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July 2018


Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Team 17
Developer: Playtonic Games
Release Date: Dec. 14, 2017

About Andreas Salmen

I'm sure this is all just a misunderstanding.


Switch Review - 'Yooka-Laylee'

by Andreas Salmen on Jan. 4, 2018 @ 4:00 a.m. PST

Yooka-Laylee is a 3-D platformer adventure with stunning worlds to explore, unique collectibles to uncover, fun moves to learn and hilarious characters to meet – or defeat.

It's been a rough year for Kickstarter backers of Yooka-Laylee, Playtonic's crowd-funded attempt to revive the Rare collect-a-thon, especially for Nintendo fans who waned a spiritual successor to the classic, Banjo-Kazooie. The game was canceled for WiiU and a new version was planned for the Switch, but without a clearly defined release date.

Yooka-Laylee was released for all other major platforms to a rather lukewarm reception. Troubled by major technical hiccups and some subpar game direction, the game was labeled as a underwhelming revival of the 3-D platformer. Now that Yooka-Laylee has finally found its way to the Switch, we can see if the Lizard-Bat duo is indeed a worthy throwback or a nostalgic cash-in.

The problem with retro gaming is rose-tinted glasses. We all have fond memories of the games of our youth: afternoons in the arcade, game marathons, and genre-defining titles. Those games were great back then and still hold up to a certain degree, but if they were released as new games today, they wouldn't hold up too well. That's the main thing to consider when jumping into a remake or spiritual successor of older titles. Yes, you want fan service, and you want to trigger fond memories of yesteryear, but you also want to create an experience that stands on its own and can break new ground. Yooka-Laylee manages to only check one of those boxes properly.

The game instantly oozes nostalgia. The heavy-trotting Kirkhope soundtrack instantly draws you into flashbacks of Banjo, and it doesn't stop there. The main protagonists Yooka and Laylee couldn't be closer to the original jumping duo in Rare's classic. A lizard with a box-shaped head and a bat are surely not weirder than a bear with a bird in his backpack.

The 3-D platformer genre isn't known for their storytelling or world-building, and Yooka-Laylee is not interested in changing that. Antagonist Capital B, a cross between a bee and a human, is in the process of stealing books to find a special one with golden pages. Just as Capital B and his second-in-command, Dr. Quack, go about their book-stealing business, the jumping duo of Yooka and Laylee happens to be casually sunbathing outside the factory with a weird book that they've stumbled upon — and it has golden pages. It magically lifts off into the factory and loses all of its valuable golden paper inserts. Without any proper reason about why the book exists or why Yooka and Laylee may even be interested in risking their lives for it, it's time to infiltrate the factory to retrieve the golden pages and put the book back together.

It might be nit-picky to criticize the story of a 3-D collect-a-thon platformer. However, Banjo-Kazooie didn't have a fleshed-out story, either, but at least it identified the direct intentions of the characters and why they did what they did, but Yooka-Laylee doesn't deliver on that at all. It feels like it's all over the place — and not in a good way. This is a minor gripe I have with the setup, and it doesn't carry much weight if the rest of the game is fun.

The setup is not too different from what you'd find in the classics. There's a semi-open hub world that connects a few enclosed areas where we have to find stuff. Our main collectibles are the pages from that magical book, which are littered throughout the hub world and the levels. They are also used to progress through the game. For better or worse, there are only five worlds we can unlock by finding the pages. Those can be expanded with more pages to open up more areas within them. With about 16 hours of gameplay, Yooka-Laylee isn't a short game, but having only five different levels makes it very important that each one is fun. One bad level out of five has a greater impact on the overall game.

The game starts off well with jungle- and ice-themed worlds, until it eventually drops you into a casino world. What looks like a neat idea to break open the gameplay and try something different quickly becomes annoying. Instead of collecting pages directly, we have to win coins with a few gambling games — but some aren't fun and some are repeats. Entering the last two worlds should move the player further to the end and draw them in for the grand finale, but instead, this world jostled me out of the experience. It's an interesting concept, but in hindsight, it might have ruined a huge portion of the game. If that's not enough, there are also some uninspired quiz portions that are pointless but mandatory.

The gameplay mechanics of Yooka-Laylee don't vary too much from other platformers, but the development team did try to mix it up a bit. We start with the basics of jumping and attacking, either on the ground with a spin attack or mid-air with a roll. This is where another major character comes into play. Trowzer, a trouser-wearing snake is in the business of selling us new moves. Throughout the game, we have to seek out Trowzer to stock up our move set to gain access to previously unreachable areas. Moves include basic double-jumps, gliding abilities, shooting projectiles, and becoming invisible. All moves cater to the fact that we are playing as a lizard with a lazy bat on its head. We use the bat for all aerial activities, while the lizard is pretty good on the ground and uses its tongue to ingest various objects. Ingesting certain flowers lets us shoot projectiles like fire, ice, water or even bombs, and consuming objects like burning coal, cannon balls or honey lets us copy their attributes to solve certain platforming segments.

It isn't a complete paint-by-numbers approach, and some platforming segments can be quite challenging, but overall, a lot of the gameplay feels like a minorly improved rehash of what other games did decades ago. If you're OK with that, Yooka-Laylee can be genuinely fun. It keeps the jump-and-run formula reasonably varied throughout the course of the game.
Back to the collectibles. In addition to the pages — which are called pagies — we have to collect quills to buy moves from Trowzer, and we have to find six ghostwriters per stage. There are other collectibles, like a Mooliecool to transform Yooka and Laylee into other shapes to complete specific tasks, a retro arcade play coin to play one of the many arcade games incorporated in the game, and upgrades to our health and power bars.

Aside from some hit-and-miss content and not-so-special gameplay, things don't sound too bad up to this point. Two important factors have led to the negative reviews: expectations and playability. While the expectations were high to get an unofficial sequel to Banjo Kazooie, Yooka-Laylee turned out to copy the feeling of the original rather than take its own spin on the genre. At no point does Yooka-Laylee feel like its own creation, and it certainly never feels like a grand entry in the genre. It feels more like a fan project come to life with some decent funding rather than former Rare developers creating the next big thing. Most Kickstarter backers expected otherwise, and that resulted in the title's rather negative reception.

We must not forget that the initially released version of Yooka-Laylee was a technical mess with major frame rate issues, clunky controls, a murderous fixed camera and more. Most of these issues were fixed in patches, and the Switch version benefits from that. Yooka-Laylee for the Switch may even be the best version, since it's a rock-solid port with a mostly stable frame rate that doesn't suffer from significant graphical downgrades. The game is not on par with the other platforms, but it's not too far behind, and it plays smoothly most of the time. There is the additional benefit of portability, and most visual compromises aren't visible on the small screen. Yooka-Laylee on the Switch looks great, even compared to the other versions, and that's a great surprise.

However, not all is peachy. The overall gameplay is unchanged, and the overall clunkiness of the controls is still painfully apparent and a relic of the old days. The same goes for the camera controls. Although Playtonic has implemented an urgently requested free camera mode, it's still all over the place. The camera still resumes fixed positions, occasionally causing us to jump into empty space or robbing us of any chance to get an overview of what's going on. Even if we are in control, the camera often gets stuck in the environment, which creates dire situations where we cannot get the right camera angle to nail down the controls.

Playing through Yooka-Laylee is fun. It has plenty of rough patches, but it's a fun journey if you ignore its shortcomings. It may be tough, it's not a pure joy ride, and it isn't the best collect-a-thon, but there are plenty of charming characters and incredibly goofy dialogue. Genre fans who loved Banjo will find things to like in Yooka-Laylee. Here's hoping that Playtonic revisits the world it has created in Yooka-Laylee and develops it further in a sequel that has some fresh new ideas and a more polished approach.

Score: 6.7/10

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