A retro revival that delivers on its nostalgic promise
As a new avenue for funding game development, Kickstarter has helped well-received titles such as Shovel Knight, The Banner Saga, and Broken Age come to fruition, but it hasn’t been without numerous notable stumbles, from products being cancelled even after receiving all the money they desired, to finished products like Mighty No. 9 being largely disappointing.
Among the successfully Kickstarted titles banking heaviest on nostalgia is Yooka-Laylee, the first title from indie developer Playtonic Games, but certainly not the first of its type for its primary members. The majority of Playtonic is comprised of former employees from the British developer Rare, once Nintendo’s right-hand company in iconic exclusives like Donkey Kong Country, Goldeneye, and Banjo-Kazooie.
After Rare’s buyout via Microsoft in 2002, the developer found themselves forced to retool their approach under the Xbox brand, changing the third Banjo game to revolve around customizable vehicles instead of platforming and eventually developing nothing but Kinect Sports games for years. Playtonic’s goal as a result of this has been to not only rekindle the original spirit of the Banjo series, but to also possibly spark new interest in the 3D platformer genre, which has largely died out in the past decade aside from mainstays like Mario and Sonic.
Yooka-Laylee was intended from day one to be a spiritual successor to the first two Banjo games, and owes many of its characteristics to it - a playable duo acting as one unit, finding dozens of collectibles to unlock new levels, transformations unique to each world, and more. In their heyday, those games were praised for packing a lot of inventive mechanics and personality, but many, including myself, were wondering if directly recapturing that approach could still deliver a fulfilling experience in 2017.
After playing through the game’s story mode, my opinion is a solid yes. Yooka-Laylee has been made with the goal of reviving the 3D platformer rather than reinventing it, and your enjoyment of that will almost entirely depend on how much you still enjoy that approach. There are definitely some elements that could have been done better, throwback or not, but from my experience, Playtonic did a respectable job of resurrecting one of my favorite genres in the HD era.
The setup sees the titular duo of Yooka, a good-hearted chameleon, and Laylee, his small but sassy bat friend, settling into the ruins of a pirate ship as a potential new home, and unearthing a curious golden book in its hold. Almost immediately, the tome is vacuumed up into the nearby Hivory Tower, home to Capital B, a profit-hungry insect executive who hopes to utilize its mystical powers for world conquest and high quarterly earnings.
Upon entering the building, the duo discovers that dozens of golden "Pagies" from their book have been ripped out during the vacuum process, and have fallen into five magical worlds contained within other giant books. One particular acquaintance, that being shady salesman Trowzer the snake (let that pun sink in) offers them a complimentary new move to recover their first Pagie, gain access to their first world, and the adventure starts in earnest.
One aspect carried over from the Banjo games is the lack of an overarching story after the game’s initial section, which is a shame. There’s definitely a sense that Playtonic wants to show more of their new world should they be able to make a follow-up, with Capital B speaking to a shadowy organization early on and casually remarking that its members would make great sequel fodder – far from the only fourth-wall breaking the game provides.
Thankfully, what we still get remains quite charming, as the heroes encounter dozens of quirky recurring and one-time characters within the levels, with various dialog exchanges and scenarios that never once try to take themselves seriously. Much like Banjo, Yooka’s good-natured and reasonable personality makes him a rather bland lead, but much like Kazooie, Laylee’s feisty, no-punches-pulled remarks are a hoot.
Characters also provide plenty of humor from their concepts alone. For example, every world hosts an appearance from Rextro Sixtyfourus, a dinosaur rendered in an overly blocky and polygonal style akin to early 3D games who offers Yooka chances to play arcade minigames with Pagies as a reward. After one victory, Laylee snidely asks him not to beg them for a 5-star game rating, to which Rextro happily replies that he’s already bribed the biggest gaming publications. You run into sentient slot machines who flimsily try to sell their crooked casino games as genuine, a smarter version of common moronic enemies who desires to revisit his favorite country club, and Capital B’s right hand duck, who periodically challenges you with deadly quizzes. It’s a goofy cast that charms more often than not.
Another throwback element is the approach voice acting takes; rather than proper spoken dialog, characters spout text with a set of randomly repeated grunts or noises specific to each creature. I can see this getting annoying for players without the nostalgic connection, but the majority of conversations allow all the text to pop up silently with a press of the A button, and there are occasionally voices so ridiculous I laughed at how they sounded rather than what they said.
These lively characters and lush environments aren’t without shortcomings, though. Certain areas don’t look as intricate and detailed as others, shadow and texture quality can look quite low at times, and the framerate tends to take a dip when there’s a heavy fire or water effect front and center, though a recent patch from Playtonic has lessened the latter issue’s severity a bit. Lastly, Banjo composer Grant Kirkhope provides an instrumental soundtrack with a lot of tunes that are great fun to listen to while playing, but not to the level that I can remember them on my own.
Traversing the stages and controlling our heroes will come natural to anyone familiar with the genre. You have conventional double jumps and melee attacks from the start, and can unlock a large variety of standard and special moves by locating Trowzer and handing over dozens of collectible quills scattered throughout each world as payment. These range from old favorites, like a hover and ground pound, to more specialized moves, including invisibility, projectile sonar attacks, and sustained flight.
Whereas the Banjo series often had you collecting a large amount of individual ammo types for these kinds of moves, Yooka streamlines things a bit by tying its more powerful abilities to a single stamina bar, which regenerates either after a brief period of inactivity or touching one of many butterflies scattered throughout the land. Yooka’s tongue can also be manually shot out to consume butterflies for health regeneration instead, or to slurp up specific items and plants for temporary elemental enhancements and attacks.
Those worrying that the game only containing five worlds will mean a brief adventure will be happy to find that each one completely dwarfs the Banjo series’ settings in scope, and obtaining enough Pagies to unlock the final showdown against Capital B should take a good dozen hours, with plenty left for completionists afterward. Also, in an interesting tweak, not only are Pagies used to unlock new worlds, but you also have the option to spend them on expanding existing ones, essentially doubling the amount of areas and items to discover.
A lot of the trials to obtain Pagies fall into tried and true conventions (time trials through floating hoops are frequent), but they’re usually designed and presented in a clever enough manner to keep feeling fresh, and with levels being as large and varied as they are, their designs and gimmicks are taken full advantage of. This does lead to the experience’s biggest flaw, though.
Old platformers didn’t have the multitude of in-game maps and fast travel options commonplace in large games these days, and that unfortunately is an issue Playtonic should have spent more time addressing. You can admittedly unlock shortcuts to each world within the main hub, but that generally doesn’t apply to actual levels, and with similar-looking elements throughout, it can be easy to get lost and start going in circles.
It’s also worth noting that Yooka-Laylee is generally a more challenging game than its inspiration. Lives are infinite and I didn’t find myself constantly dying, but necessary items, like the molecules that power each world’s transformation ray, are often quite hard to find, and certain obstacles and bosses can strike you down faster than expected, particularly the sidescrolling mine cart sections contained within each world. This fares less so than the disappointing enemy grunts, which are generally the same two pushover varieties with different skins for each world.
The aimless portions brought on by a lack of navigation thankfully weren’t the majority of my playtime, and the numerous moments where I found myself jumping from section to section with a new Pagie challenge around each corner were quite serendipitous. You also get some variety with Rextro’s minigames, and though a few, like an overhead RC car race, are duds, others, like a rail shooter and some quill collecting marathons, are good fun and can even be played competitively in local multiplayer, though I doubt that’s a component that will see players frequently returning to it.
Despite sometimes being unclear where I should go and having a presentation that could use a little more polish, I walked away very satisfied with Yooka-Laylee. I started my playthrough hopeful but uncertain, and it was quickly able to convince me that a game of this type can still feel fresh and fun in today’s market. If platformers have never been that appealing to you, this is the last game that will change your mind, but for anyone who is open to revisiting the genre, this gets a strong recommendation.