Developer: Playtonic Games
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, Microsoft Windows, Switch
Genres: Action, Adventure, Platformer
Published by: Team17 Digital Ltd
How do you hold the expectations of a business model and an increasingly niche genre on your shoulders? This is something that was immediately on my mind when I first began playing Yooka-Laylee: Playtonic Games’ loving tribute to games of 3D platforming past. Yooka-Laylee is the work of a number of ex-Rare staff with a pedigree established in the Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong games. It is came to prominence in 2015 as one of the first wave of Kickstarter revivals of classic game series from iconic developers with just enough changed to prevent a law-suit from their former employers. The other harbinger of this era was the now-maligned Mighty No.9: a game that ostensibly gave people what they want, but was release to mediocre reviews. Does Yooka-Laylee have what it takes to cleanse the crowdfunding pallet?
Yooka-Laylee tells of the tale of the eponymous heroes, a chameleon and bat respectively, who venture out in search of the legendary Pagies which have been scattered across the land. As you may expect, he who controls the Pagies controls the world and resident big-bad/Donald Trump knock-off: Capital B, will do whatever he can to make that person him. As someone who never owned a Nintendo 64, my experience with 3D platformers came predominantly from Sony’s stock of Spyro the Dragon, Crash Bandicoot, Croc and Ratchet & Clank. These classic titles were more action-focused than Yooka-Laylee, which taking a leaf from Banjo-Kazooie’s book, with gameplay centred on collecting various trinkets and gizmos. Operating from the hub-world in Hivory Towers, players will explore five-expandable worlds that are unlocked using the Pagies. It’s a never-ending cycle of using Pagies to unlock more worlds which contain more Pagies for you to collect and in turn allow you to unlock more worlds.
The levels themselves are huge and stunningly rendered in a cartoonish fashion and a myriad of activities to undergo, each awarding the player with a collectible of one sort or another. They instil an urge to explore in the player-base that few platformers manage to truly achieve, but there is an emptiness to these areas that leaves one with a sense of unfulfillment. This is exaserbated by presenting the player with the illusion of freedom by allowing for some game-breaking manevours by hopping up walls and cliffs that really shouldn’t be accessed in such a manner. Invisible walls may be the bane of many a gamer, but sometimes they are a necessary restriction, particularly when one can spend ten minutes climbing a mountain only be rewarded with an area that was clearly render for display purposes only. As the dynamic duo of 90s platformers, players gain new abilities that allow them to solve puzzles and collect more miscellaneous stuff (retro arcade coins, ghosts etc) that exist primarily to spur completionists and over-extend the playtime. Much like a Metroidvania games, some puzzles can only be solved with abilities gained in later levels, so backtracking is a must if you hope to 100% this game, unless you can manage to use one of the aforementioned unintended short-cuts. What little combat is to be found is serviceable, but one can’t help but feel that if the developers felt could have gotten away with a non-combat collectathon, they would have excluded the mechanic entirely. A consequence of this and the general lack of guidance given to players is that it’s very easy to get bored in this game as enjoyable as the central mechanics may be. It means this game becomes your back-up game, where you don’t want to think and just instead watch the pretty colours as you re-acquaint yourself in simpler times. Some might say that’s the point, I say it’s a side-effect of the game’s failure to effectively guide the player or set clear objectives beyond “find the stuff”.
One area that I must give Yooka-Laylee credit for is its writing as childish as it may first seem. This game often reads like a well-written 3D-animated film from a lesser-known studio. Nothing that might compare to the house of Pixar with a fiendishly emotional plot, but competent enough to give a few laughs to the young and young at heart. Older fans will certainly chuckle at the in-jokes, 4th wall-breaking references to its crowd-funded origins along with the double-entrendes. Oh, the double-entrendes, brave is the game that begins in an area called “Bat-Ship Crazy” and swiftly progresses to introduce you to the local hustler, a snake called “Trowser”.
From a sound design perspective, Playtonic Games have given us a stunning study of contrasts. The score is composed by former Rare composers David Wise, Grant Kirkhope and Steve Burke who had previously worked on the Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong series. It is doing them no disservice by saying it is one of the highlights of the game, switching from relaxing melodies that’s invoke a mindfulness session to energetic pieces that truly create of sense of adventure in the player. On the other hand, when it comes to the dialogue instead of voice-acting we are presented with a combination of nonsense sounds that resemble someone coughing up phlegm in alternative-pitchs. This being, of course, a throw-back to how Banjo-Kazooie handled its dialogue, not out of any hardware limitation (see: Conker’s Bad Fur Day), but rather out of a misguided assumption that it was funny or cute. It’s neither, its iterating and it’s not a Rare-ism that had to be carried over. All it serves to do is make me want to, at best, mute the TV and listen to a podcast instead or at worst, fling my controller at the TV. In a game full of clever and subtle references to gaming history, this exemplifies a reference that doesn’t exist for any reason in particular and one that detracts from the experience. This one element of the game, more so than any other, shows that Yooka-Laylee is too busy being a reference to Banjo-Kazooie than its own creature.
Yooka-Laylee has been the subject of much critical discussion within the gaming community. In the era of Kickstarter and crowd-funding that allows for the re-emergence of niche genres in the marketplace, it raises interesting questions as to how the gaming commentariat react to such products. A common observation among commentators has been that while the game has accurately re-created the design and gameplay of the 90s-style 3D platformer, it has failed to evolve the formula or address some of its inherent flaws. This argument is largely reflective of what Yooka-Laylee has done. Perhaps the question then is whether this is what the market demanded and if it is, what does that mean for the industry. Through the magic of crowdfunding, the public were pitched a nostalgic return to the gaming of their childhoods and 73,206 backers pledged £2,090,104 to make this a reality. Must we accept this as a “warts and all” affair? Does the bad come with the good if we are to avoid morphing the piece into something other than what was promised and arguably what the public paid for?
As interesting an academic discussion as it may be, it matters little to how one reacts to the game. The intent of the artist is always subsumed by how others react to it. Criticisms of the game cannot simply be dismissed by citing the developer’s intent. This game could be exactly what they wanted to create, but we do not have to accept that as the standard by which it should be judged. The mantra of “this is a game for fans” is not a shield for developers to hide behind. Our opinions on quality can differ as widely as taste allows for, but this requires us to engage in a discussion about the game on the merits. To do otherwise would to engage in fallacies as to what we consider worthwhile in this medium. You can like Yooka-Laylee. You can say that the flaws highlighted by critics are invalid. However, your enjoyment is not an argument in and of itself. There is nothing wrong with a guilty (or not so guilty) pleasure. We all love pieces of entertainment that others have derided, but if we are to engage in a fruitful discussion about those works, we need to engage with the arguments and not retreat into our echo chambers.
Those that pick up this charming throwback will find an enjoyable experience that reminds them of their salad days. However, they will be reminded that those days are not always sunny and that some things are better left to their memories, but that does not wholly detract from the pleasure take a trip back in time. With its non-radical refinement of classic 3D-platforming gameplay, its clever, self-aware script and engrossing world, Yooka-Laylee is an experiential time machine that will make you want to party likes it’s the 90s.