The act of rebellion executed by Yooka-Laylee is only partially successful; however, its numerous positive aspects validate the existence of collectathons in contemporary gaming, and that is its finest achievement
Yooka-Laylee smells like an act of rebellion. Prior to its release, the fifteen years that had passed ever since Microsoft took control of Rare, once a factory of game design masterpieces, were spent either sending the company towards projects far removed from the properties that had made them famous or forcing the British developer to channel their resources in the direction of motion-capture devices. In the meantime, remarkable franchises held by the studio were either left to agonize in limbo, in the case of Jet Force Gemini and Conker; not given the proper attention, a destiny reserved for Perfect Dark; or, in what may be the worst possible fate for a great videogame series, stripped off its most remarkable characteristics and propelled into the market in a shape whose only recognizable traits that served as a link to its past were the game’s title and its characters, a cruel ending to what was, in the past, the king of all 3-D platformers: Banjo-Kazooie.
To the folks that poured their hearts and souls into those games, and received the proper accolades and applause, there must have been quite a good deal of pain and anger in the watching of the slow disintegration of their work in the hands of a new corporate overlord that would rather impose its own view on its new acquisition than take the time to grasp what made its new toy worth buying in the first place. Naturally, many of those frustrated talents quit their once proud working place and chose to continue their careers elsewhere. The weird and crooked pathways of life, though, not to mention the gift and power of crowdfunding initiatives, eventually allowed these people to gather again under the same roof and proceed to create a title that, for many, seemed to be unthinkable and impossible within the contemporary gaming era: a true successor to Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie.
Therefore, Yooka-Laylee has the scent of an uprising because it is a takeback. This is the people who saw their work, in the hands of others, be transfigured beyond belief and ignored for nearly two decades regaining possession over a property that, from a creative standpoint, is theirs. And while the legal system stops them from using the same characters and universe upon which Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie were built, it does not hold them back from devising a game that is, in its features and core structural elements, a carbon copy of that saga.
Even Yooka-Laylee’s plot itself, as farfetched as it may be, is a direct jab towards money-hungry corporate takeovers. Yooka, a male chameleon, and Laylee, a female bat, peacefully live in a shipwreck. Unbeknownst to them, the nearby Hivory Towers, under new direction, hatches a scheme in which a giant sucking machine will send all of the world’s books flying towards their headquarters. Led by Capital B (as expected, a big anthropomorphic bee) and Dr. Quack (a duck stuck inside a candy dispenser), which are both overseen by shadowy figures with dark intentions, the company plans to not only profit from literature but also use the One Book, a treasured possession of Yooka and Laylee, to rewrite the universe as they see fit. When they see their precious book flying away, as its pages are ripped apart, Yooka and Laylee decide to enter Hivory Towers to recover it.
Yooka-Laylee is, in fact, such a tight mirror image of Banjo-Kazooie that not even the fictitious Banjo-Threeie (the supposed and never-released sequel to Banjo-Tooie) would have likely carried as many similarities to the 1998 platforming classic. Banjo-Threeie would probably have been an ambitious giant that would have sought to move the franchise forward. Yooka-Laylee, meanwhile, opts to look back to the very beginning of the saga. And while its worlds lean towards the boundary-pushing size of the levels of Banjo-Tooie, none of the goals found within them are as complex as those of that game. There are no problems that force characters to travel between worlds; likewise, the pagies (golden sentient pages ripped from the One Book, and the game’s ultimate collecting goal) are usually attained through a simple activity rather than by a lengthy series of actions.
With that objective in mind, Yooka and Laylee traverse the halls and rooms of Hivory Towers looking for the tomes that serve as the entry point to the game’s five worlds, where most of the pagies can be found. As it occurred in Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie, gaining entrance to the levels is dependent on players having collected specific numbers of pagies, which get higher as the game advances. Therefore, the progression in Yooka-Laylee is done by opening a tome, jumping into the world within, exploring the place, collecting as many pagies as possible, walking out, looking for the next tome, and repeating the process. Naturally, given not all pagies of a world must be collected before proceeding, there is certain degree of freedom given to players in relation to how they approach the game.
Due to that, delightfully, Yooka-Laylee’s levels work like free-roaming playgrounds where it is up to gamers to locate pagies and figure out a way to get them. And Playtonic takes advantage of that sandbox, and of the features inherited from the game’s spiritual predecessors, to put together a myriad of different challenges: there are timed platforming segments, tall structures to climb, characters in need of help, menacing bosses, tight races, a wide assortment of mini-games, simple puzzles, and more. And all of those morsels are uncovered by the natural and engaging exploration of the worlds, a process that is – almost always – enjoyable due to their good design and the fact that almost every corner of the levels hides a secret; there is almost no turn that is taken or route that is followed without the discovery of a riddle to be cleared, an activity to be pursued, or a valuable item to be picked up.
True to its old-school origins, and in an unusual decision for a modern game, Yooka-Laylee completely shuns any sort of map feature, a move that may frustrate those who did not go through the platformers that inspired it. Such an option, however, actually plays into the hands of the game itself, for figuring out the worlds and keeping in mind where its key locations are have always been part and parcel of the classic collectathons. And, here, there is great enjoyment to be found in – little by little – memorizing the nooks and crannies of the lands found within the tomes, and figuring one’s way towards the intended destination.
The borrowing from Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie is certainly not limited to the progression and general gameplay structure of Yooka-Laylee, it actually permeates the entire experience to the narrowest crevasses of its bones. For example, in Yooka-Laylee, the frantic collection is not limited to the whopping twenty-five pagies lying in wait in every world (a number that gives it more main collectibles than its spiritual predecessors); on top of those items, two hundred golden quills (a clear replacement for the musical notes the bear and bird had to gather) are scattered around each tome. These quills, other than serving as an attractive goal to those seeking full completion, can be exchanged for new moves that the chameleon and bat can perform.
Naturally, these techniques work as the backbone to acquiring many of the pagies, and they add an intriguing dynamic to the gameplay itself as well as to the starring duo of characters. In conjunction, the pair can learn how to roll, fly, and hover; Yooka, meanwhile, can use his camouflage abilities to make them invisible, and his tongue to hang onto ledges or to eat berries that will allow him to shoot many different kinds of projectiles; and Laylee can reveal hidden objects and use a sonar blast to break through fragile walls. These actions, and a few others, are an absolute joy to perform, and they further extend the variety of obstacles the characters must surpass on their way to putting an end to Capital B’s schemes; moreover, inspired by Banjo-Tooie, some pagies in early worlds can only be acquired when moves from later worlds are learned, meaning the completion of Yooka-Laylee entails the recognition that some items cannot be reached with the pair’s current arsenal and the eventual backtracking towards early portions of the adventure.
Furthermore, the looming and large influence of Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie can be perceived in numerous other areas. Each world has a unique transformation (which, in most cases, is pretty neat) that gives the heroes new abilities that are key in getting to one or more pagies, and five hidden ghost writers (the game’s version of Jinjos) that need to be found in return for a pagie; the charming signature mumbles that worked as the voices of the characters, with different sound effects giving each member of the cast a unique tone of voice, are back in full force; and the music, composed by the brilliant minds of Grant Kirkhope and David Wise, the latter of which being responsible for the tunes that accompany the boss battles, is not only utterly masterful but also has compositional and arrangement styles that heavily nod to the songs that played a huge role in making the two grand quests of Banjo and Kazooie so remarkable.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Yooka-Laylee is drenched in genuinely funny acid humor, fourth-wall breaking, and adult jokes. Laylee, in particular, perfectly emulates Kazooie’s harsh sarcastic demeanor, as she fearfully mocks clueless sidecharacters, pulls off mean puns, and denigrates many of the happenings, turning Yooka-Laylee into a nearly endless source of humorous gold, immediately classic one-liners, and – ultimately – a game that does not take itself seriously.
As such, Yooka-Laylee seems to have all the makings of a classic; after all, it drinks from absolutely incredible sources, and – as a consequence – brings back from the dead a genre that has been dearly missed by a massive horde of gamers that grew up during the late portion of the 90s. In addition, with its excellent visuals, artistic prowess, and tested gameplay elements, it could be set to introduce a fresh gameplay style to many players who missed out on classic collectathons. It, however, does not quite fully achieve any of those goals. It does not truly resurrect collectathons for good, it merely shows games of the sort are still viable; and it does not guarantee a new audience will be lured into its claws, as it runs the serious risk of being lost adrift a sea of independent games.
The devil is in the details, and therein lies the reason Yooka-Laylee, when it is all said and done, falls a bit short of its intended target: the details trip it. It is a very good game, but it is not exactly easy to recommend, because it comes with several caveats. Yooka-Laylee is creative, varied, engaging, charming, funny, and it has been obviously handled by an extremely talented and passionate crew, but – throughout the adventure – there is an extra level of polish (one that separates goodness from greatness) that is lacking.
Sometimes, such an absence shines through lightly, whether it is via enemy design that is absolutely monotonic and that makes enemy-based pagies be thoroughly dull; through an automatic camera that is clunky (a problem that is thankfully mostly solved via the use of the free-roam cam configuration); in rare, but existing, moments of slowdown; in one or two platforming scenarios that are harder than they should have been due to camera-angle hardships; and in the odd controls of the flight mechanic. It is also somewhat baffling that the use of the roll movement is limited by an energy bar that runs out quite quickly, when in the Banjo-Kazooie series such constraints only applied to super powerful moves such as flight and invincibility; such a limitation forces players to sit around for a few seconds and wait for the bar to reload whenever they need to retry a platforming segment that relies on the move, a quite annoying circumstance.
Lastly, as far as smaller issues go, Yooka-Laylee takes the worthy step of shaking up the bases of the level-design of Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie by giving gamers the opportunity to expand the worlds. With that, whenever they first step into a tome, players will be greeted with a level that is incomplete, and expanding it will require an extra number of pagies. Experienced gamers that are able to acquire a good number of pagies before running towards the next world will most likely be capable of unlocking the full extent of the levels right away; those who do not have pagies to spare, meanwhile, will walk into levels that are blatantly incomplete, as they will encounter pathways that lead nowhere, locked doors, and other silly obstacles. Sure, there is a great deal of awe in watching an already big world grow even larger before one’s eyes, but that brief thrill will not make up for the artificial roadblocks a few gamers will encounter if they are forced to play through unexpanded worlds.
On other occasions, though, the issues are quite glaring, and it becomes rather obvious Yooka-Laylee would have greatly benefited from an extended period of development and more extensive testing. Each world houses a unique arcade game introduced by a lovely 64-bit dinosaur that serves as a verbal punch-bag for Laylee, and all of them range from extremely dull to painfully long and frustrating; additionally, these games are united by the uniform theme of awkward controls. These two characteristics, additionally, render as lackluster the multiplayer mode centered around those mini-games, which do not hold a candle to those featured in Banjo-Tooie. Likewise, the five tomes within Hivory Towers contain a minecart challenge in which players must collect a certain number of gems before the track ends. These could have been fun and a worthy homage to the minecart goodness of Donkey Kong 64 and, especially, Donkey Kong Country; they, however, end up being a nightmarish trial-and-error ordeal, because obstacles in the way – which cause the characters to lose a lot of gems – and valuable gems sometimes come into view without giving players enough time to react, forcing them to memorize most of the path.
Yooka-Laylee’s peak of poor design, unfortunately, comes in the shape of one of its five worlds. Where Hivory Towers, the game’s mysterious and maze-like hub, and the other four existing levels could comfortably sit side-by-side with the lands present in Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie, the fourth world sticks out like a sore thumb. It feels like a rushed project, one that is almost completely devoid of truly unique creative moments which inspire awe. And while the other tomes are bursting with discoveries to be made and intriguing places to visit, this particular world is a constant search for interesting activities to tackle, and the results of the quest are often either empty or not very interesting; a fact that reveals a whole portion of the game did not get the same stellar treatment as the remaining worlds did.
The just act of rebellion executed by Yooka-Laylee is, then, partially successful. When its cylinders are clicking in place, it shows the world of gaming that collectathons still have their place in a contemporary scenario and it loudly states the talent that made Rare’s historic run of excellence possible is now sitting outside its walls, far from the conniving environment of a company that has to bend to the will of its owner; and it does so by surfing on a wave of blatant influences coming straight from the Banjo-Kazooie saga. When it falls, though, it shows a smoother development cycle and the backing of a publisher or studio with deeper pockets and that could afford to delay the product in search for more polish would have done wonders to the game.
As a whole, then, it is a title that must be played by those craving for a true successor to Banjo-Kazooie, which will enjoy a huge portion of the thirty hours that are necessary to collect everything the game offers, and that should be approached with caution by anyone that is new to the genre. Hopefully, the support attained by the brave folks of Playtonic will be enough to give Yooka and Laylee another shot at pure greatness. The chameleon and the bat sure have the potential, and they – alongside their gameplay style – are, after all this time, in the right hands; the ones that created them, albeit covered by a different layer of paint.