Review by Malorkus
The 3D platform game revival was inevitable. A few years into the millennium, people started getting seriously nostalgic for 2D gaming. Not only did established mascots like Mario and Donkey Kong go back to their side-scrolling roots for games that sold better than their 3D counterparts ever did, but the rise of indie gaming meant that 2D titles that started out as free Flash games could live up to their full potential. A decade later, these games are still being made and are often great, but the old-school appeal has worn off a bit. Nostalgia was ready to move on to the 64-bit era. Part of the reason these “collect-a-thon” platform games died out is due to oversaturation, but Banjo-Kazooie was a game that got everything right at the time, and is still considered the high-water mark for the genre. Still, not only had Rare had not touched the series for some time, but many of Banjo’s developers had moved on. Thus, Playtonic was born, an independent studio made up of current and former Rare alumni. They introduced themselves to the world with Yooka-Laylee, a game that looks like Banjo-Kazooie and plays like Banjo-Kazooie, but due to all that legal mumbo jumbo (hey, Banjo pun!), is not Banjo-Kazooie.
But man does the game try everything possible to mimic Banjo, which is a large part of the hook for fans. You play as an unlikely animal duo – a chameleon and a bat. Laylee the bat is a sarcastic loud-mouth, while Yooka the chameleon is the voice of reason. Their home lies right outside a villain’s lair, which houses portals to the various worlds where your collectible trinkets hide. There are quiz shows required to progress. There are googly eyes on everything and everyone, including an enemy that is literally just a pair of googly eyes and attaches itself to inanimate objects. Yooka-Laylee is keenly aware of itself and the fact that it’s pandering hardcore for the nostalgia of 1998, and thankfully, the staff has not lost an ounce of their humor in the years since. Yes, that includes witty, fourth wall-breaking “gibber-speak” dialogue. This is closer to Banjo 3 than Nuts and Bolts ever was.
On the surface, it might appear that Yooka-Laylee is relying too much on the past. Luckily, the game does have some new tricks up its sleeve. Laylee can glide Yooka across chasms and roll on him to climb steep surfaces, but that’s largely where the similarities to the bear and bird end. Your health is marked by a butterfly meter, and can only be restored by seeking out butterfly patches and slurping them up with Yooka’s tongue. His tongue can also absorb the properties of multi-colored flowers. For instance, blue flowers temporarily allow you to spit ice balls, while black ones weigh you down, enabling you to walk through windy terrain without being blown off. Laylee can use her sonar to both stun enemies and activate tiki statues. She will also eventually learn a charged-up sonic blast to shatter glass blocks and take out swarms of foes. A shady salesman named Trowzer will sell you new moves in each world, and you can choose the order in which you learn them, making for a somewhat customizable twist on standard tutorials.
A lot of the game’s charm comes from its characters. The villain, a bumblebee CEO named Capital B, is a delightful crook who speaks entirely in corporate lingo as he seeks out the One Book to conquer the world (you are collecting the One Book’s “Pagies” that have flown out). You will encounter recurring faces in each world, from a talking mine cart who hosts carting challenges, to a skeleton explorer who finds herself in precarious situations, to a blocky 64-bit dinosaur (Get it?) who specializes in outdated arcade games. Some of the most memorable faces for me were one-off characters, like a thug shopping cart who runs a farmer’s market and rewards you with a Pagie for literally destroying a competitor’s farm. In fact, with all these clever, original characters who rarely piggyback off Banjo-Kazooie’s cast, I would argue that Yooka and Laylee themselves are the most boring characters in the game.
The game’s five worlds may not sound like many, though especially with the lower price, I never felt like the adventure was too short. These worlds take place in giant books, and cover tribal jungle mountains, to Capital B’s own personal casino and golf course, to a space pirate galaxy where the space pirates are stereotypical earth pirates...in space. When you first access a new world, only half of it will be present, if that. By collecting more Pagies, you will be able to “expand” worlds, creating new areas and unlocking doors in them. I have mixed feelings about this. I feel the intent here was to have players feel like they are continually unlocking new content, as well as not overwhelm them when they first reach a new world. This idea is neat in theory, but as someone who likes exploring a world right off the bat, it’s absurd when you spend five minutes climbing a peak, only to reach a dead end with nothing there, because that part only “fills in” after you expand it. It makes you want to just expand stages right away instead of dipping your toes in, so to speak.
Banjo-Kazooie has aged better than other 3D platform games of its era for reasons we could spend another five paragraphs going over, and Yooka-Laylee unfortunately adopts some of the bad habits of those other titles like Donkey Kong 64, primarily excessive mini-games that are laborious to play. There is nothing wrong with the occasional timed challenge to hit targets or win a race to mix things up, but when half the Pagies in a world are locked behind tedious challenges with cumbersome controls, we have a problem. The aforementioned arcade and mine cart challenges are among the worst offenders, where one mistake after several minutes can require you to retry the entire thing, and generally have nothing to do with the skills you have learned elsewhere in the game. One casino game required me to blow a metal ball through a maze of wind ducts and rotating grates within two minutes, and was frustrating to the point where it remained the one Pagie I never obtained in the game.
Note that I am reviewing the Switch version, which came out half a year after the other systems. This means the game includes a patch that was released later for those versions, which corrected a lot of glitches and frame-rate issues, and most importantly, added a manual camera. The game still defaults to the automatic camera at first for some reason, but trust me, this is an option you want to change as soon as the tutorial starts. There have also been signs added inside the hub area, Hivory Towers, which is helpful since it’s not nearly as intuitive to navigate as Gruntilda’s Lair was. Those who either avoided the game at first or were put off by its technical issues are highly encouraged to give this version a shot, as it fixes nearly everything.
Yooka-Laylee is a loyal and lovely revival of a beloved genre, and in a technical sense, a beloved property. Though it ends up being closer to Tooie than Kazooie thanks to a few annoyances, it’s also probably the closest to a new traditional installment that fans of that series will ever get. Best of all, the game also has plenty of original ideas that not only make it more than a shameless nostalgia cow, but set up the potential for a vibrant new series with enjoyable quirks. The variety of moves is impressive, and each world pulls you in with how they encourage exploration and collecting every trinket, especially after you expand them. The characters themselves are a highlight, who all have humorous dialogue with plenty of the tongue-in-cheek meta humor you expect from this talent crew. Especially being half-price of a normal retail game, Yooka-Laylee is well worth the grand adventure inside. It looks like Banjo and plays like Banjo, but for both better and worse, it’s not Banjo.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Yooka-Laylee (US, 12/14/17)
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