We live in the era of Nostalgia As A Marketing Tool. The repackaging of childhood memories, sold back to millennial audiences for a profit, has become the go-to move for film and video game studios looking to make a fast buck. Sometimes these experiments in nostalgia work out. Sometimes they are a hard lesson in learning when to leave the past behind.
Yooka-Laylee, sadly, falls into the latter category.
Created by a good swath of the same team behind the legendary Nintendo 64 platformer Banjo-Kazooie at Rare in 1998, Yooka-Laylee sets out to recapture the magic of these games in everything from mechanics to music. A noble goal, and one that presents an opportunity to modernise the aging Banjo formula for a new generation, exactly the sort of thing we saw Insomniac pull off with their excellent update of Ratchet & Clank last year. An opportunity thoroughly missed here.
A Kickstarter success story in its own right, Yooka-Laylee set records on the crowdfunding platform when it was originally announced in 2015. It promised a return to the golden age of 3D platforming and to a genre that had fallen by the wayside as schools of thought on video game design had become more complex. More than anything, Yooka-Laylee is a grim reminder that nearly 20 years have passed since the launch of Banjo-Kazooie. In attempting to stay rigidly faithful, it is painfully easy see just how archaic many of its mechanics have become by today’s standards.
The set up for Yooka-Laylee should be pretty familiar to Banjo fans of old. Yooka, an iguana, and Laylee, a bat, are a pair of besties enjoying their tranquil lives when all of a sudden, the book they’ve been using as an item of furniture is revealed to be an all-powerful artifact capable of rewriting the very fabric of the universe. I mean, it could happen to anyone.
The book is promptly stolen by a cackling corporate bigwig/bumblebee named Capital B. The book, which is apparently sentient, attempts to do a runner on Capital B by spreading its pages (which become collectibles called Pagies) across the game’s five explorable worlds.
Each of these five worlds, distinct and varied as they are, will have you scampering across every available surface and tackling every puzzle in an effort to recover Pagies. Everything you do in Yooka-Laylee is in the pursuit of Pagie reclamation. Gathering enough Pagies will allow you to expand each of these five worlds, opening up new routes and puzzles to jump into.
As in Banjo-Kazooie, the collecting of Pagies will have you hoovering up myriad other collectibles — quills to purchase new moves, five ghosts that will drop a Pagie upon being found, a Mollycool that will turn Yooka and Laylee into an unstoppable monster of hate and regret.
One of the very few ways that Yooka-Laylee attempts to modernise its design is the way it lets you tackle its five worlds in whatever manner you like. Older games in this genre would stonewall you with mini-bosses or similar impasse that would hinder your progress until you’d achieved some other goal. Here you are, by and large, only limited by the amount of moves that Yooka and Laylee have learned. My real only gripe in its open-world design is that a minimap would have come in super handy, as I frequently found myself getting turned around or lost on the way to something I had remembered from a previous visit.
The aforementioned lack of minibosses is definitely a relief because, hoo boy, does Yooka-Laylee‘s combat suck. By far the most egregious example of this is what the game expects you to believe is shooting. Shooting accurately requires switching to first-person mode, after which you can no longer move or strafe to avoid damage, only aim. It renders the entire mechanic useless, forcing the player to open themselves up to annihilation for minimal return.
Also, whose boneheaded decision was it to put all the projectile weapons on a timer? You get a certain amount of time after picking them up in which they can be used, after which they vanish. It’s dumb and bad, and what’s worse is the game hangs a crazy amount of its quests on similar races against the clock. This is cheap, nasty design. It isn’t fun, it’s just a chore and I don’t know what drove the team to lean on this trope to the extent they have.
Initially I appreciated Yooka-Laylee‘s willingness to let me drop what I was doing and move onto something else if I wasn’t feeling it. It doesn’t cost many Pagies to get into the other worlds and so bailing out of one world to wander about in a new one, pick up a few moves and go back later is encouraged.
It’s those moments where you come back to a puzzle and realise you’ve now accrued the moves required to complete it that come the closest to recapturing the vibe of Banjo-Kazooie. But then there’s the moments that make you want to toss the controller away, eject the disc, put the game on the shelf and never look at it again. Physics puzzles that border on the impossible due to the game’s rather clumsy use of the Unity engine, more timed quests that sap the joy out of every moment, and “classic” arcade mini-games that deliver all the edge-of-your-seat thrills of watching paint dry.
This is when the illusion of all that freedom began to crumble on me. Opening up the game’s final boss required 100 Pagies (there are 145 in total) which is a number far greater than what is required to open up and expand every level. At a certain point, it all started to feel like I was killing time rather than actually enjoying myself.
Yooka-Laylee, on the surface, appears to be everything that Banjo fans have been waiting for. It’s every inch as visually charming as its forebears and just as hilariously subversive in its writing. But there’s a reason that games like Yooka-Laylee died out, and it wasn’t because Rare-as-we-knew-them ceased to exist. It’s because we, as a hobby, evolved. The art form simply moved forward and left this design philosophy where it belonged — twenty years in the past.
Score: 5.5 out of 10
Highlights: The art and sound design will take you back to 1998 in the best way
Lowlights: The quest and progression design will take you back to 1998 in the worst way
Developer: Playtonic Games
Publisher: Team 17
Platformers: PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC, Mac
Release date: Available now
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro.