Release Date: April 11, 2017Platform: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Linux, macOSDeveloper: Playtonic GamesPublisher: Team17Genre: Platform
When it comes to nostalgia-driven gaming experiences, there are two polar tiers of quality. The Shovel Knight tier of excellence and the Mighty No. 9 tier of childhood comprising disappointment.
The Shovel Knight tier of excellence is reserved for retro-style games that feel like they truly belong in the era they are replicating, but don’t necessarily require you to be a fan of the genre to enjoy them. The Mighty No. 9 tier is set aside for those games which use your nostalgia as the basis for their existence but ultimately prove to be cash grabs that mock you for believing your memories are worthwhile.
Those who have been following Yooka-Laylee since its Kickstarter campaign will be happy to hear that the final product is far from another Mighty No. 9. Unfortunately, it’s also an equal distance removed from Shovel Knight.
Yooka-Laylee is a collectathon developed by Playtonic Games; a studio comprised largely of former Rare members who worked on titles such as Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, and Banjo-Tooie. Playtonic isn’t comprised solely of the old N64 Rare crew, but they do represent the heart of that bunch.
Unsurprisingly, they have developed Yooka-Laylee as a passion project designed to reinvigorate the good old days of the N64 collectathon experiences or at least pay homage to them. For fans of that particular style of game, their efforts are a gift from above. The collectathon has fallen out of favor since its N64 prime. Many of the entrants into this genre we have received since then have largely been botched attempts at replicating Rare’s distinctive formula.
Whether or not you believe that Yooka–Laylee represents the best the genre has to offer depends on what it is you seek from this style of game. From a pure presentation standpoint, Yooka-Laylee is not going to disappoint anyone who remembers titles like Banjo-Kazooie fondly. The game’s characters are distinctive, every themed world is bursting with color – lovingly rendered in HD with an option to switch back to classic N64 visuals – and the soundtrack is composed by David Wise and his old Rare crew.
Honestly, though, it’s the little touches that steal your heart. When you begin your adventure and have the option to choose between several save slots all represented by a unique menu screen animation or smirk at the logo screen wipe animations, you’re reminded of the fact that a big part of the reason you used to love these games is because of they exhibited levels of charm that few games of that era could ever hope to replicate.
Rare’s famous N64 games helped rescue the personality of 2D Platformers from the NES and SNES days and apply it to the bold new 3D worlds forged by Super Mario 64. When playing Yooka-Laylee, it’s hard not to feel like such a renaissance is equally relevant in the modern day. There’s no piece of visual or audio design in this game doesn’t jump off the screen. We’ve seen indie games in recent years that have attempted to replicate the style of this title, but the combination of Yooka-Laylee’s design pedigree and comparatively large budget grants this colorful piece of pure joy a wonderfully Triple-A feel that a collectathon hasn’t been able to enjoy in the last 20 years.
Yooka-Laylee feels and looks just like the Rare collectathon game we never got for the Nintendo GameCube or what many fans wanted Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts to be. While that’s what makes this title so notable, it’s also the source of the game’s many problems.
You may have noticed that I’ve been referring to Yooka-Laylee as a collectathon rather than a 3D Platformer. That’s not a trivial distinction, but rather a classification that speaks to the bulk of Yooka-Laylee’s gameplay.
The typical Yooka-Laylee area requires you to collect a certain of items in order to unlock new abilities, assemble pages that allow you enter new levels, or expand your current level, and complete a variety of side-quests given to you by each area’s array of colorful side characters. To be clear, we’re not talking about Donkey Kong 64 levels of collecting. Yooka-Laylee only features a few essential collectibles, and each of serve has a purpose beyond raising an integer on the completion percentage. Even better, they are all arranged in such a way that encourages the organic exploration of every area.
The problem is the redundancy of it all. Outside of the boss fights, combat in Yooka-Laylee never amounts to much more than arbitrarily striking a few underpowered enemies. There are abilities in the game which should ideally open up new forms of combat, but most of them simplify combat sequences while opening up new avenues for item collection within the areas themselves. In turn, those exploration sequences suffer from the game’s surprisingly unenjoyable basic platforming. There’s little joy to be found in simply bouncing around each area, even when you’ve unlocked an arsenal of abilities. Every movement feels like it’s in service of getting somewhere more important.
There are various sidequests and mini-games peppered throughout Yooka-Laylee, but few of them offer a creative break from the fundamental gameplay at the heart of the title. Those that do – such as modified arcade games and vehicle transformation segments – are usually hindered by the game’ surprisingly wonky camera and frustratingly difficult mini-game controls. The same goes for the title’s multiplayer mode which just recreates some of the simplified arcade-style games from the campaign and converts them into an “at least there’s a multiplayer mode” competitive experience. It almost feels like Playtonic assigned some nostalgic value to genre’s most prominent flaws and worked to preserve them.
Actually, there are quite a few aspects of Yooka-Laylee which suggest that the developers felt obligated to recreate every major aspect of titles like Banjo-Kazooie even if they didn’t particularly want to. The story, for instance, is the same kind of simple, child-like narrative you’d expect from such a title. That’s not a bad thing, but Playtonic chooses to tell it in a sarcastic way that borders on passive aggressive. It’s not funny to hear a character complain about tutorial sequences if I still have to go through a tutorial sequence and mocking the simple dialog sequences just makes them that much more arbitrary.
Maybe it’s too much to expect a retro experience to advance its particular genre, but when the genre in question has been advanced by games like Super Mario Galaxy, Psychonauts, and Ratchet and Clank in the years that have followed the era that Yooka-Laylee is paying homage to, you can’t help but question whether a few updates were necessary in order to recreate the thrill of this type of game if not necessarily the exact formula.
Besides, there are aspects of Yooka-Laylee which don’t adhere to the confines of the game’s predecessors. The ability to expand existing levels in order to give completionists more room to roam essentially grants Yooka-Laylee a New Game + mode and the way that your various abilities open up new paths through each area invokes the Metroid style of gameplay in wonderful ways that few titles in the N64 era ever did. Unfortunately, few of these upgrades to little to enhance the general monotony of the game’s platforming and action segments. Almost everything is implemented in the service of offering more content, but the content itself feels hollow.
Yooka-Laylee’s faithfulness to old-school Rare games invokes an interesting dilemma. See, Yooka-Laylee is exactly the game that Playtonic told everyone it was going to be. They’ve lived up to nearly every promise they made on their Kickstarter page, and those who backed the game are going to get exactly the kind of experience that they funded.
That same crowd is going to say that Playtonic never said that Yooka-Laylee was supposed to be anything more than a spiritual sequel to Banjo-Kazooie and that it’s not fair to judge it as anything but that. While Yooka-Laylee could be considered the finest Banjo-Kazooie game ever made- and certainly the best one not bearing the official name – you can’t help but feel that Playtonic missed a golden opportunity to retain the charming qualities of those titles while advancing the fundamental gameplay in a way that removes the repetitiveness that exists in-between objectives.
If Yooka-Laylee had replicated the thrilling action of Ratchet and Clank or the adventurous platforming of Super Mario Galaxy, then it could have possibly inspired a genuine rebirth of the genre by showing new fans and old fans how this style of game is able to contribute an all-around experience that few modern games can provide.
As it stands…well, it’s hard to hate Yooka-Laylee, but that doesn’t mean you have to love it.
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.