Yooka-Laylee is totally Banjo-Kazooie 3: 2 hours of hands-on
Developer Playtonic Games’ upcoming 3D platformer wants to be Banjo-Kazooie 3 and it nails it!
As soon as I fire it up, Yooka-Laylee feels like Banjo-Kazooie. In fact, so closely does the opening score mimic that of the legendary 1998 N64 classic, when I close my eyes it might as well be Christmas 2001. The GameCube is about to launch and its flagship game is Banjo-Threeie. It’s sure to drive the console to a long and successful lifecycle and developer Rare away from the destructive claws of Microsoft.
But then I wake up and it’s 2017 and I am playing Yooka-Laylee.
From its titular heroic duo to the bountiful collectables and the way the characters mouth off with tongue-in-cheek dialogue backed by the almost-but-not-quite annoying yacks of retro sound effects, this is more than just a spiritual sequel. It’s a sequel in all but name. It’s developed by Playtonic Games, a studio formed by a group of veteran creators who worked on the original series, and much of Rare’s illustrious portfolio. In fact, 21 of the key staffers on the team are Rare veterans. Playtonic might as well be Rare.
For this hands-on session, I started from the beginning of the game and was given two hours to get as far as I could. This was enough time to explore a tiny bit of the main hub world housing a large home base and an evil lair, from which portals, in the form of books, provide passage to the five large game worlds. I also got into the first, tropical/jungle-themed game world and collected just enough Pagies to get a taste of the second snow/ice-themed world. Here’s a quick overview of the pros and cons of the experience:
The good of Yooka-Laylee
- Nails its goal: Most importantly for a game that broke records on its way to being funded on Kickstarter, Yooka-Laylee is every bit the Banjo-Kazooie successor fans invested in. As mentioned earlier, it nails all the quirks that made us fall in love with the series way-back-when. Plus it offers pure and magical 3D gameplay present during the 1996 to 2004 golden era: a style of game design that has become a bit of a lost art in recent years. It’s silly, it’s kiddy, it’s got frustrating falls, enemies coming from blind-spots and trial-and-error minigames, but it’s built with such love for the genre that all that fades behind a curtain of smart design: rich in imagination and ripe for exploration.
- Looks great: Don’t let the retro-vibe fool you into thinking it’s got a retro aesthetic: Yooka-Laylee looks quite gorgeous. Over-saturated, over-the-top and joyous, the visuals pump with vibrant colours and masses of detail. I love the way collectables and objects appear with a face and a smile, adding to the fantasy. The second, snow-based world carried its theme to every corner and felt the polar-opposite (pun intended) to the jungle world. In short, the leap between worlds keeps the experience fresh.
- So much to do: The game is layered with collectables and I only got a taste of what you can unlock and access in my two hours. Even at the end of the session I was still finding something new in the environment that I could collect and take to a certain NPC to gain further access. A highlight is the gold coin, which can be spent at a retro arcade machine - this unlocks a fun minigame experience that can be played in multiplayer from the main menu. The one I unlocked in the first world was reminiscent of top-down racer Mashed and I happily spent a good ten minutes here, even under the duress of a timed hands-on session. Some collectables are achieved only by completing challenges, such as winning races or solving puzzles. I found more than enough to keep me active in my two hours. It will be interesting to see how challenging it becomes to locate and reach the last few collectables.
- Has depth: All the collectables serve a purpose and you use them to unlock new moves. The individual worlds are quite big and contain a Metroidvania element to them, in that you come across a lot of content that requires a future move or skill to be accessed. These branch too, so it’s not a linear path as to what you unlock: you must choose, which changes what you can see and do next. An early move that quickly opens up the gameplay options is the ability to suck in certain flowers - Yoshi-style - to spit out ice or fire. These not only play into combat but become vital puzzle-solving tools. If Playtonic can continue to scale the gameplay as the game goes deeper, it will be a long, fun ride.
- Cool cameos: The cast of characters is pretty huge and tie-in with the game’s playful humour. For example, the game's merchant is a snake called Trowzer. But there is also the promise of star cameos. I only spotted the one in my time with the game, but it was a good one. Indie legend Shovel Knight appears in the first world and I was able to take on a task for him. His role was pretty static but the dialogue had good fun with the moment. Here's hoping for some more cameos as we get deeper into the game. I'd love to see some of publisher Team 17's Worms turn up on a concrete donkey!
The bad of Yooka-Laylee
- Camera: What would a 3D adventure platformer be without some camera wrestles? The camera isn’t necessarily bad in Yooka-Laylee, it just takes a little getting used to. The developer seems to have gone with an approach similar to driving Halo’s Warthog, or even a bit like running around Liberty City as Nico in GTA. The camera kind of follows the duo as you turn, where you naturally tend to do that yourself with the second stick. I struggled with this at first and would have liked the option to turn off the assist, but it wasn’t available. However, by the end I felt I was starting to get it under control.
- No grab: If there was one feature from modern games I wish was in our heroes’ movement arsenal, it’s grabbing on to ledges. We’ve become quite used to it, and I found myself missing jumps by the smallest of margins and cursing the screen rather than happily making the climb again. The “near enough is good enough to grab an edge” philosophy for platforming is one I quite like.
- Combat: I only played the start of the game on single, normal difficulty - so take this with a grain of salt - but I was never threatened with dying in combat. The bad dudes I faced off against were doing little to test my limited moves-set or even ask me to learn new tricks. Sure, this is a genre that saw its challenge in puzzles and exploration more-so than hard edged combat, but why can’t we have both? The remake of Ratchet & Clank on PS4 showed just how engaging and cathartic combat in the genre can be. But with Yooka-Laylee, health was so abundant and enemies so weak, I didn’t really feel a need to try and fight. Tying health pick-ups into the speed-boost mechanic may have hamstrung Playtonic a bit, but I hope harder difficulties make healing yourself a luxury, not a given.
- Think of the Children: This is a personal issue which may impact only some of you. As a child of the nineties, I am now a father of young children. One of the things I was really looking forward to most with this game was playing it with my son, who is closing in on six. However, as the entire story is told in text - and lots of it - that won't quite work out. I would love to have seen voice-acting in this game to open it up to an audience that would really love a high-quality platformer, so it's lost some value in that respect. I suspect this is also the case for fans of the original Banjo-Kazooie game, who would struggle to find much in the way of quality parent-child play experiences. This is not a criticism as I don't think this was ever the developer's target demographic but I do wonder if Playtonic has missed a trick, considering its target demographic is likely to be filled with new parents.