Yooka-Laylee (PS4) Review

THE SHORT VERSION


Nostalgia-driven cuteness, but lacking some mechanical polish and meaty challenge. Yooka-Laylee is a decent throwback to one of the 90s' best gaming genres, despite its lack of acknowledgement for where that genre has since ventured.


THE SLIGHTLY LONGER VERSION


For those of you who didn't spend your childhood with Crash Bandicoot or Banjo-Kazooie on your television, Yooka-Laylee may come across as a bit of an oddball. Its simplistic style and accessible control scheme seems better suited to a younger crowd, but that same crowd already have the likes of Hearthstone, any number of recent Mario games and (for those subject to lax parenting) the Grand Theft Auto series. To bring them a game like Yooka-Laylee, genetically engineered to be a throwback to the cutesy, bright-palette platform games of yesteryear, seems like somebody has spent twenty years bringing a meatlovers pizza to somebody who's gone vegetarian since they ordered.


As for the rest of us, who do have that nostalgia crosshair firmly on our heads for Playtonic Games to take aim, what we get in Yooka-Laylee is heartening, if at times quite disappointing. In the process of preserving and proliferating the kind of platform gaming experience we enjoyed as kids, the game unwittingly highlights many of the reasons why we've moved on from that experience. Yooka-Laylee is by no means a bad game, but it is a significantly underdeveloped one.


An evil, potato-shaped creature named Capital B - who I assume is modeled off the insect, give or take a couple of vowels, but more resembles a toothy Roald Dahl villain - has activated a machine to vacuum in and destroy all the books in the world. One of these just happens to belong to Yooka, a green lizard who resembles the 2000 Paralympics mascot, and Laylee, a purple bat with the kind of comically-large red nose which is guaranteed to be squeezed at least once by game's end. In addition to the pair being miffed that their book - which they'd used as a drinks coaster - has been taken, they discover that it is actually a powerful magical book, whose pages - cutesily termed "Pagies" - are then strewn across multiple worlds. In order to defeat Capital B, Yooka and Laylee set out to find the Pagies, reassemble the book, and collect enough feathers (the local currency) to fill a modest number of hotel pillows.


If there is one area in which Yooka-Laylee excels, it's the meta-textual elements; the game gleefully takes several opportunities to riff on gaming, both in its historical and modern forms. In addition to several lampshade-hanging moments made by the characters regarding elements of the game's somewhat lackluster story, there is also a mine-cart called Cartos (who is referred to as the 'God of Ore') which leads the characters into a Donkey Kong Country-esque mine cart sequence (fitting, since the Playtonic devs worked on that game during their Rare days). Similarly, the game's somewhat more "family" sense of humour ensures that the obvious jokes get the kids laughing, while the more adult ones - like Yooka and Laylee's shipwreck home being called "Bat Ship Crazy" - will elicit a chuckle from the older players.


Yooka-Laylee started life as a Kickstarter project way back in 2015, with Playtonic Games formed from a number of ex-Rare employees who wanted to continue the kind of work they'd started with games like Banjo-Kazooie. Unfortunately, what they've delivered is more of a carbon copy rather than a continuation, highlighting the glaring flaws in their versions of areas where platform games usually excel. Those who come looking for engaging gameplay will be disappointed, since there is little beyond the standard run, jump, attack enemies and find collectibles rigmarole, a process compromised by an at-times annoyingly rigid camera (there are additional moves you can buy from entrepreneurial snake Trowzer, but none of them really elevate the gameplay beyond where it starts off). Anybody who's after the kind of laid-back, affectionately-drawn and raucous storytelling the genre popularised will be left hanging, since the narrative is fairly weak and Capital B doesn't make for a memorable villain the way Dr. Neo Cortex or Gruntilda do. Players who look for fun protagonists to control will discover that the characters come across as fairly irritating, thanks to the use of repetitious vocal sounds in place of actual dialogue. They sound as if Playtonic were trying to emulate the kind of sounds Banjo-Kazooie and Undertale's characters used more effectively when speaking, but in this case they just come across as aggravating noise which you cannot turn off in the options menu (See here for an example of what I mean; Capital B in particular sounds like he's having a particularly hard time pushing a boulder up a mountain). And those who are after fun side activities - beyond the collect-a-thon gameplay - will instead discover a number of "retro" minigames unlocked in gigantic arcade machines, which riff on things like capture the flag gameplay and the Mario Kart series, and which each have fairly maddening control schemes (particularly the Mario Kart one, discovered early on and using the thumbsticks to navigate a track barely wide enough for a bicycle, let alone a go-cart).


It's disappointing, especially since Yooka-Laylee had such goodwill going for it during its crowdfunding and development process, and particularly when it looked so good in comparison to other high-profile nostalgic crowdfunding failures like Mighty No. 9. At the end of the day, there's still quite a lot to like in Yooka-Laylee, from the broad, expansive levels which are made larger with more tasks and collectibles through finding Pagies, to the cheerful, welcoming colour scheme and its exaggerated character design. I never left a session of play feeling like I'd wasted that time, and as a guy who particularly loves the exaggerated visual style, wry humour and bright, shiny colours of the Crash Bandicoot games, it felt good to have this as a tide-over until the N-Sane Trilogy launches in June.

As a fun throwback to 90s platforming, it's a nice experience while it lasts, particularly for those who were entrenched in the genre back then. But because of its ardent appeal to nostalgia, Yooka-Laylee ends up as a game irrevocably stuck in the past, for better or worse.

- Chris


Yooka-Laylee is out now for Playstation 4, Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch.

Review copy kindly supplied to Geek of Oz by Five Star Games.

EDIT: The original version of this review erroneously referred to the developer as "Playtonic Studios", rather than "Playtonic Games". This error has been corrected.

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