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Review: Yooka-Laylee

Publisher: Team 17
Developer: Playtonic Games
System(s): PC, PS4 [played on], Xbox One, Switch (coming soon)
Release Date: 11th April 2017

Disclosure: I was a Kickstarter backer for this title.

It’s been a while since its high-profile Kickstarter broke records, but Banjo-Kazooie spiritual successor Yooka-Laylee is finally here. Reactions so far have been mixed, which was a concern for a Kickstarter backer such as myself, and while some criticism is deserved, it’s not all bad.

Yooka-Laylee has a simple premise. The nefarious corporate lackey Capital B (he’s a bee and he’s a capitalist!) is stealing the world’s books to try and obtain a specific magical book that will grant him power. However, the book’s pages have scattered through various worlds and it’s up to a plucky chameleon and his aggressively rude bat friend to save the day.

To achieve this, they play a game of Banjo-Kazooie with the level size dramatically increased and a new HD lick of paint. And I do mean that this game is literally Banjo-Kazooie, with moves, level structure, the hub world, and gameplay structure all largely cribbed from the developers’ previous 20-year-old project. There’s a slight bit of Conker’s Bad Fur Day in there as well, with humour such as a snake character named Trowzer (ask your parents). When the former Rare staff said they really wanted to make Banjo-Kazooie again, they weren’t kidding.

The good news is, Banjo-Kazooie was a good game, and so too is Yooka-Laylee. The problem is, little has been learned in the last 20 years, and what should have been a modern take on the genre from the old masters is an iterative reboot that retains many of that game’s flaws.

For instance, one of the most maddening things I experienced while playing Banjo was the inability to easily find the next world within the hub area. Far too often, Rare were very good at hiding the route forward, something that really should have been obvious. The problem is, those staff may have changed their company name but they still haven’t learned how to make an easy-to-navigate hub world. I clocked in six hours at one point, and I swear three of those hours were spent scrambling around Hivory Towers wondering why I couldn’t find the third world entrance.

It’s a problem that also extends to the main three worlds. This was a problem back in the Banjo days too, with levels that were haphazardly thrown together and were more stumbled through rather than explored with purpose. Sadly, Yooka-Laylee retains this, while also increasing the size of the worlds, exacerbating the issue. Most exploration seems to consist of heading in a random direction and hoping you find something interesting. Sometimes this works, but other times you just end up looping back on yourself and finding a single quill.

It’s a problem that could have been solved in a number of ways, preferably all at once. More defined landmarks and signposting would have given the player more opportunities to follow them to find interesting things – the quills could have been better placed to lead players towards challenges, for instance. A map would have been handy, particularly as the scale of the levels make them almost like mini open world games, and that genre has maps in abundance. A list of objectives for Pagies would have been a nice addition too, and that’s something that Jak & Daxter was doing in 2001 for its Power Cells, so there’s little excuse for its absence here.

But while this makes the game sound bad, it doesn’t feel like it in the moment. There’s joy in exploring the worlds, even if much of that has been blind stumbling. The duo handle smoothly, with highly responsive controls and a moveset that’s fun to play around with. And when you do stumble on puzzles and challenges, they are generally fun in all the right ways, with only a few duds here and there. Fortunately, for every aggressive electric maze in the marsh, there are ten addictive challenges that are a blast to play.

The game also has charm in abundance. The worlds are lush and vibrant, with gorgeous worlds and adorable character designs throughout. The typically cheesy Rare humour is in abundance, with puns galore, and endless jokes at the expense of gaming in general that manage to just stay on the right side of funny-obnoxious divide. And the music is consistently catchy and memorable.

There’s a lot to love about Yooka-Laylee and a lot to feel disappointed about. It’s a game that suffers from its own premise. It does a fantastic job of recreating the joy of playing the best of the old-school 3D platformers, but at the same time fails to bring the genre fully into the modern age. If you’re looking for some old-school fun it’s worth a look, but bear in mind it has failed to shed some of its 90s baggage.

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