The pitch for Yooka-Laylee was simple: bring back the traditional 3D platformer. A “Rare-vival”, if you will. When Playtonic Games first unveiled this game on Kickstarter’s crowdfunding platform, that’s exactly what we saw, with colourful cartoon graphics, levels loaded with puzzles, and a generally upbeat vibe that’s missing from many modern video games. Despite being Playtonic’s first big title, they’re hardly the new kids on the block. Comprised of Rare veterans, these are some of the creative minds that brought us Donkey Kong Country, Banjo-Kazooie, and Viva Piñata.
Yooka-Laylee evokes a bygone era of simplicity in video games where memorable mascots took precedent over engaging narratives, the on-screen action straightforward, but no less immersive. Instead of being weighed down by a patchwork of systems and mechanics, players were more focused on fiddly platform sections, tough boss battles, and timers. You could also take just about any object or creature, stick a pair of googly eyes on them, and you’d have yourself viable video game character.
Yooka and Laylee, while cute and colourful, have been deliberately simplified compared to most protagonists of today. There’s no gripping origin story, no tales of prophecy or redemption. They’re simply two friends who unwittingly find themselves embarking on an adventure to thwarting the evil scheme of a typecast villain. It’s somewhat refreshing leaving all that baggage behind, clearing a path between the player and this vibrant upbeat world.
Within minutes, Yooka and Laylee go from sunbathing and straight into the maw of a corporate machine that’s looking to steal every book in the world. In their quest to retrieve a particularly pricey tome, they’ll dash between five worlds, scouring each one for its many lost “Pagies”. Naturally, these have been stashed away, locked up, or hidden, requiring players to explore these levels while solving puzzles and completing challenges.
Starting out, it’s hard not to feel somewhat hemmed in. The symbiotic pairing of Yooka and Laylee only allows for some basic moves and manoeuvres to begin with. You’ll also find that each of the five worlds (also referred to as “Grand Tomes”) has a simple and then an expanded version. There are areas you’ll stumble upon only to find that they’re either inaccessible or complete dead ends.
In order to remove these barriers, you’ll need to collect Pagies and Quills. While Pagies can be used to expand and unlock new Grand Tomes, Quills can be cashed in for new combat moves and traversal abilities. From a snake. Called Trowzer.
These powers play towards the duo’s natural talents. Although rolling into a ball isn’t something you’d associate with chameleons, Yooka can adapt to situations around him, using his tongue to extract a variety of power-ups while also serving as a grappling hook. Laylee, on the other hand, will help carry her companion a short distance through the air and can channel her sonar powers to stun enemies.
Together, they’re well equipped for the game’s varied pool of challenges. With over a hundred Pagies to find, there’s a surprising number of puzzle, races, and other tests of skill scattered throughout Yooka-Laylee. There’s definitely that nostalgic feel to them, especially those that whack a timer on the HUD, prompting you to jump through a series of rings. They’re sandwiched together between environmental puzzles, combat sections, and some great mini-games.
Aside from being deeply nostalgic, you’ll find that Yooka-Laylee is rife with puns that always manage to find their mark. It’s a brand a humour that’s self aware in its heavy use of wordplay, and there are some nice touches in there with plenty of references to the gaming industry and some of its less than savoury practices.
That upbeat vibe carries right into the game’s presentation. Each level ascribes to a particular theme and colour palette, the way 3D platformers always used to. What really seals the deal, however, is Yooka-Laylee’s soundtrack. Composed by Grant Kirkhope, David Wise, and Steve Burk, it has that timeless, grin-inducing quality, a handful of tunes lodging their way into the backs of our minds as we played.
In looking to resurrect the 3D platformer of yesteryear Playtonic has added some of its own bells and whistles, from a small cluster of minigames to a perk-like tonic system. There are some added features that wouldn’t have gone amiss though. Our biggest frustration with Yooka-Laylee was often losing our bearings or trying to keep track of where we’d been or what we’d unlocked. The game’s Totals page spews out a list of stats but this doesn’t help in guiding players from one milestone to the next.
As you approach the endgame and Pagies become more scarce, the need for some kind of map or UI element really stood out. There were times when we aimlessly stumbled around for several minutes only to find a hidden area tucked away and out of sight. Even with everything about the game fresh in our minds, it was still too easy to get lost or forget about key objectives and locations. While bashing Yooka-Laylee for its lack of modernisation feels a bit silly in a way, slightly expanding the game’s feature set to better accommodate players doesn’t feel like it would have dampened Playtonic’s attempts to enshrine that throwback feel.
Other niggles, such as poor checkpoints and the inability to restart time-based challenges, ultimately hold Yooka-Laylee back from its full potential. Whether deliberate omissions of simple oversights, they’re small considerations that gradually stack up as time goes on. That said, patient players desperate for a twinge of nineties nostalgia should find these easier to stomach.
Of all the potential hurdles to snag on in creating a 3D platformers in the style of the late nineties classics, Playtonic deftly avoids the most egregious ones by far. At its very core, Yooka-Laylee succeeds in reviving a format long forgotten and does so with such vigor and passion. However, players shouldn’t expect it to reinvent the genre.
Version tested: PlayStation 4