::Insert gibberish here::
There are a lot of bad mascot platformers out there, but you’ll have to pry them from my cold, dead hands.
Many a night, both as a youth and an adult, were spent scouring cartoony countrysides looking for that one last musical note I needed to complete my collection. The jibber-jabber speak, the adorable villains with paper-thin motivations — it’s all part of the fun, even if the writing almost never exceeds that of your typical Saturday morning hamfest.
Yooka-Laylee has a lot of those good and bad qualities, some of which are baked in on purpose, and some that just happened to slip through the cracks.
Yooka-Laylee (PC, PS4, Xbox One [reviewed])
Released: April 11, 2017 / TBA (Switch)
Yooka-Laylee is unabashed old school mascot platforming. If you grew up with the concept and got every last Golden Crown and Banana Fairy Snap in Donkey Kong 64, you’ll be in heaven. For everyone else, that extra dash of nostalgia probably won’t go very far. To be clear, Playtonic does put its own extra spin on the concept.
The big one is the idea of making levels larger, allowing one to use Pagies (the main currency, similar to stars or jigsaw pieces) to either open up new levels (of five) or expand existing ones to add new areas. The choice is an interesting one as you have the option to make a level you already love even bigger, or move on to a new theme.
With just five worlds to choose from it’s not something you’re going to be constantly struggling with, but I adored the notion of expanding my favorite level, Cashino, and spending many more hours with it without feeling overwhelmed from the start. I also suspect folks who aren’t used to 3D platformers will appreciate the gradual sense of scale. Playtonic could have just plopped people down into some of the biggest sandboxes ever crafted, but breaking them up like this is genius. The return of a hub world with hidden secrets is also a nice surprise.
Although the vast open sandboxes are a sight to behold, especially from a pure design perspective, they run the gamut when it comes to beauty. Some areas are stunning and begged me to linger, while others looked like a tech demo. Over the course of my playthrough I got a creeping sense of budgetary concerns, more so than some other recent Kickstarters, which is a shame.
Yooka (the “sensible” chameleon) and Laylee (the “little bit off” bat) are well animated and voiced, but other characters aren’t always up to snuff. The frame rate is probably my biggest concern, as are some sections of worlds that I can only describe as “barren” or “unfinished.” I’ve heard of several colleagues encountering bugs, but I’ve only seen one in my playthrough (a fuel-like item in a racing bit didn’t trigger), and it wasn’t gamebreaking.
The writing is a roller coaster of sorts. Laylee, the brash Kazooie of the group, is hilarious in how mean and self-centered she is. Rextro Sixtyfourus, the clear callback to a bygone era and the gatekeeper of the arcade is amazing, and managed to make me laugh without feeling too meta or memey. I sort of acclimated to the used car salesman aspect of Trowzer, but his shtick doesn’t always land, and I mostly just appreciated Laylee’s riffs off of him. Yooka’s deadpan humor and straight man act help balance out many of the interactions.
Grant Kirkhope, David Wise, and Steve Burke really outdid themselves with the soundtrack though. It hits all the right nostalgic notes (literally), almost like some of it was transposed directly out of the Nintendo 64 era. Yet, there’s plenty of tracks that allow Yooka-Laylee to breathe a little on its own, and several that inspired me to buy a CD outright when it becomes available. It’s that good.
Yooka-Laylee tries really hard in just about every aspect, even if it’s held back technically. So many quests are more than just “go fetch this Pagie,” as the team cleverly works in scavenger hunts with their imaginative landscapes to paint a cohesive puzzle platforming flow. With five stages, no concept ever outstays its welcome, and even though some ideas repeat (transforming, mine cart obstacle courses, boss fights) they’re usually flipped on their head each time you encounter them.
So what else is there after you’ve collected the 100 Pagies necessary to fight the (brutally old school) final boss? Well you can go for a full Quill run (you only need a small percentage of them to buy all of the game’s abilities, but there’s 200 per stage to find) and all of the collectibles, which will push your roughly 15-hour adventure up a bit — or opt to mess around with the six on-hand multiplayer games that are unlocked from the start. They’re Mario Party holdovers, but the option to go at them solo in a score attack setting is appreciated.
Out of all six I’d say half of them are fun to boot up with a crowd (of up to four), and the other half are only worth playing once. It’s a nice mix of cart racing, foot races, and brawls that will likely hold your interest for a short while as long as you have at least one willing participant.
It’s cool of Playtonic to add in some extra little nostalgia here, but with so many great multiplayer games on the market now (and the fact that every platform can support four players, whereas the era Yooka is re-creating didn’t have that luxury), it pales in comparison. There’s also a kinda sorta co-op feature in the form of a “helper” cursor, but it might as well not even be in there — so don’t count on actual co-op if you heard that term used in marketing.
Banjo Threeie is probably never going to happen, but after playing Yooka-Laylee I’m fine with that for the first time in 17 years. Playtonic’s first foray is rough around the edges, but the center is so full of heart that it’ll melt away the more you play it. How much of that roughness you can put up with entirely depends on your history and mental fortitude for mascot platformers. For some of you that threshold is pretty low, but for me, it’s as high as Laylee can fly.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. I also backed the game’s Kickstarter at the £20 level.]