Playtonic are basically the Blues Brothers of the gaming world. After years working on other projects the developers that made most of Rare’s greatest hits are on a mission from the platforming god, to save the dying genre by creating a new collectathon platformer just like the ones we all used to love back in 1999.
OK, maybe Playtonic aren’t quite the Blues Brothers of gaming, but the putting the band back together metaphor seems apt, reuniting the talent that created some of the best platformers on the N64. As such, Yoka-Laylee feels less like a ‘spiritual successor’ and more like a straight sequel in places. To call Yoka Laylee a re-skinned Banjoe Kazooie would be an understatement, it is Banjoe Threeie. But not, you know, for legal reasons.
Yooka Laylee opens with nefarious business magnate Capital B and his second in command Dr. Quack unveiling the kind of nefarious scheme that Amazon would probably try to pull if only they could get away with it. Stealing all the world’s books with a giant pneumatic book gathering contraption so that only their company has control over the written word.
More than a simple corporate power grab though, their ultimate aim is really to capture the One book; a mysterious volume which has the power to reconstruct reality.
Meanwhile, the titular bird and bear chameleon and bat are relaxing in the sun at home in Shipwreck Cove while enjoying a spot of reading, After their favourite sentient novella is captured by capita Capital B’s machines, and decides to tear itself a part for safe keeping, Yooka and Laylee set out for the Hivory Towers industrial complex to reclaim their magical book, one ‘pagie’ at a time.
In short -. Save the Pagies, save the world. It’s a simple, light hearted tale that is there to frame the gameplay and little else. Throughout the game, you’ll stumble into other quirky characters that help you in some way like Trowzer the Snake (get it, like a penis) who sells you new special moves and Dr. Puzz who can transform the pair into all manner of weird and wonder creatures that allow you to access new areas and complete certain puzzles in each level.
Starting with just a single world to explore and only a basic set of moves, from the outset the hunt is on to grab everything that isn’t nailed down. Each level has 25 Pagies to rescue, and 250 quills scattered throughout each area. Quills are used to buy new moves from Trowzer like gliding with Laylees wings, or grabbing onto ledges with Yooka’s Tongue. These abilities help you access new areas of the map and complete challenges to collect more Pagies, which can then be used to open new worlds or expand the one you are currently exploring.
Yooka-Laylee’s various simple systems all feed into each other well and fans of Banjoe Kazooie and 90s era platformers in general will feel right at home.
Playtonic set out to recreate the 90’s era colectathon and they did, for both good and ill. Like the Platformers of old, Yooka-Laylee doesn’t hold your hand at all. After a very brief tutorial section which shows you the basics, players are then left to their own devices to figure out the best route forward by themselves. Pagies are everywhere, and some are easier to find than others, some require just some simple platforming skills, some require you to solve a simple puzzle, and some require players to use certain special moves to be obtained before you successfully nab them.
However, attempting to obtain these particular Pagies can be absolutely infuriating because you can not buy all the skills needed to get all the Pagies in a single level, and the game does not tell you this I must have spent hours attempting to get one Pagie in the opening level which looked like all that was needed was some deft platforming. The challenge seemed simple enough, but I simply could not get to the damn thing before its cage shut. Eventually I got bored and gave up. Eventually I returned later on with a glide ability that I unlocked n a later level that it was possible to get the Pagie. But the game doesn’t tell you this at all. All it would have taken was some small warning from either Yooka or Laylee informing players that they can’t get everything the first time they enter a new world and a lot of frustration and time wasting could easily be avoided.
Many late game powers (such as invisibility) are also needed to collet items on the earlier stages. In fact, players are almost rewarded for not bothering to collect everything, least until they get to the door to the final boss which requires players to pay a toll to get through. Each level should give you the tools to finish it in its entirety before moving onto the next. This excessive level of backtracking artificially extends the latter stages of the game with no benefit to the player and makes the final push for 100% completion a slog.
Despite being infuriating at times, I found it hard to stay mad at Yooka- Laylee because it’s just so damn charming. Never taking itself too seriously, it’s chock full of the same wry, self-deprecating thoroughly British humour and knowing nods the audience that made Banjo Kazooie and Conker so enjoyable. It’s wonderfully written, genuinely funny and delivered with the same indistinct grunts and groans found in most N64 games. This is one aspect I wish they had left back in the 90s as it was always a compromise and no amount of nostalgia can make it feel like a feature now that Playtonic no longer have any memory constraints stopping them from employing full voice acting.
Visually though Yooka- Laylee is lovely, retaining the spirit of those blocky old N64 platformers but dragging them into the modern age, making them feel shiny and new again. While the soundtrack is an absolute corker and a clear evolution of the wonderful scores Wise and Kirkhope produced together on the likes of Banjo and Conker.
In many ways, it feels more like remaster of a long forgotten N64 title than a brand-new game. This is Yooka-Laylee’s greatest strength and biggest weakness. As most of its issues stem from hangovers from the 64-bit era that really should have been quashed. The Camera can be an utter pig, swinging to odd positions with little to no provocations, there’s no manual save and checkpointing is often sparse and completely non-existent in interior areas, with the game pushing you back to the beginning of tough platforming sections which may push some to toss the controller down out of sheer frustration and not return.
With Yooka-Laylee Playtonic achieved exactly what they set out to do. Create a new 90s era collectathon platformer that benefits from modern technology. Players that fond memories of playing Banjo Kazooie, Conker and Donkey Kong 64 will love Yuka- Laylee as it scratches a certain nostalgic itch and picks up right where Banjo Tooie left off. But by slavishly adhering to old conventions, some of which died out for very good reason the game risks alienating a larger audience, while hoping that those glasses are rosy enough to withstand missing certain features which gamers have grown accustomed to in the intervening seventeen years since this metaphorical band last played together.
Overall though, Yooka- Laylee is a charming and witty game with a delightful artstyle, marvellous soundtrack, and a certain joyful sense of whimsy that is hard to deny (or stay mad at).