The Banjo-Kazooie franchise has been a beloved series for most of its 20-year existence. The unique chemistry between the main characters and partner-based gameplay offered up something different for platforming fans. However, the series has been dormant since 2008 – and fans clamoring for a platforming-centric romp instead of the more vehicle-heavy Nuts and Bolts were left out in the cold. Fortunately, Playtonic Games is filled with ex-Rare staffers and heard the cry of the fans. They took to Kickstarter and gained enough funding to not only release Yooka-Laylee, but also do so across multiple platforms. Now, after several years of development, the game has finally arrived – but has time been kind to the collectahon-platformer, or is it a relic of a bygone era?
As the toybox demo showed quite some time ago, Playtonic’s dedication to nailing the gameplay came first – and that has paid off in spades. Yooka and Laylee don’t just keep puns alive, they keep the double-team action alive too. Laylee helps out during double jumps while you can do other things like butt stomps and rolls, which allow you to get to and from with great ease. The roll enables you to zoom around stages or even compete in mid-stage races against one of the game’s many amusing cast members – Nimble 64. Nimble loves racing, and surprisingly his areas aren’t full of fog to further the wink-wink/nudge-nudge humor with this game.
Playtonic did an outstanding job making every NPC stand out in some way. The lead villain Capitol B is a mix of vain and greed, and stands out immediately when he has a giant statue of himself erected and then has the one for his assistant thrown away. It’s a great moment of pettiness, and it tells you right away that this is not only your enemy, but also the enemy of many who work for him in some way. Poor Dr. Quack looks so sad when his statue is ordered to be destroyed, and yet he has to do what the big boss says. Later, you find out that Quack isn’t quite as nice as he seems, and actually stole the blueprints for his greatest work from Dr. Puzz – who you meet later and is one of the game’s shining stars.
Dr. Puzz is a delightful brainiac and also just so happens to be part octopus due to an experiment gone wrong. She’s not bitter, though, but rather cheerful. She’ll allow you to transform mid-level, which can help you unlock more of the game’s pagies. These are parts of the book that Yooka and Laylee found, and that Capitol B sucked into his giant Hivory Towers to attempt to take over the world. It may seem a bit odd that he’d do this in broad daylight with a gigantic machine coming from his giant building that everyone knows is his, but maybe he likes to let folks know “yeah, I’m doing this – now stop me!” These act as the game’s jiggies and unlock new worlds, while quills allow you to unlock new moves.
You’ve got quite a snake oil salesman selling you things too – and he is literally a snake. Trowzer and his giant 1985-era cell phone helps you out at the low, low cost of whatever amount of quills he so desires. BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE – he’ll also take calls during your transactions. Trowzer is an amusing conman, and one of the game’s funniest characters. Yooka and Laylee themselves are pretty funny, with Laylee usually getting the two into trouble by speaking before thinking and Yooka having to smooth things over.
One area that Yooka-Laylee greatly surpasses the original Banjo-Kazooie games is in offering up variety and keeping the pace fast. Beyond races, puzzle-solving, and grabbing items, you also have a lot of mini-games to enjoy. Each world has an arcade machine in it with a retro-style game, and the amusing Retro Rex pines for days gone by. You get a nice mix of racing, action, and even some shooting in these games – adding in more variety to the core game.
There’s a surprisingly high amount of stuff to do given that this is a collect-a-thon, and while activating the in-game targeting with L3 isn’t quite as intuitive as it could be, it does open up a whole world of possibilities. By grabbing bulbs from the various plants around the world, you can have Yooka shoot fire and ice around to either take out enemies, hit targets, or hit targets in a particular sequence and rhythm to make puzzle solving easier. There’s a surprisingly high amount of things to do here – so the usual collect-a-thon formula that hurt games like Banjo-Tooie – where you had far too many things to get and not enough variety in things you could actually do – is thrown by the wayside. In that sense, the pacing is very much like Conker’s Bad Fur Day – as are the bosses.
While large mounds of fecal matter aren’t fought, you will fight things such as a vain giant slab of rock who is over-protective of his dental work – and worried about being late with his payments for it, so he does the logical thing and throws logs at you before trying to burn you to death. There’s a nice sense of scale and an impressive intro for each one that also evokes Conker a bit. The game’s sense of humor is definitely more in line with the usual Rareware stuff though, and doesn’t go to the extremes that Conker did. The game’s scope can actually be increased too, with the option to expand worlds and open up more paths and new challenges. It’s a great way to add content without making things overwhelming since it’s optional and completely up to the player to do it.
Yooka-Laylee controls like a dream more often than not – but aiming projectiles is a bit tough. The camera is also squirrely, and while it can be moved with the right stick, the default position is also prone to suddenly going back and forth out of nowhere. It can be a bit tough to figure out where you’re at in the world spacially, and that problem is made worse thanks to the lack of a mini-map. Fortunately, the pros far outweigh the cons with Yooka-Laylee – and that holds true for the graphics as well.
The character models and the overwhelming majority of the in-game worlds look stunning. The hub world features some gorgeous reflections with gold all over the place, while the tropical areas stand out with both lush trees and a bright sun – but falter a bit with low-resolution texture work on a lot of stone and marble in the area. This hurts the presentation a bit, but is made up for later with stunning graphics in the casino and arctic zones that show off just what the game is capable of. Character animation is largely smooth, although you can occasionally get stuck in areas briefly when rolling. There’s definitely a rough-around-the-edges vibe to some parts of the game, which definitely hurts things a bit.
Thankfully, Yooka-Laylee’s soundtrack is incredibly strong and one of it’s best aspects. Playtonic managed to make songs that wouldn’t just pay homage to the past, but elicited the same kind of joy and whimsy that players loved nearly 20 years ago in Banjo-Kazooie, or even a bit earlier than that with the incredible work done with the Donkey Kong Country franchise. David Wise’s “Jungle Challenge” song is easily on par with the best work done by Rareware, and something that fans will be remixing for years to come. The game’s sound design is largely excellent, but the use of gibberish for words instead of voice acting definitely doesn’t quite work with how it’s done. It worked in the Banjo-Kazooie games, and it worked in Animal Crossing, but it all sounds too similar and not enough like a wacky filter over real words. It’s distracting and a bit annoying at times, but not a huge problem in the grand scheme of things.
Despite some hiccups, Yooka-Laylee manages to not only succeed where Banjo-Kazooie did, but exceed it in terms of overall variety. I enjoyed this adventure far more than either original B-K game, and just wish it had a higher level of overall polish. For the debut effort from Playtonic, and a major crowdfunded game, it’s easily the best one since Shovel Knight and that’s rather fitting given how amusing his cameo is as well. There’s room for improvement to be sure, but Yooka-Laylee remains a must-buy for anyone who enjoyed the Banjo-Kazooie games, and its variety means that the collect-a-thon nature of things that can wear thin never has a chance to. It’s a fantastic game overall, and owners of any platform should have fun with it – although Xbox One owners may want to stick with that version since that would then be the ultimate way to play all the B-K and B-K-style games on one device.
Reviewed By: Jeremy Peeples
This review is based on a digital copy of Yooka-Laylee for the Xbox One provided by Team17.