In 2002, Nintendo shocked the gaming world by selling their stake in Rare Limited to Microsoft. Rare had, for quite some time, been a powerhouse second party for Nintendo, developing beloved titles such as Donkey Kong Country, Banjo-Kazooie, Goldeneye 007, and Pefect Dark. In the years that followed, Rare experienced a bit of a fall from grace, developing titles that were generally received with a “meh,” excepting the popular game, Viva Pinata, while original founders and employees left the company. In 2012, a group of these former employees began to come together with the goal of creating a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie. In 2017, that goal became a reality with the release of Yooka-Laylee.
You are Yooka, a chameleon, and Laylee, a bat, enjoying a quite life in Shipwreck Creek when, one day, Laylee’s book is mysteriously sucked away by the nefarious Hivory Towers Corporation, run by the malicious Capital B and his sidekick, Dr. Quack. Suffice it to say, the game doesn’t take itself too seriously. Fortunately, as the book is being booknapped (?), it’s pages escape and hide themselves throughout Hivory Towers, and the worlds you’ll encounter therein.
The book in question is actually the “One Book,” which has the power to rewrite the universe. As Yooka & Laylee (hereafter Y&L) explore Hivory Towers, which serves as the hub world, they will find the missing pages, or pagies, hidden in Hivory Towers, as well as within five other worlds, each accessible via open books found as you explore more of Hivory Towers. Along the way, they’ll also be taunted by Capital B in much the same way Gruntilda taunted Banjo & Kazooie. Aside from Capital B, Y&L will meet an array of characters that offer upgrades, challenges, and quests for our pair to undertake. Including a seemingly lost knight armed with a gardening tool.
Yes, I realize this section is a very short synopsis, but the story is what it is. It’s not deep. It’s not compelling, but it does get the job done for the game. And, in all fairness, this game isn’t about a deep story. Yooka-Laylee is all about…
If you’ve played Banjo-Kazooie or its sequel, you can almost skip this section. Yooka-Laylee was billed as a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie, and it does not miss that mark. Right from the beginning, the game feels familiar to Banjo-Kazooie veterans, as you undertake 3-D platforming searching for a list of collectables. In addition to finding the Pagies, you’ll be collecting Quills, Ghost Writers, Life & Stamina upgrades, and Gaming Tokens. The platforming itself, the crux of the game, is very tight. I can’t really recall any instance in which I felt the game was working against me in this regard. The controls were very responsive, and the new moves you learn (see below) are integrated into the game seamlessly. Even the camera was very responsive, only on rare occasions seeming to refuse to give me the viewpoint I needed.
In regards to the collectables, other than the Ghost Writers, literal ghosts that each have a special technique used to capture, and whom serve no other purpose than to be captured, each collectable has a use. Quills are used to purchase new moves from Trowzer, a snake wound thru a pair of shorts (admittedly, naming a character after Trowser Snake made me laugh out loud when playing the game). The moves you’ll purchase (along with a few that are gifted to you) will allow you to explore more areas and access new locations in previous areas. These include the ability for Laylee to ride a rolling Yooka, a ground pound, and eventually the ability to fly. As I stated above, these are integrated very well, and are very useful throughout the game, as opposed to being a gimmick that is used once, then forgotten. The Life & Stamina upgrades need no explanation.
The Gaming Token you find in each level is given to Rextro Sixtyfourus (yep), a low-resolution Tyrannosaurus Rex that enjoys creating retro games for you to play thru. These range from mildly enjoyable to simply irritating. With each game, you’ll be awarded two pagies. One for completing the game and one form beating Rextro’s high score. You cannot get these at the same time, so you’ll need to play each game twice. The first three of these were…okay. The weren’t fun enough to revisit for any reason, but were okay for what they were (the one that was an imitation of RC Pro-Am was my personal favorite, but that’s very mild praise). The last two offered no joy whatsoever, in my opinion at least. Both are overly long and very unforgiving. I finished the game nine Pagies short of collecting them all, and four of those are from these two games. After a few tries with each, I came to the conclusion that neither were worth the time or frustration they were giving me.
Adding some variety to the standard platforming fare, is Dr. Puzz, a former scientist employed by Capital B. After finding her Mollycool in each level, she will offer a transformation for Yooka-Laylee. These are quite varied, including a potted plant and a helicopter. They are limited to one level, meaning you can’t exit the level as the transformation, but you can play as the transformation for as long as you like within the level. Of these, I’d only consider one a bit of a throwaway, meaning it’s only used in a sparse manner. Generally, these transformations are essential to finding at least a few Pagies and collecting Quills. One boss fight is undertaken while transformed, and is quite a bit of fun because of it.
The last wrinkle to the traditional platforming are sections with Kartos, a sentient mine cart (just accept that everything in this game is sentient). You’ll ride in Kartos, avoiding obstacles while trying to collect a minimum number of jewels to be awarded a Pagie. Kartos can jump, speed up, slow down, and shoot a cannon ball, because why not? These sections get progressively harder, and I found them to be less enjoyable as I went on. In one particular world, I had to make at least 10 attempts before I could collect the minimum number of jewels. I appreciate not being handed something in a game, but I don’t particularly like when challenge crosses the line into annoying, and I think that Kartos did that at least a couple of times, which is an issue when there are only five of these sections.
On a last note, the worlds themselves have an interesting aspect that I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered before. When you unlock a world, a task that requires a minimum number of Pagies, you haven’t actually unlocked the entire world. You actually have to exit the world and offer up more Pagies to expand the world. If you’re a completionist, which I am, you can do this right away for the last couple of worlds, but in the first three, you probably won’t have enough right away. This is a neat feature that makes reentering worlds have more variety, and offers an incentive to collect more than just the bare minimum of Pagies to open the next world.
Ultimately, Yooka-Laylee is a bit of a mixed bag, but in my time with it, I found it to be more good than bad. If you accept that it is a collectathon, based on games that were most popular 20 years ago, you’ll be fine with this game. Yes, there are some frustrating elements to be found, the Rextro arcade games and Kartos sections being of particular note, but it is possible to completely skip those and finish the game. Also, some of the bosses were difficult for the wrong reasons. One particular boss had a move that I simply could not avoid. I don’t believe that I was doing anything wrong, it was just an attack that, regardless of what I tried, hit me every time. Also, it was sometimes annoying to see a Pagie, spend time trying to get it, give up, then realize later that an ability you didn’t yet have was needed. I don’t mind backtracking at all (the Metroid series is my personal favorite, so yeah), but I believe this could have been made a bit clearer in game.
All that said, this is still a very fun game. The platforming is well done, the controls are spot on, and the writing is consistently quite humorous. It absolutely captures the spirit of the Nintendo 64 platformers perfectly. Yes, there are some hiccups within the game, but there’s still so much fun to be had that it is ultimately forgivable. As I stated earlier, I came within 9 Pagies of collecting them all. You don’t get that close to completing a game at 100% if you didn’t have a good time with it. I also tracked down all the Quills and Ghost Writers in the game. Again, not something you do with a game that is frustrating you around every turn.
Yooka-Laylee isn’t for everyone. It is a game that really is from another era. But, if you grew up during that era, as I did, it’s a refreshing dose of nostalgia. A reminder of games that, sadly, we don’t see all that often any more. Here’s hoping that we haven’t seen the last of Yooka and Laylee.