Yooka-Laylee Review (Xbox One)
Yooka-Laylee is a testament to the power of nostalgia. When the game was first announced via Kickstarter it sold itself exclusively on the fact that it would bring the 3D platformer of the Nintendo 64 era, the Mario 64s and the Banjo-Kazooies of that time, to the modern gaming landscape. Gamers ate it up and crowdfunded it almost immediately, and it's been a long wait to see if this new duo can live up to that hype. For the most part the Yooka-Laylee has succeeded in meeting those expectations, though a few specters from that bygone era decided to make the journey too.
Yooka-Laylee is a collector's paradise, with more stuff to gather throughout its many worlds than any game I've played in a while. The main targets are Pagies, pages of a secret and powerful book scattered across worlds by an evil corporation bent on world domination. Nearly 150 of these golden parchments are waiting to be found, along with hundreds of Quills used to purchase new moves, four specialty items that boost stats or give access to other parts of a level, and butterflies that restore health and stamina. There's a lot of spinning icons in these worlds, and sometimes choosing which one to pursue made my head spin.
The game plays just like the classic Rare 3D platformers it's trying to replicate, with a simple and comfortable control scheme that offers many different ways to traverse a level. As I unlocked the duo's abilities --- by purchasing them from a pants-wearing serpent named Trowzer the Snake, a-hyuck --- I was given even more options for cavorting around to the point that it becomes a challenge to remember them all. Having a ton of abilities at my fingertips is nice, but perhaps a more limited set where all were used often would have been better than a massive ability pool where many were wasted.
Where Yooka-Laylee truly shines is in its humor, making consistent jokes at gaming's expense that had me smiling and chuckling throughout. Most of these come from Laylee the bat's sharp tongue --- in the beginning while Yooka explains the controls, Laylee quips "Then Yooka gave himself a brief tutorial" --- but there are some real zingers that shocked me as much as they made me laugh. Consider this conversation between the team and Trowzer after gaining a new ability:
Trowzer: "This next move is banned in three current modern game genres"
Laylee: "Is it the Quality Assurance move?"
Trowzer: "Of cour%3se not."
A lot of the humor comes from the many colorful characters met throughout the adventure, each with his or her own quirks. Some can be found in every level, like Rextro the polygonal T-Rex gatekeeper of the retro-themed mini games found in each world and master of gaming jokes, Kartos the mine cart that triggers Donkey Kong Country-esque mine cart challenges, and more. Some characters are world-exclusive, like the constipated cloud the duo must help by shooting water into it. Yeah. That's a thing in Yooka-Laylee.
To be honest it's the game's persistent lack of taking itself seriously, buffered by the eclectic cast of misfits, that really drew me to it as I continued through. In an industry where ultra-serious blockbuster games are the norm --- and particularly this year --- it's nice to have a silly, lighthearted jaunt to play for a little while before the next big title comes along. The game always kept my spirits high and my desire to continue strong even during its more frustrating moments, which in this day and age is hard to do.
The game is not without its frustrations however, first and foremost being the game's camera. I haven't struggled with a camera like this since Epic Mickey, and while the camera here isn't quite as exacerbating as that disaster, it still raised the ol' blood pressure a bit. Good luck trying to see anything in front of Yooka and Laylee when standing with their backs to a wall, the camera just refuses to cooperate. PlayTonic even acknowledges this to be an issue, saying that one of the Rextro mini-games "has a better camera than the main quest," but acknowledging a problem doesn't make it any less maddening.
I also found what I thought to be some minor spikes in difficulty, most caused by slight control issues that I found hard to wrangle. There's one challenge in an icy cave where I had to use the roll ability (where Laylee walks on a rolled up Yooka as if he were in a circus) to navigate icy slopes in order to score a Pagie. The roll controls are some of the most unwieldy in the game, causing me to either take a turn to wide and fall to my death or just releasing the move mid-slope and sending me down into the pit. While the desire to toss my controller in frustration is as retro as it gets, that's one relic of the past that I'd have liked to stay in yesteryear.
Yooka-Laylee is a lot of goofy fun wrapped in a light and colorful retro package, a fine return to the platformers of old. The team at PlayTonic did a fantastic job at capturing all of the things that made those old games what they were, unfortunately including some of the era's more frustrating mechanical quirks. None of those digressions break the game however, and it does deliver on its retro-fueled promises from start to finish. I don't know that I'd put it on the Shovel Knight level of retro goodness, but Yooka-Laylee definitely made young Jason smile just as much as the current iteration.
This review was completed with a digital copy of Yooka-Laylee provided by the publisher for Xbox One.