How powerful is nostalgia? That is the question Yooka-Laylee (Playtonic Games/Team17, 2017) poses. The spiritual successor to one of the greatest 3D platrformers/collect-a-thons ever, and one of my personal favourite videogames, Banjo-Kazooie (Rare, 1998), Yooka-Laylee once again throws players into a vibrant world full of colourful, squawking characters but, released some twenty years after Banjo’s heyday, is it enough to satisfy modern gamers? Obviously, this is a question many have debated and answered long before I got around to playing Yooka-Laylee and, if you listen to those opinions, you’ll largely hear a sense of apathy, disappointment, and frustrating with some of Yooka-Laylee’s design choices and gameplay mechanics. It amuses me, however, to imagine the same people who criticised Yooka-Laylee’s gameplay are probably some of the same people who were disappointed that Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts (ibid, 2008) was just a kart-constructor and not a fully-fledged 3D platformer. But then, as I’ve always said, you can’t please everyone. Luckily, my needs are far simpler: all I wanted was a throwback to all the things I loved about the Banjo games on modern consoles and, in that sense, Yooka-Laylee delivered.
Rather than the classic bird and bird duo of yesteryear, Yooka-Laylee sees players taking control of the titular Yooka (a green lizard capable of rolling, attacking with his tail, and spitting fire, ice, and grenades) and Laylee (a purple bat who allows a degree of flight and whose sonar highlights secrets and acts as a protective shield) who must fight against the minions of the nefarious Capital B, who plans to use a magical book to take control of the world. Yooka and Laylee happen to be in possession of the book and, when its pages are scattered across various worlds, they take it upon themselves to journey far and wide to collect the missing Pagies and put an end to Capital B’s plans. The world of Yooka-Laylee is both familiar and new; boosted by the power of modern consoles, Yooka and Laylee are able to traverse diverse worlds that are tall, deep, and wide, with numerous side quests, hidden treasures, and additional content that keeps them busy. Worlds are accessed from the game’s central hub, Hivory Towers: Yooka and Laylee can jump into Grand Tomes and enter any of the game’s five worlds, each with a familiar theme (ice, space, casino, etc).
Once they have collected a certain number of Pagies, players have the option of using some of their Pagies to expand each world, opening up new areas and, in some cases, adding entirely new sections to existing worlds where more collectables can be found. In order to reach Capital B, players have to collect a set number of Pagies but, in order to complete the game fully, players must find all 145 Pagies, each of which is protected by either a boss battle, a puzzle of some sorts, mandatory on-rails kart sections, races, and retro-style arcade games. Players can also find and collect various other objects; Quills can be collected to purchase new moves from Trowzer, a shady sales-snake (and finding all 1010 is necessary to obtaining every Pagie), Power Extenders extend your power meter and allow you to use the duos abilities for longer, butterflies can be eaten to restore health and your power meter and there are Health Extenders to get an extra hit point, and five hidden pieces of pirate treasure are also hidden within each world.
To assist with their exploring and collecting, players can access a wide variety of moves upon their purchase. Eventually, players will be able to fly, turn invisible, absorb the properties of beehives to access new areas (eating fire-flies to light dark areas, for example), and even encase themselves in a bubble to walk underwater. Completing certain objective will also allow players to assign one of Vendi’s tonics, which all grant the duo certain buffs (such as an extra hit point, a faster regenerating power meter, or removing damage from falls).
Furthermore, Dr. Puzz can be found in each world and will transform Yooka and Laylee into a variety of other forms, similar to Mumbo-Jumbo in Banjo-Kazooie. Players can become a plant, a snowplough, a helicopter, a swarm of piranha, and an adorable little pirate ship; each transformation allows players to solve puzzles and earn new Pagies as well as access other areas of their respective world. Yooka and Laylee also have to contend with a boss battle in each world, each more ridiculous than the last (they range from a giant ice block and a lovesick, anthropomorphic asteroid). While most of these aren’t particularly difficult and can be bested with a combination of skill, memorisation, and having enough health and power, some can be quite tricky and frustrating, with the final boss battle in particular proving quite the headache. Similar to the final confrontations with Gruntilda in the Banjo games, Capital B takes numerous forms and requires the uses of all of Yooka and Laylee’s skills to win the day.
One of the criticisms I heard about this game long before finally getting it was that the worlds are perhaps too large and too sparsely populated and, in truth, it feels like there could have been ten very distinct worlds instead of five that are extended further and basically force the player to remain in each one for extended periods of time with little reprieve. However, each world is alive with gorgeous, colourful characters and locations; they stretch far up, deep down, and right across and each one has so much to see, do, and explore. The downside to this is that there is so much ground to cover and so many areas and sub areas in each world that it can be difficult to know where to go, where things are, and how to proceed. This is a good thing, in that the game doesn’t hand-hold the player, but it does make finding the game’s many collectables (especially those damn Quills) very difficult and frustrating, especially when you have searched every square inch numerous times. However, each world has a lot packed into it and their own unique theme; players will find themselves completing a variety of mini games in capital Cashino, for instance, in exchange for coins that can be further exchanged for Pagies but, in Moodymaze Marsh, have to traverse a murky swamp filled with spiked plants.
Playing Yooka-Laylee is, mostly, a breeze; Pagies can be found and collected without too much difficulty but, if you want to get everything in the game, you’re going to have to endure some frustrating sections. Kartos, the anthropomorphic kart, can be found in each world and beating one of his increasingly-difficult on-rails kart sections is mandatory for earning all Pagies. Similarly, Rextro the Dinosaur’s arcade-style mini games must be beaten twice to earn two Pagies; these are nice, fun distractions but can be annoying to have to play due to the controls, janky hit boxes, and equally-janky controls. It’s nothing you can’t get through with time and patience, though, and adds some variety, if nothing else.
Honestly, it annoys me that Yooka-Laylee wasn’t more praised upon its release. Sure, there could be a lot more available in the game, but for a crowd-funded, independently-produced title, it has a lot going for it and is more than a worthy successor to Banjo-Kazooie. I would love to see the Platronics guys get folded back in to Rare and a true Banjo-Kazooie sequel be produced but, until then, Yooka-Laylee scratches that particular itch quite nicely with its large worlds, gorgeous visuals, fun gameplay, biting wit, and some brilliant new tunes from Grant Kirkhope. In the end, nostalgia was powerful indeed, certainly enough for me to have a great time with this fun little throwback to an era sadly neglected in modern day videogames.