Disclaimer: this review is long. If you’re not at all interested in the history of platformers, you can go ahead and skip the first five or six paragraphs. But this review is long for a reason: the platformer genre is surprisingly difficult to judge. So, if you just want a review of Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, I guess I’d recommend sticking to the middle of this review? Heck, maybe you didn’t even make it past this disclaimer. Ah well. I’m sure somebody will stick around…
So. I love platformers. If I were (for no good reason whatsoever) writing a quiz about my taste in video games, there would be one question: “what genre of games does Deediddle love the most?” And the answer would be, as discussed, platformers.
As a child of the late ‘90s I missed out on the 2D platformer Golden Age that was the Super Nintendo/Sega Genesis death match, but I’ve picked up most of the highlights from that era via gamer osmosis. My very first game was the GBA port of Super Mario Bros. 2, which in retrospect probably wasn’t the best game to let loose on my impressionable young brain. But the GBA boasted a number of great ports, including the much less trippy Super Mario World. Games like Super Mario World set my expectations for what video games—especially on a handheld console—could and should be.
And then there’s the the world of 3D platformers. Holy smokes, was I born at the right time for those. I still feel bad for children being born into a world where games like Knack are churned out to show off new consoles. Back in my day, it was Super Mario 64 or bust. Whereas something like Knack (which is a book I am definitely judging by its cover) fades from relevance in at most a couple of years, there are still legitimate debates going on as to whether Super Mario 64 has been topped. The GameCube, bless its heart, gave us the controversial Sunshine, while the Wii (in my view) perfected the modern 3D platformer with the Galaxy twins.
This is the part where those of you who’ve been old enough to drink for more than a couple of years can judge me: I think the Wii was in many ways the absolute gold standard for platformers of both the 2D and 3D varieties, especially when it comes to Nintendo-published titles. Much as I love Odyssey and 64 (and yes, Sunshine), I don’t think any 3D platformer can keep up with the Galaxies. The fact that we got not one, but two 3D Mario games in a single system’s life cycle goes a long way in making the Wii special. As far as third-party titles are concerned, The Wii was a great console for experimentation because of its popularity: in addition to bigger third-party titles including some of the better (read: less bad) 3D Sonic games, the Wii got a number of weirder third-party platformers like Epic Mickey and de Blob. While I suspect many will argue that the Nintendo 64 was the best era of 3D platformers, the Nintendo 64 and its competitors mainly hosted mascot platformers that were chasing the templates of Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, while the success of the Wii as a console opened the floodgates for third parties to get real weird with it.
Ironically, Nintendo’s 2D Mario efforts were probably the most disappointing platformers that the Wii saw. The “New” series of Mario games has been consistently underwhelming, but Nintendo’s second-party developer Retro Studios put out an all-time 2D great in Donkey Kong Country Returns. DKCR kept the best elements of the Rare games it builds from, while also trimming the fat of the series to provide a platformer that’s accessible yet punishing, especially as you dig into the endgame content.
So Nintendo made a great 2D platformer on the Wii. So what? Well, the aforementioned success of the Wii and New Super Mario Bros. Wii showed the Wii as a great home for 2D platformers. Third-party and independent developers took notice, and brought a wide variety of fantastic titles. There’s Mega Man 9 and 10, A Boy and His Blob, Fluidity, and to my mind, the other great 2D platformer of the Wii in Rayman Origins. I don’t even know what to say about Rayman. Nintendo should be embarrassed by the comparison between New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Rayman Origins. Origins and its sequel Legends are an all times great that are worth tracking down if you’re interested in 2D platformers at all.
So what does all this have to do with Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair? For the uninitiated, Yooka-Laylee was a very, uh, let’s say divisive crowd-funded 3D platformer inspired by the classic collect-a-thon Banjo-Kazooie and developed by some of the Rare employees responsible for said game. I never played Yooka-Laylee (though I’m pretty sure I picked it up in a Humble Bundle somewhere along the way) because enough people whose opinions I respect were of the mind that it wasn’t worth checking out. So, even though the modern 3D platformer genre offers very little for a starving 3D platformer fan such as myself, my copy of Yooka-Laylee remains unplayed.
Now. Playtonic, the developers of Yooka-Laylee, sat down and said “what should we make next?” And in this process, someone made the most obvious suggestion imaginable: “since our first game was based on the Banjo-Kazooie, a 3D Rare game that everyone loved, why not simplify the process and make a game based on Donkey Kong Country, a 2D Rare game that everyone loved?” Enter Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair. This game caught my eye at E3 of this year as it seemed like Playtonic had learned from their mistakes and were seeking to simplify their efforts. Plus, while the 3D platformer has still seen some love in recent years—though mostly from Nintendo—the level-based 2D platformer has gone almost entirely extinct. There’s no shortage of 2D Metroidvania games these days, but games like Donkey Kong Country (Returns) are no where to be found. To top it all off, this game has actually gotten decent reviews! So, I picked up Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair (hereafter referred to as just Yooka-Laylee) and gave it a shot. What did I think?
I’m sorry to say that I’ve been thoroughly underwhelmed by Yooka-Laylee. I suspect the emotions I feel towards the game are very much in line with how a lot of people felt about the original Yooka-Laylee. Let’s start with the positives: the game is impeccable when it comes to presentation. Yooka and Laylee, the lizard and bat who make up the game’s title, are excellent mascots, and overall the game excels in the areas of graphics and music. The music is even composed in large part by the folks who worked on Donkey Kong Country back in the day, which is a huge plus. So I’d say overall that Yooka-Laylee looks like a bona fide 2D platformer. The problem is that it does not play like a great 2D platformer.
When it comes to level design, Yooka-Laylee feels like a fan game. In many ways, that’s what it actually is: the game is able to exist because fans of the platformer genre gave the original an overwhelming amount of financial support, and though Playtonic has some alumni from Rare, I suspect a number of the developers of the game are people who were fans back in Rare’s glory days. So what does Yooka-Laylee do wrong? I’d say there’s a distinct lack of direction guiding the overall feel of the game. I mentioned earlier that the graphics are polished, and I stand by that, but I find the art direction to be lacking. Of the portion of the game that I played through, practically every level felt exactly the same as the last, even though there were variations in the backdrops. Many of the levels are industrial—which makes sense, as the main villain, Capital Bee, is an evil industrialist—and while an industrial theme doesn’t have to be boring (see the factory levels in Donkey Kong Country Returns), the challenges in the levels are so limited that these levels end up simply blurring together. I think that description summarizes my first of two issues with Yooka-Laylee: the entire game feels like the developers designed a single template for a 2D platformer level, and then copied and pasted that design twenty times, adding minor modifications to each level along the way. Even the water levels, which I found to be a bit more challenging and interesting, all play pretty much exactly the same. There are only a handful of enemy designs in the game, which feels lazy and contributes to the vibe that this new level you’re playing isn’t really much different from the last one.
I said earlier that I had two issues with the game, and here is my second: the game is too darn easy. I will confess that I didn’t play through all 40 levels the game has to offer (more on that later), but I feel I played far enough into the game to know that the trend wasn’t changing. This mainly boils down to a few bad design choices. Laylee, the bat, rides on the back of Yooka the lizard, and when the combined character takes damage, Laylee jumps off of Yooka’s back and flies around a limited area panicking. This means that you essentially have two health points between checkpoints—except that the player can grab Laylee to calm her down and regain your health point with ease. This means that aside from falling into poison or bottomless pits, which kill you instantly, you go through Yooka-Laylee with essentially infinite health. Sometimes you won’t manage to regain Laylee, which forces the player to go through the game with some extra tension. But bells which summon Laylee are scattered throughout the levels, meaning you’re unlikely to go more than 45 seconds without her. One could try to add the self-imposed challenge of playing the game without Laylee, but death brings you back to the last checkpoint you crossed and returns Laylee to you. More importantly, most of the challenge of the game comes from the game not being particularly well designed.
Where does the challenge come from in a platformer? Simple: one has to maneuver through a level without taking damage. In a well-designed platformer, the challenge is that one must quickly adapt to changes in a level. In Yooka-Laylee, it’s very much possible to brute force your way through platforming challenges by taking damage and then quickly grabbing Laylee again. The challenges that you can’t brute force through, however, feel poorly designed. Often you’ll be expected to (for example) swing on of a vine and then jump off, aiming your jump so that you avoid spikes blocking your path. The problem is that when jumps like this come up, the game does a bad job of signposting where exactly your trajectory will take you when you jump, forcing you to repeat this section through trial and error. It’s little flaws of design like this that make Yooka-Laylee simply not fun to play. The game isn’t challenging enough: sure, I was dying on the levels, but the way the game was designed made me go “oh, come on” whenever I did die. Each level has five big coins to collect that let you progress through the game and theoretically make the game more challenging, but the levels aren’t interesting enough to make me want to go back and collect the coins.
I said earlier that I didn’t complete Yooka-Laylee, and I want to discuss that for full disclosure. Yooka Laylee and the Impossible Lair has, as one might suspect, a level called “The Impossible Lair.” One can attempt this level from the very beginning, but one is unlikely to make very much progress due to the self-proclaimed impossible nature of said lair. Therefore, the point of completing Yooka-Laylee is to collect additional hit points from each level which make the Impossible Lair more possible. I attempted the Impossible Lair at the point that I was about 60 percent of the way through the game, and found that—surprise surprise—the Impossible Lair is made difficult by the same shoddy design that bothered me about the regular levels in the game. And that was the last straw for me. As our good friend Reggie put it: “if the game’s not fun, why bother?” I wasn’t having fun with the regular levels, and it was clear from what I sampled that the final challenge the game was building up to was going to be even more of a chore. So, I stopped.
I think the best thing I can say about Yooka-Laylee is that it would probably be a decent introduction to platformers for younger children. Maybe that’s the point of the game—maybe adult man-children aren’t supposed to be putting the game under a microscope. The problem with that defense of the game is that the games Yooka-Laylee claims to be inspired by, the Donkey Kong Country series, were incredibly challenging yet also accessible for kids. But in those games, the game mechanics were clearly laid out and well designed. If you died, it was because you misjudged a jump or got too careless going through enemies. The games were tough but (mostly) fair, and the extra challenges were just there if you wanted to push yourself and get the most out of the game. In Yooka-Laylee, the difficulty feels entirely artificial.
Yooka-Laylee made me think about why I play games. It pushed me to wonder why we consume media at all. Then it made me wonder why we even exist. Then I freaked out a little and went back to the second question. In most cases, we consume media (movies, TV, and books) because we want to experience someone else’s story. These stories make us feel emotions because (if the story if good) we get invested in the characters and what’s ultimately going to happen to them. And the trouble with assessing video games by that standard is that not a lot of video games are primarily story-based. There are exceptions to this rule, though: the point and click adventure games of old are probably the games most driven by story and dialogue, with modern games such as Life is Strange (which I’m a fan of) carrying the torch and telling a cohesive narrative with characters that you can learn more about by interacting with the world.
So if video games aren’t graded based on their story, what do we grade games on? More specifically, how do we grade level-based platformers, which typically have almost no story whatsoever? I think the key factors in such games are challenge and atmosphere. First, the game has to provide a fair challenge for the player to overcome. This is what makes games interesting: there’s got to be something for the player to latch onto, and say “yes, I can overcome what the game is putting in front of me.” The second factor, that of atmosphere, is what separates the great games from the good games. Nintendo are the masters of atmosphere: creating games with interesting art direction and upbeat tones draws you in. Mario is fun to play because the world is so much fun to watch. Kirby’s Epic Yarn isn’t challenging, but it’s cozy and adorable, and that makes you want to see everything the game has to offer.
As discussed, Yooka-Laylee lacks an organic, fair challenge, and while the game is polished from a presentation perspective, its presentation isn’t compelling enough to carry the game on its own. This is where the game fails for me: overall, I think I’d give the game a score of 4 or 5 out of 10. If you want a great 2D platformer, check out Celeste: it’s cheaper, and substantially more rewarding.