3D Platformers have never really gone away, but they have certainly receded into the background. Can Playtonic games, featuring many of Rare’s best talent from the 1990’s revitalise the genre with this glossy homage to Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64?
“Yooka-Laylee” tells the tale of Yooka and Laylee, a lizard and bat pairing, whose magic book is stolen by the dastardly corporate overlord Capital B. The individual pages (or Pagies) are then scattered over the world, which they must collect in order to stop Hivory Towers from taking control over all of the world’s books.
The game’s been written with humour in mind, from self-depreciation about the state of platformers and the fact the game needed to be crowdfunded, to classic British humour and punnery. One of the first characters you meet is Trowzer the Snake, whilst you’ll also encounter dinosaur rextro sixtyfourus amongst other goofballs along your journey. I think the humour isn’t for everyone, but it certainly struck the right balance with me.
I’ve mentioned taking inspiration from classic platformers – Yooka Laylee doesn’t actually really do that, it just copies classic gameplay mechanics for good or ill. It’s all well and good taking the mick out of collectables, but when there’s over 1000 quills, 100 pagies, ghosts (and more), it gets a bit tiresome.
I’m sure when designing the game, there was a fine line to be trod between loving retro homages and more modern influences, but in reality the game swings well wide of the mark, falling squarely in the old-school camp. This even goes as far as the camera, which is frankly rubbish. The combination of the wild swings made me constantly fall of ledges or mistime jumps, which is pretty annoying. But the worst thing was the combination of the camera jerkiness with the inconsistent frame rate. It actually made me feel ill after lengthy play sessions, something which is incredibly rare for me, particularly in third person games.
Whilst there’s some brilliant mine-cart missions, some genuinely interesting puzzles and links back to the past, too much of the game’s 15 hours or so is spent meandering around looking for additional collectables to unlock things of potentially questionable value, not being sure about where to go next or cursing the controls. All of these things were issues in Rare’s games 20 years ago, but they feel so much more starkly exposed in today’s era. I could go on for hours about the merits (or not) about handholding players, but the mission design seems even more tenuous than all those years ago. All of which is a crying shame.
The level design and platforming is great, whilst the humour and visual interest is there. You can see a genuinely brilliant game waiting to be freed from the shackles of 20-year old design and controls at times.
Yooka-Laylee looks absolutely delightful. It’s bright, colourful, and the worlds are taken right out of storybooks. It’s my N64 childhood on steroids and blasted into HD. The worlds feel like they could have come out of Mario 64, but clearly have significantly more detail, size and scope. There’s also huge variety, from the industrial hub world, to a casino level and another which evoke ancient temples. The frame-rate isn’t always 100% stable on Xbox One, but performance patches have been promised.
The music is the standout though, with Rare veteran Grant Kirkhope providing a nostalgia-fuelled rewind in time. The music is right up there with his very best stuff, although the babbling characters do feel like they broke out of the mixer – they’re REALLY loud.
“Yooka-Laylee” just about gets away with a number of things. Games shouldn’t really break the fourth wall or criticise themselves unless they do things very differently, and Playtonic’s creation is very, very old-school in execution. Here is a game that will delight as many as it frustrates, regardless of your fondness for traditional 3D platformers. Either way, beyond graphics and sound, it feels like the developers, many of whom were Rare veterans from the 90s have been incapable of moving the genre forwards, something they regularly did back in the day. And it’s in this regard that Yooka-Laylee disappoints me most. Don’t get me wrong – this is a tightly executed platform game with likable characters, superb music and decent humour. But, as a retro revival, this would be a brilliantly funny 3-5 hour experience at 15 euro, but at over 15 hours and 30 more, the joke starts to wear thin long before the end.