Another story of a Kickstarter project making it to full release, Yooka-Laylee is the result of the passion shown by the ex-Rare developers that founded Playtonic and the community that wanted to see what the spiritual successor to the 90’s cartoon platform adventure games would be like on current generation hardware. Picked up for publishing by Team 17, the game is now available, making it one of the few to survive crowd-funding and make it into gamers hands. Where a lot of titles struggle to gain an audience beyond the backers, can Yooka-Laylee break through to the mainstream and inspire a new generation to embrace the style and structure; or is it going to remain a hommage to the glory days of developers who have long since moved on?
It’s tough for me to really buy into a lot of Kickstarter games given that in most instances they’re being produced because fans are backing it, so even though the developer wants to make it, they’re getting the funding based on a rigid template and deviating from that can cause all hell to break out. If what’s on offer doesn’t appeal in the first place, it’s doubtful you’ll find something hidden away or unexpected by the time the game actually comes out. This is a little different in that I like the idea of what’s on offer, but the hype around Yooka-Laylee is that it’s wanted because of the lack this type of game in the marketplace, though that’s not strictly true. Taking that stance does the work of Insomniac with the Ratchet & Clank series an injustice as they’ve managed to keep releasing 3D platformers for over a decade, whilst keeping pace with the changing hardware; and Nintendo have never shied away from their popular
cash cow plumber, Mario. Who can forget the all conquering LEGO games as well? The genre is alive and well, so really the desire for a Playtonic game stems from the fans of Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie series, and this is where Yooka-Laylee really comes in. It’s a spiritual successor designed to ignite those rose-tinted memories of childhood games, taking what was loved about roaming large landscapes, bashing enemies and solving light puzzles, and packaging them up in a game with depth that you can play today without dusting off your old consoles. In theory it’s great… in practice it falls short of the mark.
Yooka is a chameleon who shares an old pirate ship as a home with Laylee, a bat, hence the games moniker. After a clearout of the cabin they discover a book they want to read, but it’s stolen by the evil corporation CEO Capital B and his chief hench-duck Dr. Quack. Cue breaking into the Hivory Towers headquarters and recovering the book one page (or pagie as the game prefers) at a time. Gameplay-wise it’s a well-worn template that any gamer over the age of 10 is aware of. Hivory Towers is the hub area and you access other worlds by jumping into different books, with each book needing a number of pagies to activate them. Collect enough pagies and you can expand the worlds as well, so after your initial visit to one and you’ve run out things to do, head back to the hub and open up more. It’s an interesting concept that ultimately feels like an unnecessary trip through loading screens to access what should be available on your first arrival into the tome. As Yooka-Laylee progresses, abilities and powers are unlocked for traversal and combat, and give you the skills to keep the adventure going or return to previous areas to hunt for collectibles – something there’s no shortage of.
Even if the format is familiar, it’s refreshing to see the variety on offer. New skills are doled out at a steady rate and pagies require mild puzzle solving or challenge winning to gain, with enough difference in each world to engage you in the hunt. Whether it’s racing against other characters, playing a form of golf, beating high scores in classic arcade games, or draining pollution from a pond; there’s something unique on offer that diverts you from the run and spin attack gameplay that makes up the majority of the worlds. Take the inclusion of Dr. Puzz, a character that can transform Yooka and Laylee into another object or creature by finding a collectible known as a Mollycool (yes, it’s that type of humour). She will let you access the conversion machine and open up additional activities that lead to more pagies. The fact that you’re either exploring as a potted plant or a snow plough within the same levels gives a spin on what you’ll have been doing up to that point, and breaks up what could have been quite monotonous activities nicely. Without doubt there’s a huge amount to see, do and explore, and it’ll take around 30 hours to get through absolutely everything… possibly more if you go for the 1,000+ quills scattered throughout. However, the nostalgia path that inspires the creativity and variety experienced is also what lets the game down.
Yooka-Laylee lifts and drops the standard formula from 15+ years ago without really thinking about how game design (and gamer attitudes) have changed over that period. Sure, things are bright, colourful and humour filled, contrary to a lot of titles we get now, and this makes an impression, but it’s not long before the elements you think should have been updated start to distract and grate. Chief amongst the issues is the camera – it’s absolutely terrible at points, forcing you in and out of views that don’t help you navigate tricky obstacles or hazards. Having played pre- and post-patch there’s little improvement, and it’s something that’s pretty unforgivable in a game that absolutely relies on you being able to see your environment and judge distance. The first world’s boss battle became a lesson in sheer frustration due to the rapid switch between free and fixed angles, forcing you to be looking in completely the wrong direction at the critical points. At least you don’t have to beat the bosses to move to the next world, otherwise I could quite easily have quit the game at that stage.
Other niggles include the random ability to skip conversations – sometimes you can hit a button to hurry things along, sometimes you can’t, and the drawn out pause between the last thing a character says and moving on feels like an age. Pulling off certain moves can be inconsistent; there’s one that lets you pull yourself up to ledges with your tongue, but half the time doesn’t seem to work and leaves you standing still or worse, missing a jump and plummeting to your death. Then there’s what should be an inventive and interesting way to progress to other sections of Hivory Towers with Dr. Quack’s Quiz. You get asked 10 questions and move forward along a bridge for every one you get right. It’s multiple choice and about the areas you’ve visited so far, though get 3 wrong and you move back to the start. Good right? It is until the questions come in like how many quills you’ve collected, what’s the name of a settlement you destroyed, or what’s the inside leg measurement of the last boss you fought. I’m making that last one up, but you get the gist… you have to pay attention to everything to get through and what should be a neat test of your observation skills becomes a chore as it slows the whole pace of the game down.
Just as you’ve had enough of the things that make you want to switch the game off, you’ll come across something that stays that execution and encourages you to continue. Whether it’s unlocking a new ability bought from Trowzer (a snake, and a thinly veiled dick joke), getting a reference to another game, or even some fourth wall breaking banter from Laylee, it manages to walk a very fine line. The humour present is spot on for adults, as is the gameplay and the difficulty, so don’t assume from the screenshots that this is a kids game. It looks decent enough with large areas and interconnected pathways, and it’s mostly a smooth presentation. Without doubt there’s a lot to sink your teeth into, but whether you’ll want to go the whole hog is another question entirely. I smiled at the start, revelled in the old skool gameplay, overlooked the complex maze that is the hub world, and even lived with the strange decision to make you power roll up some shallow ramps and sprint up steeper ones. Certain elements though wore me out over time leaving me a bit disenchanted with the experience. Yes, it’s absolutely delivered on the Kickstarter promise and I hope the fans who backed it have the game they wanted – it’s a great example of a 90’s 3D platformer… it’s just a shame that it’s 2017.
A PS4 review copy of Yooka-Laylee was provided by Playtonic’s PR team, and the game is available now on PC, Xbox One and PS4, with potential to come to the Switch in the future.