Yooka-Laylee [official site], the crowdfunded colourful 3D platformer, is essentially a sequel to Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie just wearing different pyjamas. Where Nuts & Bolts took the franchise in a slightly different direction, Yooka-Laylee is an unapologetic return to the N64 formula of cheeky humour, bright playgrounds and collectibles coming out the wazoo. Playing it is like discovering there’s an episode of a favourite TV show you somehow missed at the time. Here’s Wot I Think:
Yooka-Laylee is actually a buddy game where chamaeleon (Yooka) and bat (Laylee) are searching for a book stolen by the villainous bee, Capital B. Capital B is using a sort of global literature vacuum to suck books into his keeping and… I think he’s looking to use the golden pages from Yooka-Laylee’s book in particular to finish off a gold statue of himself? It seems so long ago now that all of that was explained.
What you are mostly doing isn’t really narrative-based, though. You open up worlds, collect Pagies (those golden pages) by performing tasks or completing minigames within the worlds and then use those Pagies to open up more worlds or to expand the content of the ones you’ve already found until you finally reach your showdown with Capital B.
Along the way you collect all manner of other bits and pieces – golden quills are a currency you use to unlock new special moves from a snake named Trowzer, ghost writers are these little coloured spirits which can be captured in particular conditions, other doodads will extend your life and so on and so on. You’ll also learn to shoot fire, ice, grenades, water as well as ingesting objects to take on their properties – cannonballs will make you heavier and stop you being blown away in windy areas. If you know the N64 games you’ll be able to mentally swap out Jinjos and Jiggies for most of the new vernacular.
Similarly, there’s Dr Puzz who offers to transform you into planes or boats or plants or whatnot if you’ll find the Molly Cule hidden in each world. She’s this game’s version of Mumbo Jumbo or Humba Wumba in the original and I’m glad they opted for this approach rather than trying to do anything with shamanism again. That’s one aspect of the older games I find myself wincing at even though I didn’t notice it as a kid.
It’s a testament to both the enduring appeal of Banjo-Kazooie and the faithful nature of the sequel that at some point I gave up calling it Yooka-Laylee and just started referring to the game as “Banjo-Kazoodle” as I used to when I was younger. You can probably also get a sense for how much Banjo-Kazoodle I played on the N64 and how successfully Yooka-Laylee recreates that mindset by the fact I kept accidentally trying to perform old moves like the Beak Barge and Bill Drill to solve problems. It’s like falling through a dimensional rift and playing an old favourite – familiar but different.
An interesting facet of this revival is that it recreates those old games for better and for worse.
I was delighted to see colourful Rare-esque landscapes again and read that familiar style of dialogue – teasing but not mean-spirited and with a bundle of innuendo thrown in. Properly delighted. I don’t think I’d realised how uncommon it was now or thought anyone would even try to bring it back.
I liked the manageable chunks of gaming you get in dividing things up into these minigames and I liked the way that the whole thing is geared around a manageable number of collectibles so the experience doesn’t spiral off into a tedious Ubi-esque collectathon strapped to a narrative. Collecting is the point of the game rather than the thing designed to compel you to clean up a map and stay in the game longer than you really want.
They’ve also done something good with the underwater segments. Underwater is generally the bane of my life in this kind of game but there’s a special move that lets you encase yourself in a bubble and thus run around underwater as if it’s on land. I was embarrassingly grateful for NOT having to swim if I didn’t want to.
The other pleasing thing is the expansion you unlock for the worlds. It’s a nice halfway house between Banjo-Kazooie, which had relatively small worlds, and Banjo-Tooie whose sprawl was genuinely impressive but also overwhelming. You start off with the basic version of the world and then collect enough Pagies to expand the book. That adds extra buildings/challenges/pathways… and so you go back in having got the lay of the land and start exploring the new bits.
On the less impressive side, there are a bunch of niggles. The most persistent of them is the camera. The camera angles are exactly as awkward and unhelpful at times as they were in the original. You go through a doorway and the camera is often facing you so the first thing you have to do is reverse your directions for a few moments while you re-orient yourself. If you’re on a section where the devs have decided a top-down camera is more useful it can be a right pain transitioning out of that – you go to leave, leaving switches to a new camera angle, the direction you’re heading becomes something different in relation to the new camera angle and you run back into the top-down view. Those are the most obvious issues but you’ll encounter camera wrestling at various points throughout.
Flying is a pain in the bum, too. It’s the new swimming. It can be really hard to tell where you are in 3D space, plus you also get a bunch of unhelpful camera angles as part of being airborne. There are also niggles like pulling back on the analogue stick (I will only play this on controller) generally meaning you want to go backwards but when flying it means you descend so turning is the most awkward thing. Oh, and through flying you’ll find ledges and platforms it looks like you should be able to land on, then reach them only to discover they’re invisible walls. Invisible walls are awful.
Some of the minigames really outstay their welcome, too. There are races you compete in with a little cloud and they just go on far too long, especially for the speed you’re travelling at. If you don’t complete them first or second time they become a truly boring slog. Same with the minecart races and the retro arcade games – I’d enjoy them if they were half the length but they just end up feeling bloated.
I should add that Yooka-Laylee continues the grand tradition of not believing in maps. It shows you things you’ve unlocked in relation to other things by zooming out from them with a cut scene/shot. But when you’re shown a lot of stuff (in the case of expanding a world, for example) it’s really difficult to keep track of what’s just happened. You can also lose your bearings if you unlock multiple new areas when in a different form. I was pottering round as a little ship and I blasted my way through several obstacles to open up new areas all in one go so I didn’t have to go through the palaver of transforming multiple times, and then wasn’t sure if I’d actually managed to find them all again in my regular form.
One final gripe is that the boss fights are dull. They’re the familiar rinse and repeat of doing a thing until the boss gets cranky, then doing variations on that thing until you defeat them. I actually enjoyed meeting them because their characters were generally amusing in that first instance, but going through the intro dialogue multiple times quickly lost any charm it once had. Same for the fights themselves.
The final boss fight is the dullest of the bunch which is a shame as at least the others aren’t mandatory for finishing the game. It both outstays its welcome by a long shot and fails to do anything interesting with the mechanics of fighting. You just run through an overlong set of repetitions of the various moves until you get to the next section of the fight. Unskippable cut scenes partway through, dialogue you can’t speed through, no checkpointing, no health refresh options, no kind of acknowledgement that you’ve mastered any of the components… these all come together to make defeating Capital B a slog which soured the end of the experience considerably.
This is the interesting part, for me. Not the part where I’m playing the game and being irritated by those things, but how inextricably linked to the whole experience they are. I’ve never had particularly rose-tinted specs for games I loved as a kid, I don’t think. I’m fond of them, but I also remember how cross these boss fights made me and how fed up I’d get not being able to make a jump or find a thing or get my bearings when swimming or flying or having to repeat a race for the umpteenth time. So when you make a game like Yooka-Laylee where you want to recreate the feeling of playing something like Banjo-Kazoodle what do you do?
If you strip out the annoying parts or rework them do you lose something crucial about the experience of the game as a whole? I think there are corrections that would be easy to make without disrupting the flow or the whole. Things like shortening those aforementioned races, or cutting out the intro dialogue from boss fights. The change to underwater movement was also welcome without feeling unfaithful.
Maps are a little more awkward because they involve adding a UI element that wasn’t present in the original as well changing the way you approach navigation. Generally the games trade in you seeing something interesting and heading towards it, or seeing a bunch of uncollected golden quills and knowing you haven’t been to that area yet. A map would remove that, but would also help guard against the feeling of wandering aimlessly which can set in when you’ve collected the obvious
Jiggies Pagies and are trying to find out what’s left.
This is perhaps what the tonic system is trying to help with. Tonics are things you unlock by meeting various targets like stunning a certain number of enemies or collecting a number of ghost writers. You are allowed to equip one at a time and they do things like make your power bar fill up faster. One tonic helps you find collectibles so you equip it and if you go near a hidden extra you’ll get notified with some more game sounds. It doesn’t get rid of the aimless wandering, but it can reduce it a bit.
I’m aware that I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the things which frustrate me, but I want to make sure I say that I’ve been having a lovely time. It doesn’t quite get back the magic of the originals – the expansion system means it lacks the diversity of worlds for one thing, and for another you can’t recreate that nineties wonder of me feeling like “this is the biggest game I’ve ever seen!” when I’ve played Minecraft or Skyrim or DayZ or anything else in the intervening years – but it brings enough of what I loved about the older incarnations that I willingly binged on it over the weekend where usually I keep those days free from work tasks.
I’m far less sure of how someone without that attachment to the originals will perceive the mix of flaws and strengths. For me the chance to revisit one of my first game infatuations did reduce the annoyances, or at least they became part and parcel of going back – you take the irritants with the joys because without it it wouldn’t be the same.
But I want to end by highlighting that this is a friendly game regardless of whether you had an N64 two decades ago. That feels like a valuable commodity at this point in time. Yooka-Laylee is bright, it’s positive, it’s daft and it wants to play with you. And that’s lovely.
Yooka-Laylee is out on April 11th.