The story behind Yooka-Laylee is arguably more interesting than the game itself, especially when you consider the events leading up to it. The short version, for those that don’t know, is that once upon a time there was a company called Rare. Rare made some of the greatest games to ever grace the earth – they’re responsible for such classics as Donkey Kong Country, Killer Instinct, Goldeneye, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and my personal favorite, Banjo-Kazooie just to name a few. Show me a retro gamer that doesn’t get all misty-eyed at the mention of Rare, and I’ll show you a liar.
Back in 2002, Microsoft bought Rare. Many people were upset, most agree that it was a terrible move, but life goes on. Among many of the games released by Rare under the umbrella of Microsoft came whispers of a sequel to Banjo-Tooie, the second installment in the Banjo-Kazooie saga. People were overjoyed. Rumors began to spread, leaked images started circulating around the internet, official trailer content was finally revealed, and suddenly we were presented with the final product – Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, a vehicle-building game with almost nothing to do with the original franchise. A heavy-hearted sigh poured across the world as millions of people looked toward their shoes in disappointment, not in Rare for butchering a classic, but in ourselves for thinking things could stay the same.
In the years following the travesty that was Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, members of the Rare staff broke off to create their own studio under the name Playtonic Games. Their first title, Yooka-Laylee, promised to be the actual, factual, no-holds-barred successor to the Banjo-Kazooie franchise. Within 40 minutes of the project’s launch on Kickstarter, Yooka-Laylee topped it’s initial goal of £175,000; at the end of the 46-day funding campaign, it had raised over £2,000,000. These are not numbers to sneeze at, and fully illustrates just how excited the gaming community was to see the next step for a treasured franchise.
So all of that leads us here, to the reason why Yooka-Laylee should stay in your backlog. The cards were just stacked against this game from the beginning, and that’s mostly attributed to hype. The immense support the game immediately received set the stage for the triumphant return of the cartoony action-platformer genre that’s been dwindling on the back burner for some time now, and unfortunately, Yooka-Laylee just couldn’t deliver.
The game begins with Capital B. and his henchmen discussing their plans to steal all the world’s books and turn literature into pure profit. Their machine fires up and starts sucking up all the books around the world like a vacuum. The golden pages are torn from the magic book discovered by Yooka and Laylee while renovating their home, and the duo set out to make their way through the halls of Hivory Towers, double-jumping their way across each of the game’s 5 levels to recover their filched treasure.
One of Yooka-Laylee’s greatest achievements is the massive worlds it throws you into. Each can be expanded once enough pagies have been collected, and adds additional content to the level, including unlocking the boss fight. Unfortunately, this is also one of it’s strongest shortcomings. The scale of the worlds is immense, but overall lack substance, and often feel like wandering through a desolate landscape interrupted by too-infrequent mobs of enemies. A few characters make appearances through each level, but feel more like decorations than anything. The twisting labyrinth of Hivory Towers also suffers from this problem. Unfortunately, the game fell short of the rewarding feeling of exploration, and instead just appears to lack clear direction.
The game is graphically stunning and well-detailed, but shadows cripple the sprawling environments. The developers captured darkness well, but not dim light, as walking between sunny and shadowy areas feels like the lights are being turned on and off. This causes issues with enemy detection, or just finding where to go next in general, as darkened hallways are easily overlooked.
The soundtrack to Yooka-Laylee caught a fair bit of criticism, but none that I felt was particularly deserved. It perfectly captured the spirit of the Banjo games of old with a bizarre mix of tubas, ukuleles, and flutes bouncing through the speakers. The music ties together each scenario’s theme well, and does an excellent job setting the tone for what’s happening on screen.
Platforming is the most important mechanic to Yooka-Laylee, and the game performs well here. Jumps feel tight and precise, the momentum is spot on, and the distance travelled strikes an excellent balance of height and distance without feeling too generous. There’s also several abilities unlocked throughout the game, each adding an interesting spin on conquering obstacles and adversaries. Some of these new moves are governed by a stamina bar, which feels totally out of place for this type of gaming. For instance, the rolling mechanic is a faster alternative to the standard walk animation, but you only get short bursts of it. That rings the bell of poor mechanic implementation pretty loudly.
Ultimately, the problem with Yooka-Laylee is that it didn’t appear to have the same level of care that the older Banjo games included. It’s easy to compare it to the games it was promising to build on and find all of its shortcomings, and a lot of that can be attributed to the hype the developers built up around the title. Yooka-Laylee isn’t a bad game. In fact, it’s pretty fun. The cast is quirky, the dialogue is funny, the environment design is fascinating and ripe for exploration, but it fell just short of the foundation it built itself on. If the developers spent a little more time perfecting the formula rather than just building bigger and better, it could have been one of the greatest games of the decade. And maybe it’s biggest shortcoming is that it was touted to be the next Banjo; without those standards to compare it to, it may have been better received.
- Sprawling environments
- Interesting level design
- Variety of moves and abilities
- Levels feel empty
- Rough lighting effects
- Moves crippled by stamina bar