Released: October 2019
Developer: Playtonic Games
Also Available For: Nintendo Switch, PC, and PlayStation 4
After Rare was purchased by Microsoft in 2002, anticipation was high for the company to continue their track record of releasing extremely polished, high-quality titles as they had during their tenure with Nintendo. Chief amongst the Rare properties most fans were looking forward to revisiting was the Banjo-Kazooie (1998 to 2008) series, which was an extremely well-made 3D action/platformer collectathon for the Nintendo 64 with a quirky sense of humour and memorable, likeable characters. Unfortunately, Rare were disappointingly underused by Microsoft and, while their famous bird-and-bear duo did return, it was in a highly altered form that let down most gamers. Eventually, key members of Rare left the company and formed Playtonic Games, an independent games studio that would allow them to make the types of games they wanted to which, coincidentally enough, meant going back to the Banjo-Kazooie formula with a spiritual successor to that series, Yooka-Laylee (ibid, 2017).
While the first game received mostly mixed reviews, I really enjoyed this welcome return to the quirky 3D action/platformers of old and revisiting the Banjo-Kazooie gameplay style of large, interconnected worlds with many peculiar characters and things to collect and discover. The game did well enough, however, and Playtonic’s new characters were popular enough to warrant the production of sequel, in which Playtonic Games decided to veer away from the Banjo-Kazooie style of gameplay and instead draw inspiration from the 2.5D sidescrolling platformers of their 16-Bit days, specifically the Donkey Kong Country (1994 to 2005) series. This was surprising to me, considering the series was meant to be a throwback to the Banjo-Kazooie formula, but I was happy enough with the first game and charmed enough by its oddball world and characters to give this slightly-revised sequel a fair shake of the stick.
After being defeated by Yooka and Laylee in the previous game, Capital B has returned to cause havoc; this time, he has enslaved the Royal Stingdom using the Hive Mind, captured Queen Phoebee’s Royal Beettalion, and locked himself inside the titular Impossible Lair. In order to overcome the Lair’s enemies and obstacles and defeat Capital B, Yooka and Laylee must travel to numerous new worlds and free the Royal Battalion, all while restoring peace and order to the Royal Stingdom.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is, primarily, a 2.5D action/platformer in the style of the Donkey Kong Country series; players control Yooka, a laid-back chameleon, and Laylee, a wise-cracking bat, simultaneously to explore the large overworld, traverse the game’s numerous stages, and battle the assortment of quirky enemies found within.
Many of Yooka and Laylee’s abilities from the previous game return here; the duo can run, jump, and roll along in a ball like a certain blue hedgehog. Yooka can use his tongue to grab at certain objects to spit fruit or bombs at enemies or switches or open new pathways and secret areas and the duo can flutter and twirl in the air to extend the reach of their jumps or perform a powerful downward stomp to defeat enemies or drop down to lower levels.
Unfortunately, the duo are missing some of their more useful abilities from the last game; you can only spit out projectiles when you find one in a level, and you can no longer turn invisible, walk while in water, or form a protective shield. While the game does provide alternative means to do some of these moves, there is no way to use Laylee to glide, fly, or have Yooka use his tail for a high jump. Instead, you’re tasked with chaining together high-speed rushes with well-timed jumps to gain extra height and cover large distances, which is fine but I can’t help but feel it’s a missed opportunity to not have the duo flying at some point in some way.
Also missing from the first game is a health and power bar; you no longer need to consume butterflies to restore your health or wait for a meter to fill up before you can perform one of the duo’s special moves. Instead, when you get hit by an enemy or obstacle, Laylee will fly erratically around the screen for several seconds like Baby Mario in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (Nintendo EAD, 1995). If you can’t retrieve her in time, she will fly away and you’ll be left with just Yooka and missing the few moves the game provided you with; take another hit and you’ll die and be returned to your last checkpoint, with Laylee restored to you. You can, however, find special bells you can ring that will return Laylee to your side and use certain Tonics to extend the length of time you have to retrieve Laylee but, honestly, of all the things to be inspired by! Luckily, Laylee doesn’t whine and cry in an annoying screech like Baby Mario but it can be extremely harrowing and dangerous to retrieve Laylee but, if you don’t you might miss certain collectables and secret areas.
To explore the game’s forty stages, you’ll have to navigate an expansive overworld; while nothing compared to the one from the first game, it’s still surprisingly expansive, with many areas connected to others through secret pathways or blocked off by one of Trowzer’s Paywalls. As you explore the game’s stages, you can find five T.W.I.T. coins in each; it is highly recommended that you go out of your way to obtain as many of these as you can as you’ll need to use them to lower Trowzer’s Paywalls and reach new areas and to obtain an Achievement.
Each stage is accessed through a magical book, as in the last game, but rather than expanding upon a stage with the Quills you find in the game’s stages, you use these Quills to purchase Tonics and gain new abilities or game-changing buffs (or de-buffs) or to pay for a hint to locate hidden Tonics on the overworld. You can manipulate and alter the overworld, however, by completing a mini game set by a Pagie found in each area; doing this allows you to find new areas (and more hidden Tonics) and open up new paths to link the overworld together.
Some of Yooka-Laylee’s other recognisable characters also make a return but in severely reduced roles; they generally hang around the overworld, offering hints or asking you to complete a series of small tasks that will access a stage’s alternative mode. These tasks this many involve freezing Nimbo the Cloud, pushing a shopping trolley off a lighthouse, causing a boiler to cough up ash, or activating a fan. Each task is slightly different and changes the stages in different ways; the stage may be flipped upside down or on its side, for example, or underwater, frozen, or filled with acid or lava. This means each stage has two sections to it for a total of ten T.W.I.T. coins per chapter and altering a stage can turn even the game’s easiest levels into challenging test of your patience and endurance.
Each stage also sees the return of the five Ghost Writer Quills; each one flies around the immediate area in a different way, leaving regular Quills in their wake, and generally explode in a shower of Quills once you collect all their Quills or chase them down. Others, however, leave behind a T.W.I.T. coin, a piece of fruit or a bomb to aid your progress, or a key that can access a new area of the stage and lead you to another T.W.I.T. coin. You never know what the Ghost Quills are going to yield as a prize so it’s worth trying to hunt them down and collect their Quills whenever you find them. Every time you clear a stage, you rescue a member of the Beettalion, which is crucial to increasing your chances at completing the Impossible Lair. Unlike the last game (and most games, for that matter), you can challenge the game’s final stage, the titular Impossible Lair, whenever you like but, if you have few or even no Beettalions to aid you, you won’t last very long as the Lair isn’t called “Impossible” for fun. Some stages also contain hidden exits that deposit you in different areas of the overworld and lead you to one of the six secret members of the Beettalion and it is highly recommended that you don’t attempt the Impossible Lair without all forty-eight members of the Beettalion to form a protective shield around you.
Graphics and Sound:
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is just as gorgeous as its predecessor, perhaps even more so thanks to its extra polish and shine. The world and the characters that inhabit it are bright, colourful, and cheery; playing the game is like playing a cartoon and all the characters are full of life and charm. Thanks to the game’s shifted perspective to 2.5D, the character animations rely far more on pantomime than fully-animated 3D models, meaning the game’s simple animations are far less egregious.
Thankfully, the game still uses the charming gibberish of the Banjo-Kazooie series; whenever characters talk, they babble and jabber away like loons and I absolutely love it. Just a few sounds is all it takes to infuse these characters with personality and you always know who is talking and when thanks to these simple, but effectively, sound effects.
The music is just as delightful and affective as ever as well; thanks to the likes of the great Grant Kirkhope, the game’s overworld, stages, and areas are infused with a fairytale-like quality and, no matter how frustrating and difficult some sections might be, you’ll always have a catchy, appealing little tune to hum along to and settle your nerves.
Enemies and Bosses:
Yooka and Laylee’s world is mostly populated by mean-spirited little goblins called Meanyions; you’ll come up against blue versions that simple wander back and forth, red ones that you can only defeat by jumping on them, yellow ones that jump when you jump, and green ones that hover around in a jetpack or with propellers on their heads (which protect them from your jump attack).
There are also fatter, blob-like Boundalong Meanyions who bounce you backwards (usually to your death), the spider-like Webwhacks that can only be avoided thanks to their spiked behinds, cannons that blast projectiles or homing missiles at you, and laser-spewing spheres. Generally, though, you’ll find most the most danger and frustration coming from the many death traps in the game’s stages; giant instant-death boulders, laser beams, and saw blades chase you, spikes, icicles, saw blades, and other spiked surfaces can either cause you to take damage or instantly die, acid and lava pits are abundant and, of course, there are the numerous bottomless pits scattered across the stages. A lot of the game’s challenge comes from using the duo’s skills and carefully bouncing from one enemy to another to clear these gaps; make a mistake and you’ll pay, usually with your life.
The game only features one boss battle and it’s against Capital B within the Impossible Lair. You might think that this means the game is lacking in challenge but you’d be wrong; not only do you have to first get through the game’s stages to unlock enough (or all) of the Beettalions to allow you to get through the Lair’s many enemies and death traps, you then have to face Capital B in four separate, increasingly difficult encounters.
This wouldn’t be so bad but, to reach each of these battles, you first have to survive the Impossible Lair…which more than lives up to its name. Every type of enemy, trap, obstacle, and gameplay mechanic you’ve encountered and bested in each of the game’s stages is incorporated into the Lair; every time you take a hit or fall to your death, you lose one of the Beettalion and there’s no way to get them back. You can return to the Lair from the start of each battle with Capital B but this only really helps if you reached that fight with a decent amount of bees left and can defeat that phase of the boss battle without incurring much damage so you have the best chance of getting through the next stage of the Lair.
Thankfully, actually fighting Capital B is much easier than in the last game; he has very clear and predictable attack patterns but it’s very easy to mess up and take a hit in these fights thanks to the lack of a high jump and the surprisingly large hit box of both the titular duo and the boss itself. Add to that the fact that he Impossible Lair is more frustrating than challenging and you have a significant portion of the game that is more of a chore to get through than being fun and charming like the rest of the game. If you really want to torture yourself, you can take on the Lair’s alternative mode, where you must try and make it through without any of the Beettalion to protect and save you…and if you can do that then good luck to you; you’re a better person than me.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
Like the Banjo-Kazooie games of old, and its predecessor, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is a bit of a collectathon; each stage is filled with Quills to collect, T.W.I.T. coins to find, and hidden areas that generally contain one, or both, of these items. Clear a stage and you rescue a member of the Beettalion and can use the Quills and coins you’ve earned to unlock new skills and areas of the game. The Tonics from the last game return here; Tonics are scattered across the overworld and, while some are in plain sight, others are hidden and you’ll have to pay sign posts for hints on how to find them. Either way, simply finding a Tonic isn’t enough to use it; you have to pay for it with the Quills you’ve collected, meaning you’ll have to revisit some of the game’s easier stages again and again to farm for Quills to unlock every Tonic.
At first, you can only use three Tonics at a time but, eventually, you earn the ability to have a fourth Tonic slot (either temporarily or permanently, if you find every single T.W.I.T. coin in the game. You have to be careful, though, as some of the more useful Tonics (like increasing the amount of checkpoints, letting you hold on to your T.W.I.T. coins after you die, or having special attacks that destroy all onscreen enemies) reduces your Quill count at the end of a stage. So, to get more Quills, you have to use the more obtrusive Tonics (which turn the stage upside down or mess up the controls, for example) but, no matter how you play the game and which Tonics you use, they’re completely redundant in the Impossible Lair as you can’t use any of them…which really makes you question why you put all that effort into finding and unlocking all of them in the first place.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is full of Achievements to earn; you get one for saving certain amount of bees and finding certain secrets but also for finding all the T.W.I.T. coins and, of course, there’s one for beating the Impossible Lair without any bees…so I won’t be getting that one any time soon.The Tonics can help to spice up the game and add some replayability to the stages; you can alter the art style and colour scheme to resemble the Nintendo 64 or the Game Boy, slow down time, and alter other elements to increase (or decrease) your chances to somewhat customise the difficulty of the stages. There is also some downloadable content on offer for the game but it mostly boils down to more Tonics at this point rather than adding new game modes or levels to extend the game’s story and playtime.
I really like the Yooka-Laylee series; I feel it’s a great spiritual successor to the Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Country series at a time when Microsoft seems perfectly happy to let the bear-and-bird disappear into obscurity. Both games have their flaws, of course; being independently created, largely crowdfunded videogames will do that so some compromises are expected but none of that changes the fact that this series is keeping alive a gameplay style that seems to be dying out these days. Unfortunately, for everything that is good about this game, it is let down by the titular Impossible Lair. I have no problem with testing my skills and being faced with a challenge but the Impossible Lair is such a kick in the ass that it sucks all the fun and enjoyment out of the game’s biggest selling point. This almost makes all of the previous stages and achievements you’ve accomplished redundant; you can’t use any of the Tonics, you can’t collect or replenish the bees once you take a hit, and it’s so easy to slip up and drain all of your bees that, generally, it’s easier to simply quit out and try again than reach Capital B without enough of the Beettalion to make it worth pushing forward. It’s not that the game isn’t fun and there aren’t things to like about it; the graphics and music and controls are, generally, top notch and the game is full of the quirky charm the Banjo-Kazooie series was famous for. But the Impossible Lair lives up to its name maybe too much; I feel the developers were maybe being a bit too clever in piling on the difficulty and precision platforming for this stage and it makes the game more of a chore to get through in its final stages rather than being a fun experience from start to finish.
What did you think of Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair? Are you a fan of these characters and their games? Did you have any problems with the Impossible Lair or were you able to beat it without too much difficulty? Which of Rare’s platformers was your favourite back in the day? Would you like to see Banjo and Kazooie get another shot, perhaps even alongside Yooka and Laylee? Whatever you think about the Yooka-Laylee games, feel free to leave a comment below.