For years, I’ve been amongst the masses that have been clamoring for a new mascot platform game from developer Rare. As a kid, I grew up playing Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie, Donkey Kong 64, and a few others. But as time passed on, Rare began to stop making games like this and the industry as a whole has started to stray away from the 3D platformers of the past — and that’s left a hole in my heart.
Jumping forward to the present, Playtonic Games — a studio comprised mostly of former developers from Rare — has decided to return to this long forgotten genre and resurrect it in a very familiar way; and when I say familiar, I mean, “How on Earth are they not getting sued for this?” The similarities between Banjo-Kazooie and their new game Yooka-Laylee are staggering, but also very intentional. However, being similar to Banjo doesn’t automatically make Yooka-Laylee a great game by default.
I’ll say this up front: if you’ve been clamoring for a mascot platformer for years then you’ll be pleased. I had a great time in my eighteen hours with Yooka-Laylee. It was equal parts nostalgic and refreshing, considering there’s nothing else like it in the current landscape of 2017. The opening hours of the game specifically were pure joy and I often couldn’t stop smiling.
Yooka-Laylee is like a friend coming back to town that you haven’t seen in a few years. You’re curious to know what’s new in their life but you also still want to reminisce about the past with them. The best parts of the game were the ones I was most familiar with. While there isn’t anything particularly new being offered in these moments, sometimes you just want to ingrain yourself with something you know well.
One of the hardest parts of both playing Yooka-Laylee and reviewing it is that I found myself constantly wanting to compare it to the previous Banjo-Kazooie titles — besides Nuts & Bolts. I quickly realized however that no matter how much I was enjoying Yooka-Laylee, it would never exceed my experiences that I had as a child with Banjo and Kazooie. Those early Banjo titles are some of my favorites of all time and there’s a certain mythical quality to them that I’ve built up in my mind over the years where I essentially view them as infallible.
Yooka-Laylee is not without its problems – which I will get into – but I felt it important up front to let you know that this game was made specifically for the fans and delivers on what they’ve asked for. If you backed the game on Kickstarter, I’ll expect you to be happy with the finished product.
I think what I enjoyed the most about Yooka-Laylee was how much it intentionally plays upon your nostalgia. If you have deep ties to the Banjo series like I do, then you’ll get a lot more out of Yooka-Laylee than novices to the genre. Everything from the fonts, bumbling character voices, and distinct soundtrack is familiar in the best way possible. Heck, even the pause screen is identical to the ones seen in the Banjo series. It’s the little things in Yooka-Laylee that made me the happiest.
Then of course there’s the characters themselves. Banjo the bear has been replaced with Yooka the lizard and Kazooie the bird is now Laylee the purple bat. Overall, I like the design of these new mascots but I felt like they were missing a certain amount of flair. Looking back at Banjo’s design, I think it’s hilarious that he wears pants, carries a backpack, and wears a shark tooth necklace. Yooka and Laylee are essentially naked, and I found myself often longing for their designs to have been a bit more lively.
There’s a lot of enjoyment to be had with the gameplay in Yooka-Laylee, whether you are a genre veteran or novice. The controls, while they did take me a few minutes to get used to, are (for the most part) accurate and responsive. Yooka and Laylee can learn a wide variety of moves that will allow you to glide, spin, and even breath fire. You can purchase these moves throughout the game by trading the quills that you find hidden throughout the worlds to a snake character named Trowzer.
Additionally, you can transform into a plethora of new forms in each of the game’s five unique worlds. Some of these include a flower, a snow plow, or even a helicopter. Unfortunately, I never felt like any of the new forms were all that memorable. I don’t think anything interesting or particularly fun happens when you transition into these new new variations of Yooka and Laylee. For instance, when becoming the snow plow you can destroy piles of snow throughout the level – of which there are only a couple — and that’s it. Some transformations allow you to do a bit more, but overall I felt like these moments were lackluster.
It’s worth noting that Yooka-Laylee is one of the funniest games I have played in years. It’s incredibly self-aware and the writing is constantly making fun of itself or common tropes of modern day video games. There’s even a handful of times where it openly acknowledges that it’s a crowdfunded game. Each character interaction in Yooka-Laylee will almost certainly provide you with a moment of laughter.
While the dialogue in the game is absolutely fantastic, I thought the overall story was incredibly weak. I know, it seems odd to critique a character platformer for its narrative beats, but I’m being serious when I say that this is one of the worst parts of the game. The protagonist(s)/antagonist relationship between Yooka and Laylee and the main baddie, Capital B., isn’t compelling whatsoever. The game’s closing scenes were especially poor and I actually rolled my eyes after seeing how things wrapped up.
What’s unfortunate is that I really like Capital B., Yooka, and Laylee as characters. They’re each funny and quirky in their own ways. As one would imagine, Yooka and Laylee share a lot of similar character attributes to Banjo and Kazooie. Laylee is very snarky (like Kazooie) and Yooka is a bit ditzy (like Banjo). Capital B., on the other end, has a lot of narcissistic qualities; upon entering the opening area of the game you’ll find a large golden statue of him. His demeanor and the way he treats his cohorts make for some good laughs. As individuals, I like all of the main players; they just don’t play off of one another very well.
All of the other side characters in the game are incredibly charming and are vital in making this game as joyful as it is. From depressed shopping carts, to snowmen who wear pants on their head, the characters sprinkled throughout the game are unique, well designed, and witty. It’s always a fun experience to meet someone new as you progress.
One of my favorite characters is an enemy that is just a large set of cartoon eyes. These eyes will bounce around and latch onto inanimate objects in the environment and then come to attack you. This is Playtonic’s way of poking fun at a lot of Rare’s old games where enemies typically were random everyday objects with a set of eyes pasted onto them.
Another one of the more notable characters that has been shown in preview footage of Yooka-Laylee is Rextro. Rextro is a bright orange T. rex that’s meant to be an old character from the 64-bit era of video games. He’s one of the funniest characters in Yooka-Laylee and gave me a lot of good chuckles. Unfortunately, Rextro is associated with what I consider to be the worst part of Yooka-Laylee: the arcade games.
You’ll come across five of these arcade games as you play and I each of them is worse than the one before it. Beating these games gives you a Pagie, the main collectible in the game. By the time I reached the last world I tried to completely avoid the arcade machines because I didn’t want to be subjugated to another poorly controlled, poorly designed, waste of time mini-game that altogether halted my experience. What’s worse is that there are game modes in the main menu that allow you to play these arcade games with friends if you so desire. Trust me, you won’t want to.
Another notable mini-game of sorts that you’ll find in each of the game’s five worlds are associated with a mine cart. Mine cart levels were made famous in the Donkey Kong Country series and Playtonic has brought them into Yooka-Laylee. Sadly, these too also aren’t very enjoyable. The mine cart controls poorly and I sometimes had frame rate issues when playing during these portions of the game. While Playtonic added these sections to recall the great levels from DKC, it would’ve been better to just leave them in the past.
The camera in Yooka-Laylee also gave me fits rather often, which is ironic since I had the same issues in 1998 when playing Banjo-Kazooie. When in tight areas or up against a wall, the camera gets squished against your character making it difficult to move around or see what you’re doing. I by no means think the camera work in Yooka-Laylee is game breaking, but I feel like Playtonic could have improved upon this a bit more almost 20 years after Banjo.
The one big area of Yooka-Laylee that I haven’t really touched on yet is each of the five worlds. Every world offers a unique climate ranging from space, tropics, swamps, and even a casino. Overall, I liked the vibe that each world had and I enjoyed the unique characters that inhabited each of them.
Tribalstack Tropics, the first world in the game, is easily the best of the five. It contains a lot of different unique ways to earn Pagies and is also the most pure platforming level in the game. This world being as well put together as it is really helps Yooka-Laylee begin on the right note.
However, the later levels in the game felt a bit more spacious and contained objectives to earn Pagies that I didn’t enjoy as much as in the earlier levels. The casino level specifically felt much less rewarding since you are instead awarded with coins when completing tasks compared to Pagies. Each world also begins to feel more similar to the worlds from Banjo-Tooie wherein they are simply large for the sake of being large. There’s a lot of dead space. That’s something that I never enjoyed about Tooie and it’s something I don’t care for here either.
Each world in Yooka-Laylee is also able to be expanded upon through payment of Pagies at the entryway to the level. Overall, I found this to be a fun and unique way to iterate upon previous levels. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I wished Yooka-Laylee had more worlds to choose from rather than expanding on ones that already exist.
The one other thing that’s worth noting is that there’s a lot more backtracking in Yooka-Laylee than I expected. Sometimes you’ll find a Pagie in a world that you can’t access until you earn a specific move eight hours later in the game. Keep an eye out when you’re playing for yourself and be sure to take a lot of mental – or literal – notes.
Every level is accompanied by some fantastic music composed by former Rare virtuosos Grant Kirkhope, David Wise, and Steve Burke. Old Rare stylings of music have always been some of my favorite in all of gaming and with Yooka-Laylee, I think its score holds its own against those classics. I truly believe that without the incredible tracks in this game, it’s drastically less enjoyable.
On a final note, despite early reports from others, I had little to no performance issues with the game. I played on a standard Xbox One and occasionally saw frame rate dips during the aforementioned mine cart sections of play, but that was it.
While I have my qualms with Yooka-Laylee, it’s a special game that made me feel like I had jumped in a time machine and returned to my childhood. Its issues are relatively small but they do build up over time.
At the end of the day, Playtonic accomplished exactly what they set out to achieve with Yooka-Laylee and proved that 3D platformers can still be relevant in 2017. Yooka-Laylee is a fun, familiar, and nostalgic trip to a genre from the past that still holds up incredibly well in the present. It certainly proves that there is a place in the current landscape for games of this genre. If you miss the mascot platformer of yesteryear, then Yooka-Laylee will almost certainly give you your fill and make you feel warm inside.