platforms and structures in this level, and in many cases in the other levels as well, feel placed at random for the player’s sake, or for the sake of making a video game level rather than, say, a creative and vibrant world populated with unique and interesting characters and places that one might expect to find when hopping into a giant magical book.
The cast of characters in Yooka-Laylee is surprisingly small, which is a shame because I think a lot of them look well detailed and unique. However, they start to feel less unique as you encounter them over and over again across the different levels. I get it, one of the most charming things the Banjo series ever did was bring back characters in ironic and surprising ways. And obviously I expect to find a character like Trowzer in every level to teach the player new moves. But the other more secondary characters appear over and over again for no real reason other than there being a lack of NPCs, making it feel like a cheap grab at what Banjo did so well. This contributes to the problems I have with the levels because, much like the structures that feel dropped into each level, the NPCs feel like they were placed with no real purpose other than to give the player somebody to interact with and something to do. The small amount of unique characters that appear in a singular world and fit into the theme of that world, however all felt satisfying to interact with.
A large portion of the puzzles disappointed me, but others ranged from frustrating to downright infuriating. Some required you to use the wide-turning Reptile Roll move to navigate tight corners and gaps. Take this lack of precision while turning and add an energy meter that depletes as you use the move and you’ve got yourself a mess of puzzles that feel more chore-like than fun when you have to retry them again and again, all while desperately trying to direct your characters toward collectibles.
When playing Rextro’s minigames or the mine cart sections, I didn’t really feel like I was having fun. I hated that I had to do them over and over again, many times for reasons that were less to do with me sucking at these parts and more to do with the shoddy controls, questionable mechanics, and constant lag.
But by far the most rage-inducing pagie to get in this game is at the end of a slide found in the game’s hub world, Hivory Towers. The slide is brutally unforgiving, and I found that if I hit the laser barriers more than twice I wasn’t going to make it to the end in time. Some of the obstacles spin, making them line up in such a way where you either have to take damage or have to be stuck for a few moments, taking away more precious time. And apparently I wasn’t the only one done with the slide after my first few failed attempts down as the camera decided many times to stop following me, leaving me to blindly avoid the obstacles. The frame rate didn’t do me any favors either, being anywhere between twenty and twenty-five fps while on the slide. And to top it all off, I managed to make it to the finish just as time ran out once, letting me get into the area that was otherwise gated off where my reward waited, yet still playing the sound for a loss and teleporting me back to the beginning.
The other large issue I have with Yooka-Laylee is the writing. The dialogue simply falls flat, and I think this has a lot to do with how unconfident the game feels about itself. Many encounters break the fourth wall, mention that platformers are unpopular these days, or recall the Banjo series’ former glory. Sometimes these references were charming, but they happened so frequently that it became predictable. When the game stood on its own bipedal-lizard feet I felt that spark of passion the developers had for this game and really thoroughly enjoyed it.
Indeed, when everything fell into place in Yooka-Laylee I could really see the potential Playtonic seemed too wary to pursue. When a puzzle felt like part of the world or when Yooka and Laylee stopped self-referencing Rare’s glory days and had some clever quips of their own, the game struck me, and so it pains me that so much of the rest of the game came up short.
What I can say is that the soundtrack by Grant Kirkhope, David Wise, and Steven Burke was always extremely catchy and fitting for each respective level. I found myself humming the loud, over the top theme from Hivory Towers and even the theme from Moodymaze Marsh, despite my feelings on the rest of the level. If there was one thing that helped me through the more mundane portions of Yooka-Laylee, it was definitely the classic-sounding soundtrack.
Overall, Yooka-Laylee is a game that tried too hard to be something it just couldn’t live up to and fell flat in the process. I’m glad that, as a backer of the game, I got the game for cheaper than its current Steam price, as I’m unsure how I would have felt about having spent more than the fifteen dollars on the title. However, if I could go back and decide if I was going to back the game again, knowing what I know now, I still would. I would because there is a great amount of potential in Yooka-Laylee and the people working for Playtonic. I have the highest hopes that a sequel or even DLC will deliver me the “Rare-vival” I’m still happily waiting for.
Flawed but still fun