When it comes to the era of Kickstarter-fuelled retro throwback games, perhaps none were as huge as Yooka-Laylee. I can remember when this game’s crowdfunding campaign was happening; it seemed like everyone on the internet was queueing up to fire money at then-nascent developer Playtonic, a group of ex-Rare employees who had gathered together to produce this apparent love letter to the platforming games of the ‘90s. It’s not hard to understand why either; after all, the staff working on this game had some real pedigree. Although not all the names will be familiar to many, certainly at least the composer, Grant Kirkhope, was widely known, and it was also made abundantly clear to the world at large that this was the team who were, in part, responsible for the development of classic platformer darling Banjo-Kazooie. This new game was even being marketed as a spiritual successor to Banjo, a perfectly distilled piece of nostalgia bait shored up not just by dint of nostalgia itself but elevated by the people working on the game. It should come as no surprise that the crowdfunding campaign was wildly successful. 

And yet, only a few years on from Yooka-Laylee’s release, the legacy it has had has been muted to say the least. Criticism of it ranges from full-throated decrying of the game on fundamental levels, to simple pontificating on the old-fashioned gameplay that we might have accepted once as children but can’t in a modern gaming landscape. Now, I’ve played a few of these retro throwbacks on this blog over the years, so naturally I found myself drawn to Yooka-Laylee and whether it’s as poor as it is often made out to be. 


Yooka-Laylee (PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One [reviewed])

Released Apr 2017 | Developed: Playtonic | Published: Team 17

Genre: Platformer | HLTB: 16 hours

The game doesn’t get off to the brightest start, unfortunately. While the bright colours and blocky art direction is instantly appealing – not to mention, obviously reminiscent of the heyday of late-90s to early-00s platformers – it doesn’t take long before the game showcases the first of the irritating decisions made by the designers. It occurs, in fact, as soon as a character opens their mouth for the first time and they start speaking. Well, I say speaking; what actually happens is text appears on screen but the speech is a garbled mess of “aahs” and “urrs”, done in whatever approximates that character’s voice. If you’ve played Banjo-Kazooie you will know exactly the sound I’m talking about – that’s unsurprising, given that this is one of the ways that the developers sought to pay homage to their illustrious past, and as we all know, paying homage is far more important than making good design decisions. 

Anyway, the characters grunt their way through the opening cutscene, which takes a fair while because the game never displays more than two lines of text at a time, and they’ve all got plenty to yabber on about. Why, yes, that is another holdover from ye olden years of Banjo-Kazooie, and yes, it’s reused here uncritically. Once we trudge through the novella of text our story looks thus: our villain is Capital B, an obese corporate sleaze who, in a spate of power-coveting, decides that his lair (the admittedly wonderfully named Hivory Towers) needs to be converted to support his latest nefarious scheme. Said scheme involves sucking up every book in the world, all as part of B’s search for the “One Book”, a magical tome that he hopes to ransack for power. Naturally it turns out this book is in the hands of our heroes, so enter Yooka and Laylee. 


I really dislike Yooka and Laylee. There’s just no way around it, to be honest. Yooka is the chameleon, and our main controllable character – he’s Banjo, and Laylee the bat is Kazooie, basically. He’s also distressingly milquetoast, a mild-mannered, good-hearted spod who runs around with a big vacuous grin on his empty head. But, he’s not heroic, as such; he never really makes any commitment one way or the other against the villains of the game, except in vague terms. Instead he mainly seems to exist to lightly admonish his friend Laylee for her being a colossal cunt. 

Take a breath. You might be thinking, “woah now, that’s a bit much, surely. And anyway, why are you getting worked up about these characters, of all things?”. It’s a fair question, and yes, I shouldn’t really care. Nevertheless, I was still shocked by just how unlikeable Laylee came across. In fairness, Kazooie was also an acerbic partner, so perhaps this is just age and time showing the writing up, but it does feel like Laylee is even meaner than her progenitor. She’s barely got any dialogue that isn’t her insulting someone, or being rude, or just incessantly whinging. And like, it’s not like the villains are any better; every character in Yooka-Laylee is either depressingly bland or viciously hateable.


Given the quality of the writing on offer, I felt completely unsurprised when the meta jokes started happening. There are lots and lots of them, all of them showcasing the same lazy referencing of the fact that this is all a game. It’s the last resort of the writer out of ideas, and I feel like it surely is such a known fact that this kind of meta commentary only works if you do something with it, but like so many others Yooka-Laylee falls into the trap of simply making the joke and sitting back on its haunches with a smug, self-satisfied grin, seemingly ignorant of that the reality that merely making the reference is neither terribly smart nor funny. 

That’s not the worst of the writing though. While I wasn’t surprised to see meta jokes rear their tiresome head, I did raise an eyebrow at the inclusion of some classic 1990s-era colonialist reductionism when I came across a pith-wearing explorer being cooked in a pot by primitive skull-wearing, unga-bunga speaking locals in the “tribal” world. Apparently, a 90’s throwback game includes some thoughtless racism. Go figure. It’s also got a central character who is a snake, and he’s called “Trowzer”. Trowzer the snake. Trouser snake. I mean, sure I know Conker’s Bad Fur Day came out of the same studio and the joke there was that was a risque and inappropriate game, but it wasn’t exactly marketed as being kid friendly, and even so I wasn’t really expecting to see a character just named after slang for a penis. It’s obviously not used in any particularly harmful way, but ol’ Cock Serpent here speaks to a phenomenally puerile sense of humour. I probably would have found it funny in the 90s, but then again, I was 8 by the time the aughts rolled in. I’m in my thirties now, and I’ve grown up a bit, and knob gags just don’t cut it any more. 


So, the writing is juvenile and (to put it mildly) a bit shit. But what of the game? Well, as I’m sure you can gather by now, Yooka-Laylee plays largely like time stopped after the release of the N64, and it lifts ideas and general game-feel from most of the famous platformers of the era. That means we’re playing a classic-style collectathon – every stage is littered with stuff to seek out, pick up, and hoard until such time as the game declares that we’ve beaten it. The main goal is gathering Pagies, sentient magic pages of the One Book; these are equivalent to stars in Super Mario 64, or more accurately, to Jiggies in Banjo. These are earned through completing various platforming and puzzling challenges, and to Yooka-Laylee’s credit (I shan’t be saying that much here so enjoy it while it lasts) these are fairly varied. Some are stashed behind timed challenges, others require some tricky platforming, and many need some sort of power-up to earn. 

The point of collecting the Pagies is to get to the final boss, since you need to meet a threshold in order to fight Capital B. They do have a secondary use though, and herein lies perhaps one of the only things in Yooka-Laylee that I unequivocally thought was really cool. The first time you visit each of the 5 worlds they’re complete but fairly small. By spending Pagies in the hub world however you can expand each world – literally, since the books that form the portals for them get bigger and fatter post-expansion. Once expanded, each world features entirely new areas and challenges for you to explore. It’s a lovely idea, although the game posits this as a choice you can do instead of exploring the hub and unlocking new levels, but in reality you often need powerups and moves that are unlocked later in the game to get anywhere in the expanded levels so there’s little point doing it until the endgame. 


There are a few other bits to gather up alongside the Pagies. Strewn across the levels are quills, the game’s currency, which can be given to the knob gag snake man in order to purchase new moves for our dynamic duo. The range of new toys we get to play with is both fairly expansive and also mostly pretty useful (not always a given in these kind of games in fairness) – the roll is given to you early in the game as a speedier way of getting about that can also allow Yooka to ascend slippery slopes, and you’ll be using that liberally until the end of the game, for example. One or two moves are hideously broken, like the late-game flight ability, which I personally loved because the free flight meant that almost every single platforming challenge the game had for me was rendered utterly impotent by dint of being able to fly over everything and land on the Pagie. 

The most useful though is probably the elemental lick you earn, which allows Yooka to wrap his tongue around a bevy of interactable objects and temporarily take on properties of that item. You get the power in the ice level in which licking up hot coals turns you into a fiery chameleon and lets you wander freely through the areas where the cold damages you for hanging around, but there are quite a few others to find and experiment with. The powerups don’t end there though; hidden in each level is a Mollycool (molecule, geddit) that unlocks a body morphing transformation, such as turning our protagonists into a snow plow that skids uncontrollably around the level, or into a pirate ship to sail a vast starry sea. The unquestionably best one is once again something that grants unlimited flight, in this case a helicopter; just as before, unlimited flight means unlimited opportunities to laugh at the game’s puny attempts to direct you through linear platforming challenges. 


You might have noticed a small theme running through there, in which an awful lot of this sounded like a bit of a backhanded compliment. You’d be right; while there are things that perhaps merit a smidgen of praise, the overall feeling when you play Yooka-Laylee is one of distinct sourness. It’s not like there’s any one thing that’s bad either; Yooka-Laylee is instead an unfortunate cascade of bad design decisions that results in a miserable melange, a haze that hangs over as you play. It more or less runs the gamut: imprecise controls that leave you wrestling to hit the collectibles you want, annoying platforming challenges, irritating characters, bland and empty level designs. I played Yooka-Laylee through to the end, but out of spite and force of will, rather than any particular love of what I was seeing. It wasn’t like a fun kind of bad game either, where sometimes you can have games so dreadful you want to keep going to see what line it crosses next. Instead, this is a dull game. It passes like a sigh, dissipating away and leaving nothing of substance except a faint sense of annoyance. It’s playable, but so are many games; I can’t think of a reason why you would compel yourself to push on with this one when you could play pretty much anything else. If you want to play an old-school 3D platformer, go play Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, Spyro; none of these games have aged that badly, whereas Yooka-Laylee feels decayed on arrival. 

1/7 – ABYSMAL.

 Oh dear. Perhaps it’s broken, perhaps it’s savagely offensive, or perhaps it’s a barely-constructed mess. Either way, avoid it at all costs.


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