Banjo-Kazooie is a nearly 20-year-old game that is still such a joy to play. Of course, a spiritual successor built by the same key creatives wouldn’t have any trouble being crowdfunded. Yooka-Laylee’s gladdening origins as a rebelliously independent rebirth of a long-lost franchise doesn’t just feel like a new dawn for Banjo-Kazooie, but for the entire style of games Rare helped define almost 20 years ago. Here’s a chance to modernise something wonderful; elevate the excellent and minimise the monotonous. While Yooka-Laylee finds a balance that holds an unmistakable resemblance to its grandparent, not everything it changes – nor everything it leaves the same – is for the best.
Yooka-Laylee is an exploratory adventure-platformer, built around running and jumping around lively worlds in search of collectibles. Finding the sought-after Pagies means exploring just as much as it means platforming. Searching each of Yooka-Laylee’s worlds for their hierarchy of goodies is what sets it apart from its contemporaries. There are no set paths or predetermined outcomes, just jolly places filled with fun things to do in any order you like. It’s easy to be dismissive of such a setup, but even the very best platformers of recent years – the likes of Super Mario Galaxy – have foregone this once typical structure in favour of linear levels. Becoming familiar with Yooka-Laylee’s Grand Tomes and picking up bits and pieces as you go is a simple kind of fun we haven’t seen much of for far too long.
Exploring, of course, means running and jumping around, but Yooka and Laylee have plenty more tricks up their sleeves to keep things fun. Rolling up steep surfaces or gliding across gaps feels familiar while pulling in projectiles to launch with Yooka’s tongue or having Laylee project a sonar pulse keeps things from feeling too predictable. Yooka and Laylee are a duo with utility – perhaps the most important factor in a fun platformer. Learning new moves throughout means there are new tricks to play with on every world, differentiating later challenges from the earlier, while retaining the familiar, defining mechanics of the game.
The only problem with some of these moves is how loosely applied they are to specific situations. Ice, solid glass and sheets of glass can all look near identical, for instance, but each requires a different technique to destroy. Similarly, some moves have auxiliary functions that are never explained nor implied, meaning trial and error is the only way to figure out how to overcome more than a few situations.
A game like Yooka-Laylee is only as good as the places in which it lets you play, though, and unfortunately, these are a mixed bag. Each world is a broad domain of challenges and structures. While I have no problem finding my way around each of the Grand Tomes after a full playthrough, some are overwhelming and confusing to navigate on first attempt. Before spending enough time in these environments to know each path and how they intertwine, the lack of significant landmarks or distinguishable points of difference had me wandering more than exploring. The second Grand Tome, Glitterglaze Glacier is demonstrably guilty of this; with caves warping players from one side of the map to the other in disorienting directions that I struggled to keep track of before I’d mentally mapped the whole place out.
This very same world, though, is exemplary of the strength of this philosophy. The Icymetric Palace is a distinctive setting within Glitterglaze Glacier, almost like a dungeon with its own challenges to face. Yooka-Laylee proves the validity of its ample settings where it segments portions into digestible chunks, and the more enjoyable worlds are great fun because of it. Discovering the way each side of these compartmental pieces of level connect to others or loop back around onto themselves had me feeling like I’d been successful in exploration. Where wide open spaces are hard to recognise, though, playing feels directionless and ultimately unfulfilling. Exploring a set space is satisfying – trying to find a needle in a haystack is laborious.
There are plenty of more specific challenges to complete in each world, too. Finding the Tome’s Mollycool will let Dr. Puzz transform the duo, giving them a unique moveset necessary to grab a Pagie or two. Taking a collected Play Coin to Rextro lets you play rudimentary mini-games for prizes. Finding Kartos the minecart rewards you with challenging Donkey Kong Country style cart track excursions. While Rextro’s arcade games are usually a boring grind and Kartos’ minecart tracks are generally awesome, they both suffer from the same infuriating problem. There’s no way to restart them if you mess up. In Kartos’ sections especially, I’d make a mistake and need to restart to get a good enough score to earn the reward. My options here are to finish the track, take enough damage to die or quit and re-enter the level. Whichever way I’d take, I had to mash through lines of dialogue to start again. Repeating and mastering these cart sections is so much fun, it’s such a shame they’re not built around their main strength.
Bridging each of the Grand Tomes together is Hivory Towers; Yooka-Laylee’s hub world. Carving a path forward using new moves from each world is just as satisfying as it should be, providing a practical barometer for progression while inching closer and closer to the end-goal. Some additional secrets or more memorable challenges would have been nice in Hivory Towers, but finding ways into new areas and opening shortcuts back to others is so much more engaging than a level select screen could be.
Given that each Grand Tome can be unlocked and then expanded to a greater size, it’s a shame Yooka-Laylee’s levels can be played in a straight progression. Collecting a fair selection of the pagies in each world before moving onto the next is a viable method, despite returning to older Tomes being one of my favourite portions of the game. Specific challenges and obstacles requiring certain moves can only be overcome after learning some later moves and coming back, and these are one of Yooka-Laylee’s biggest strengths. Returning to what become familiar levels with an expanded moveset to try new things and explore in different ways is rewarded with some of the more interesting and specific challenges throughout. The pace at which new moves are learnt is also balanced to ensure that you’ll have collected most of the previously accessible Pagies before you’ve unlocked cheaper ways to reach them.
Yooka-Laylee tries to make everything old new again, and results are mixed. The visual aspects are wonderful throughout, presenting crisp worlds and characters that reflect the simplicity of a Nintendo 64 game’s designs with an appropriate level of detail. Though environments, in particular, aren’t nearly as lush or effective as something like Ratchet & Clank on PS4, they feel modern without betraying the style they’re so committed to. Character animations and expressions are all wonderful while playing, but can be pretty distracting in story scenes. The stiff movements of big baddy Capital B in particular made whimsical moments feel phoned-in more than they did abiding by their inspirations.
Terrific new characters such as Trowzer; a serpent salesman slid through a pair of pants, and Kartos; a grizzled minecart veteran are distinctive and memorable in their designs, but that’s not to forget the terribly unremarkable Vendi; a vending machine character who is practically just a yellow cube with a face. Characters speak with a cycle of mumbles and moans as they did in Banjo, but it can become extremely irritating here. Taking this approach rather than fully voicing the game makes perfect sense as an established tradition, but perhaps a wider range of grunts for each character could have helped emote a bit more, or at least kept certain characters from just sounding like annoying audio errors.
It’s a shame there are so many annoyances and noteworthy imperfections in Yooka-Laylee. Some Pagies are outright infuriating to collect. Some ledges and structures feel a little janky to climb over like you’ve exploited the game for a shortcut when you’re really on a main path. The multiplayer mini-games are the same sloppy, boring games from Rextro’s arcade machines only dumbed down.
Despite the dozens of complaints I have, I still had a blast playing Yooka-Laylee. At its core, the characters feel great and play well. For all the frustrating time spent figuring out some environments, I spent plenty more blissfully collecting each and every item in others. For every lame mini-game, there’s an excellent minecart section. Even though Capital B’s incessant groans ground my gears, Trowzer’s wonderful dialogue, animations and sounds endeared me to this world. It mightn’t shine through Banjo-Kazooie’s tremendous shadow, but it sits happily in the peaceful shade. As a modernisation of the ‘collectathon’ genre, Yooka-Laylee is a flawed but ultimately successful game I’m very glad I played. Unfortunately, its nagging nuisances make it tough to recommend to somebody who isn’t yearning for the exploratory platforming on which it hangs its hat.