Fond memories overshadowed by modern sensibilities: Yooka-Laylee becomes the dream killer.
With unabashed nostalgic zeal, everything about Yooka-Laylee seeks to emulate 3D platformers of the 1990s – and one in particular. Coming from ex-Rare staffers at Playtonic Games, the Banjo-Kazooie template has been lifted wholesale. And to be clear, Playtonic has been perfectly honest about that, building a successful Kickstarter campaign to feed off that dormant franchise’s enduring goodwill.
On these terms, Yooka-Laylee does everything it promised. It has a kooky animal duo (made up of chameleon and bat) with an expandable array of moves. There are the myriad collectible items littered across its 5 distinct worlds. We also have an expectedly absurd story to justify those collectibles, as our heroes search for the missing golden pages of a magical book, encountering a cast of quirky characters along the way.
As a big fan of Banjo-Kazooie, I should love this. The reality is that games have moved on a lot since the turn of the millennium, and Yooka-Laylee just doesn’t measure up to its contemporaries. Keen to preserve everything of its inspiration, this re-tread missteps badly by leaving every flaw intact alongside anything that was worth saving.
Let’s remember a few of those flaws: a terrible third-person camera that becomes blocked or trapped by scenery; imprecise controls that conspire with the camera to frequently make navigation an interactive best guess; a paucity of assets that leaves environments bereft of substance. In short, getting around isn’t much fun, and when you arrive there’s little to see. In 1998 we knew no better than this. What’s the excuse for such lackadaisical ambition in 2017?
To consider Yooka-Laylee’s world-building, the problem is not simply the environmental themes: from its verdant opening world, through icy landscapes to a final, futuristic space setting, it’s all fairly rudimentary, but forgivably so. This would be fine, if only the worlds felt like they shared any particular design ethos. Yooka-Laylee really struggles to express a personal identity beyond being a bit like something else you’ve seen before, somewhere.
Like its worlds, the characters of Yooka-Laylee share few recognisable design cues with each other. More than anything they remind me of Sonic’s notoriously pointless acquaintances, incongruous in relative art direction and short of charisma. Our antagonist, Capital B, is an evil honey bee half way between Gru (Despicable Me) and Danny DeVito’s Penguin. As bad guys go he’s…well, not bad. The rest tend to be random objects with googly eyes, to the point that we see disembodied peepers attach themselves to crates and toilets for no discernible reason.
A couple of cameo appearances by Shovel Knight might otherwise be strikingly out of place but, against this muddled backdrop, they could put Kratos in without any raised eyebrows (there’s already a sentient minecart called Kartos, as it happens). I suppose the repetition of key characters in every world is supposed to build familiarity around the lack of focus, but the reuse of assets just feels like budgetary restraint.
Structurally, Yooka-Laylee is similarly slapdash. Its hub world is insensibly labyrinthine, making demands for significant backtracking to revisit each of the five main worlds. Within its worlds, there’s a scattershot approach to the placement of its rudimentary tasks, which usually involve an NPC asking you to do something in exchange for one of those pages. Most worlds have similar tasks doled out by those recurring characters. In fairness though, efforts are made to provide reasonable variety beyond this core offering.
It’s almost not worth mentioning the boss fights which, if you think back to Rare’s heyday, don’t have a great deal to live up to. Yooka-Laylee’s bosses are faithfully poor in their execution. If anything they undershoot, with that lacklustre character design even more exposed in the context of what should be an encounter of big personality. They also further reveal weakness and inaccuracy in the game’s control systems.
I’m coming down on it hard, but none of this is to say enjoyment can’t be found in Yooka-Laylee. I do still like Banjo-Kazooie, and a modern take on that is something I still want. But that’s not what this is. It’s an entirely introspective project that does nothing to contemporise its aging blueprint. Look to 2008’s Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts. Look to 2016’s Ratchet & Clank. Both did much more, either in technical execution or inventive confidence.
Playtonic’s unwavering reliance on nostalgia may have been forced by the realities of crowd-funding. Fair enough. I just can’t help but feel disappointed by the result. What Yooka-Laylee proves is that you can’t always trust gamers to know what they really want. When they get it, they’ll be the first to complain that it’s like an animated collectible they’ve recovered a thousand times before.
Yooka-Laylee was provided to us by Microsoft via a download code for Xbox One.