Most people would argue that we are in a golden age of gaming. Graphics, creativity, and storylines have all gone lightyears beyond what we previously thought possible and yet here we are! New gameplay mechanics have taken us out of the days of arcades and into a market where mobile games and high-quality gaming experiences are key to a developer’s success. However, there is something to be said for the days gone by, the previous golden age of games like Banjo Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, Spyro the Dragon, and even old school Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog titles. Yooka-Laylee is a game that attempts to bridge the gap between modern gameplay mechanics and the nostalgic themes from that era.
Yooka-Laylee was created by Playtonic Games, a development company that consists of former employees of Rare. That name should sound familiar to you as they’re the company behind classic titles such as Donkey Kong Country, Donkey Kong 64, Perfect Dark Zero, and Banjo-Kazooie. Elements of Rare’s work are scattered throughout Yooka Laylee; from the colorful aesthetic to the quirky characters, and even its gameplay.
Yooka-Laylee puts you in the role of a brand new duo. Yooka is a lizard who travels with a purple bat named Laylee. The duo sets out on an epic adventure in order to stop the evil corporate mastermind Capital B who is attempting to take all of the world’s books and convert them into profit. Capital B is incredibly greedy, and thus decides to use a special invention, the Novelizer 64 (created by Doctor Quack, his duck assistant,) in order to steal all the world’s books and create a monopoly on the book market. The start of the adventure is simple enough. Yooka and Laylee are relaxing in the sun near their home. Their home is a shipwreck that contained a special book (that Laylee had been using as a drink coaster.) They discover that it has golden pages when it gets sucked away by the machine that Capital B uses to steal the world’s books. The pages are scattered as it is sucked away, and Yooka and Laylee decide to follow after it once they realize that it is far more special than they originally thought.
Yooka-Laylee is an open world platformer that allows you to upgrade Yooka and Laylee’s abilities however you like. You’re also able to explore worlds that can be expanded and turned into larger and more complex areas to dive into more deeply. The world of Yooka-Laylee is your playground and it’s filled with things to do. As in previous 3D platformers, you’ll find yourself progressing through each world, searching for collectibles, and defeating enemies with Yooka and Laylee’s abilities. You’ll also be solving puzzles that will allow you to reach areas that were previously inaccessible. Yooka-Laylee is a very versatile game; for example you can acquire play-tonics, which are gameplay modifiers that change the way you play. You’re also able to upgrade and change Yooka and Laylee’s capabilities in a number of ways that allow you to reach areas that you couldn’t reach before due to various reasons. In order to unlock special moves and new abilities, you will need to collect quills across each world and then give them to Trowzer. He’s a snake salesman who will teach you new abilities and give you the information you will need to progress. Trowzer reminds me a lot of Moneybags from the Spyro the Dragon series. He’s clearly a greedy creature only out for his own gain who only helps you when the price is right, but he’s endearing all the same.
Because of the freedom in gaining abilities and modifying the gameplay, you’re able to change your experience to fit your preferred playstyle. This means that no two people will experience or play Yooka-Laylee the same way. Additionally there are all kinds of things to collect which helps dig up the collect-em-up style gameplay from classic Rare titles but in a fun and respectful way that works as well as being completely entertaining. Interestingly enough Yooka-Laylee exemplifies the nostalgia of games I played as a kid. Donkey Kong 64 and Spyro the Dragon are two examples of this. At the same time though Yooka-Laylee succeeds in poking fun at itself; using common elements of the genre in-jokes and having self referential makes it even more charming and interesting than it already was on its previous merits.
As in any 3D platformer, the key to Yooka-Laylee lies in exploration and determination as you conquer all the challenges that surround you. Yooka and Laylee can swim, double jump, break objects and defeat enemies with their different attacks. As you progress through the game the world will continue to open up more and more, allowing you to take more of it in. One of the most important (if not the most important) collectibles in Yooka Laylee are Pagies. These are pieces of the ‘One Book’ which allow you to open new worlds and expand worlds you’ve already visited.
Pagies are scattered all over the worlds and are required to progress. The ‘One Book’ has the power to re-write the universe, and thus the pagies fled in order to keep Capital B from misusing the book’s power. Some Pagies require you to solve puzzles in order to free them, while others are easier to obtain. These puzzles may require abilities you do not have when you first meet the Pagie, making it necessary for you to return to areas once you’ve unlocked more abilities.
In addition to finding Pagies and Quills, you can find five Ghost Writers in each world. Once you have acquired all five you will receive special treasure as a reward. You’ll also find special arcade machines in each world that allow you to play a retro inspired mini-game. These mini-games can also be played in multiplayer modes when you complete them. If you finish the challenge in the single player adventure then you’re also given a Pagie as a reward. In order to use these arcade machines though you must find the tokens that are scattered across the worlds.
I cannot express how massive Yooka-Laylee is. Each world is huge and even though there are only five worlds, each world will be expanded as you collect Pagies. In my first five hours I explored the hub and the first world, but I hadn’t even scratched the surface of the full first zone by the time I ended my first session.
Yooka-Laylee is called an Open World platformer, and I was a little confused at first because with previous 3D platformers it was more level based and linear (with exception to the side content and collectables.) With Yooka-Laylee, you have freedom to explore as much or as little of a zone as you like (as long as you collect enough to unlock more zones and abilities to progress.) At first, I was a little skeptical of Yooka-Laylee, as I had seen other “Retro Revival” games (such as Mighty No. 9) find success only to disappoint audiences at release.
After playing and spending extensive time on Yooka-Laylee, I can say with 100% certainty that the people at Playtonic are geniuses and I am in love with this game. In some ways, Yooka-Laylee is full of nostalgia, but it also brings modern conveniences to the table. From things like auto-saving or just the thrill of exploration in way we’re currently used to; there are no invisible walls, if you can see it then there’s a 95% chance that you’ll be able to reach it at some point.
Yooka-Laylee’s difficulty is balanced very well. It always feels just right. In fact, I’d wager that gamers who unfamiliar with platformers will manage well, while veterans will also still find themselves challenged in some areas. I’m terrible at games in general, and there was a good bit of Yooka-Laylee that I found challenging but it also always felt possible and never out of reach. I never felt like Yooka-Laylee needed multiple difficulty levels (as some games do,) because it was perfect in its challenge. There was always give and take. The difficulty swayed like a wave moving back and forth, always in the right range.
Another amazing part about Yooka-Laylee is the self-referential humor and its ability to always break the fourth wall in clever ways. It also references other games like God of War and even has an appearance by Shovel Knight himself! I had a difficult go of quite a few of the mini-games, as some of them are pretty hard. However the humor always helped me forget my frustrations and helped me push forward.
Yooka-Laylee is what a successful, amazing retro revival looks like. I had a feeling that with such a fantastic premise and a successful Kickstarter campaign under its belt, Yooka-Laylee would be a great experience. I tried not to get my hopes and still remained somewhat skeptical though because there have been so many Kickstarters that have disappointed myself and many others. Yooka-Laylee is as close to perfect as one could expect. There is at least 80 hours worth of gameplay and if you are a completionist that number easily hits 100 hours.
I found myself unable to stop playing, even after the time I allotted myself to playing (before going back to work) had long passed. Yooka-Laylee is already on my Best Games of 2017 list, and while it is early on in the year, I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
A review copy of Yooka Laylee was provided by Team 17 Digital for the purpose of this review.
Full Disclosure: The author used a review copy for this review but they were one of the backers for Yooka-Laylee’s Kickstarter campaign.