History has become a powerful force in game development in the last few years. Those of us that were gamer kids in the '80s and '90s are now (technically) grown-ups with jobs and disposable incomes who possess an apparent inexhaustible susceptibility to nostalgia-based marketing. As a result, we have seen reboots of long-stagnant game series, epically late sequels, and even the resurrection of abandoned genres.
The most recent of these to find its way to my PC is Yooka-Laylee by Playtonic. Created by former members of of the team at Rare that made Banjo-Kazooie, it is pitched as a spiritual successor to that iconic game. Backers of the very successful Kickstarter campaign certainly got what was promised. Game technology has moved forward in leaps and bounds since the release of Banjo in 1998, and Playtonic has largely harnessed that technology to increase the visual fidelity for its newest platforming duo.
The story of Yooka-Laylee is utterly ridiculous, and its cast of characters even more so. An evil corporation headed by the sinister Capital B (he’s a bee, you see) is stealing the world’s supply of books via a giant vacuum-thingy. Among these books is a magical tome with the ability to grant immense power to whomever controls it. In a desperate effort of self-preservation, the sentient book has scattered its "Pagies" across multiple realms. Naturally, it is up to our heroes to collect them, and prevent Capital B and his cronies from completing their nefarious plan for world domination.
It’s not only Pagies you will be collecting, oh no. This is, after all, an old school 3D platformer, so you’ll be hunting and collecting all manner of things along the way. Pagies unlock new levels, and allow you to expand levels. Quills are currency used to purchase new moves. There are Ghost Writers to be found for rewards, Play Coins to unlock special in-game games, Mollycools to activate transformation guns which in turn allow for interactions with otherwise inaccessible areas or characters, Power Extenders for improving existing moves, and Butterfly hearts to increase your health. Whew, I hope you got all that!
Yooka-Laylee is kind of intimidating. After a brief intro, you are dropped in the first of the games expandable open levels. All are rather beautiful, and are brimming with things to discover and colourful characters to interact with. The sheer scale of the game does feel a little overwhelming early on.
As has always been norm for this genre, you’re really not given much direction at the start. You’ll find characters you can’t interact with and parts of levels you can’t access, and you'll only have the roughest idea of what to do next. This will be daunting for a lot of players, and could easily prevent someone from wanting to continue.
Eventually you’ll work out what you need to do, and begin to open more of the world as you expand your move-set and gain the ability to interact with more of the environment and its denizens. Each of the levels is massive, and each grows further as you collect more Pagies. You will also unlock new moves in each level, most of which will be needed to access previously inaccessible locations in previous levels. This might all sound like a bit of a chore – and in some cases, it can be – but for the most part the exceptional level design and interesting locations keep you engaged, and the feeling of progression seldom falters.
As you jump, roll, dive bomb and glide around the levels, you’ll meet many interesting characters who may offer some in-game reward, a special ability, or challenge to be completed. For the most part these characters are well written, and depending on your tolerance for puns, can be quite amusing. The only issue I really had with them was the squawking, squeaking, or barking that stands in for actual spoken dialogue, which grated on me after a while.
Another annoyance is the unruly camera. For the most part it works as expected, but occasionally it will whip around due to some environmental trigger, or get stuck in the scenery. This is an annoyance that really should have been resolved before the game released: it precipitates deaths, and will see you lose timed events and races. Thankfully, it is the only technical issue I had. On PC performance was silky smooth at 60 fps, and the game us gorgeous with all the settings turned up.
Yooka-Laylee is a game that is likely to split opinions. Its obtuseness, non-linear levels, and intimidating scope will cause problems for those looking for a more modern platforming experience. It’s also far more difficult than its cutesy presentation would have you believe.
The checkpoints can be frustratingly sparse, leading to a lot of wasted time as your trudge back to whatever area you were killed in. There's also a fair amount of backtracking when you don't have the requisite items to unlock new parts of levels. Even so, I felt rewarded throughout; unlocking a new ability was a welcome opportunity to discover new a challenge, while death was a motivation to do better next time. My eventual successes at beating a boss, winning a race, or locating a particularly well-hidden Pagie felt all the more satisfying for the skill and persistence required.
In every way, Yooka-Laylee is the embodiment of what a great Rare game was. There will be those that feel it holds too firmly to the past, but for the intended audience, it’s not really an issue. I found it a hearty and rich experience I could really get my aging teeth into.