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Lifewire / Thomas Hindmarch
A cheerful, funny game with a weird sense of humor
Likable, resourceful protagonists
Big, sudden difficulty spike around level 2 and it just gets harder from there
A lot of the jokes will go right over a modern player’s head
Yooka-Laylee is a deliberate callback to the glory days of the Nintendo 64 platformer, and while it’s a little too concerned with self-referential humor, it’s a decent modern take on a proven formula.
Yooka-Laylee is a colorful cartoon of a game where two slacker heroes set out to rescue the sentient stolen pages of a magical book from a money-hungry corporate overlord. It’s what the video game industry often calls a “spiritual sequel.” Its developer, Playtonic Games, is made up of former employees of Rare, an English studio that started the famous Banjo-Kazooie series back in 1998. It’s been 11 years since Rare made a new Banjo game, so Playtonic split off and used a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to make its own spin on the material.
Dr. Quack, working on behalf of the evil corporate overlord Capital B, has built a machine that has stolen every book in the world. Short of cash, Yooka (a chameleon) and Laylee (a bat) find an old-looking antique tome in the wreckage of their ship. Before they can pawn it off for rent money, Dr. Quack’s machine steals it.
Yooka and Laylee trace the book to Capital B’s headquarters, Hivory Towers, where they discover the book’s pages, “Pagies,” are alive, sentient, and would like to be rescued. The book in question is the One Book, a magical artifact with the power to rewrite the entire universe. Yooka and Laylee set out to save as many Pagies as they can, and keep the One Book out of Capital B’s hands.
Like other Xbox One games, you can simply insert the disc, install its contents, and let the system update the application as it goes. You should be up and running within twenty to thirty minutes.
If you’ve ever played a 3D platform game, such as Super Mario 64, Alice: Madness Returns, or the Sly Cooper trilogy, you’ll immediately be on familiar ground with Yooka-Laylee. Every world you reach is full of secrets, enemies, minigames, and adventures — much of which can’t be reached right away.
At the start of the game, it’s straight-up 3D platforming as it was 20 years ago, although it’s a little more forgiving than most of those games were. You can defeat enemies by whipping them with Yooka’s tail, and restore lost health by eating tasty butterflies.
It’s straight-up 3D platforming as it was 20 years ago, although it’s a little more forgiving than most of those games were.
Every time Yooka and Laylee manage to find and save enough Pagies, it unlocks more portals in Hivory Towers, which they can go through to find new worlds (and more Pagies). Alternatively, you can use Pagies to expand the worlds you’ve already visited, unlocking more areas to explore, and yet again, discover more Pagies.
You can also collect Quills from throughout the game, which are used to purchase new skills from a vendor, such as the ability to roll around, a sonic scream from Laylee that can reveal hidden objects, and the ability to hover for short distances. Each new move allows you to reach new areas or interact with new objects, solving puzzles and completing tasks that you couldn’t handle before.
The game is deliberately non-linear. Each world you enter is an open area full of things to do. You can go in any direction and explore at your leisure, with a full cast of idiosyncratic characters waiting in each stage with a ton of secrets to find.
Games didn’t look this good back in the day, but the difference isn’t as dramatic as you would think.
One fun wrinkle is that every world has a secret arcade game hidden somewhere inside, hosted by Rextro, a T-Rex made from blocky pixels who thinks it’s still 1998. He challenges players who’ve found the necessary item to compete against him in old-school arcade games. A different character, Kartos, challenges you to special mine cart levels, as a nod to the old Donkey Kong Country games that Rare made well back in the day.
All in all, it’s simple but doesn’t feel like it’s too simple. You start getting additional moves right when they start becoming useful. Early enemies are simple hop-and-bop goblins that you could deal with in your sleep, but things get exciting as you encounter enemies with ranged attacks, or which can possess inanimate objects to attack you with. At that point, we were surprised by how quickly Yooka-Laylee turned from a loving, easy homage to ‘90s-style 3D platformers to something much more challenging.
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Games didn’t look this good back in the day, but the difference isn’t as dramatic as you would think. Yooka-Laylee is made to look like it’s only a slight upgrade over the heyday of the N64, with basic graphics and big cartoony characters. Everything about it is a bit of a throwback, particularly here in the full-HD era.
The animation is where it shines, as every motion flows well. Yooka, Laylee, and all their friends, allies, and enemies have a ton of personality, from jokey asides to idle animations. It’s still a bit basic, which is probably to be expected from a cross-platform game made by an independent developer, but that adds to its purposefully retro aesthetic.
A new copy or digital download of Yooka-Laylee sells for US $39.99 at retail price. The game was a success when it launched, and is still receiving updates from Playtonic. There’s even a planned free DLC item, the 64-Bit Tonic, which can be equipped to turn the graphics even further back towards 1998.
It’s a big game with a lot to see and do, so if it gets its hooks into you or your kid, you can expect to play it for quite a while. Just finishing the story will last a good 20 hours or so, and completing all the optional content, such as finding all 145 of the Pagies, will take another 12 to 15 hours.
Yooka-Laylee is such a throwback title that you can’t usefully compare it to much of what’s come out lately. For example, last year’s indie platformer The Adventure Pals shares a lot of Yooka-Laylee’s sense of fun, but is a lot harder and 2D. The general flow of Yooka-Laylee’s gameplay—find Quills, unlock moves, use those moves to reach previously inaccessible parts of the map—also brings to mind the “Metroidvania” genre, with recent games such as Axiom Verge and Timespinner.
For a more direct comparison, you might instead look to recent compilations, such as the Crash Bandicoot N-Sane Trilogy or Spyro the Dragon Remastered. Crash and Spyro were two of the characters who hail from the same period of gaming history that inspired Yooka-Laylee, so they’re natural competition in the same genre.
A retro game with a retro sense of humor
At its worst, Yooka-Laylee is a little simple and too reflexively self-aware of its own genre tropes; at its best, it’s a cheerful cartoon of a game with a slightly uneven difficulty curve. It’s a paean to an old style of games. If it connects, it’s the sort of title nostalgic childhood memories are made of.