Party like it’s 1998!
Developer: Playtonic Games
Publisher: Playtonic Games
Format: PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One (reviewed)
Released: April 11, 2017
Copy provided by publisher
Reviewer contributed to Kickstarter
If there’s one thing that can be said in Yooka-Laylee‘s favor, it’s that Playtonic absolutely nailed the creation of a late 90s 3D mascot platformer.
Unfortunately, I do not mean that as a compliment.
Retro experiences are all very well and good, but while a sidescrolling 16-bit experience can be recreated authentically with little issue, the early years of 3D gameplay were riddled with troubles – developers hadn’t yet worked out how third-person cameras should work, and the intricate jumping challenges found in earlier software were often recreated with annoying results thanks to inferior controls and archaic platforming that stumbled through a whole new dimension.
It’s often hard to know where you’re going to land while jumping in a 3D space and old school level design couldn’t deal with it, with moving platforms and tricky chasms that simply refused to account for the shift in player perspective. From Mario 64 to Crash Bandicoot, there were plenty of control issues as well. Subtlety of movement wasn’t a strong suit of early 3D mascot platforms, which made navigating narrow ledges a pain.
Characters would turn with the wild swing of an axe murderer, the very slightest nudge of the controller could see them jerk forward unpredictably, and generally it was a chaotic shitshow. When you take off the rose-tinted spectacles, you find that even the classic platformers of the era have tended to age poorly and were often littered with frustrating problems even back when they first came out.
This is to be expected in the toothing phase of what were, back then, very new concepts and unique problems that would take years to tackle.
Many solutions arose in the decades since Gex and Croc were relevant reptiles, yet sadly an all-new lizard (with his racist bat friend) is here with a game that decided none of those solutions should be implemented.
With its dated mechanics, horrific camera, and awful platforming controls, Yooka-Laylee is the very embodiment of nostalgia gone wrong – a faithful recreation of a 1998 experience without any consideration or concessions made for the many advances in gameplay that have occurred since then.
I initially decided to run my review of Yooka-Laylee without a score because I found it so utterly unbearable to play. This would have been the third time in twelve years I’ve ever done this, putting Yooka-Laylee in the same bracket as Velvet Assassin and Knights Contract, two other games so archaic and poorly designed I refused to put up with their shit.
However, I powered through to at least see all the worlds on offer, a task rendered difficult only by the horrendous hub world design that makes the simple act of finding levels difficult due to obscure, sometimes bizarre placement. I don’t think I’ve seen a hub world so poorly executed before – it’s almost like they wanted it to feel like a Metroidvania map with its shortcuts and intertwining corridors, but it’s just a big steaming mess.
After forcing myself to keep playing, it turned out I’d almost given up at the good stages – the initial two worlds (the ones marketing have been showing more than anything) are practical masterclasses in level creation compared to the unimaginative wreckage that waits beyond.
By design, you can access new worlds rather simply once their entrances have been discovered. You don’t need many collectibles to unlock them, nor to upgrade them with expanded areas that create further exploration and add more pickups. If you’ll want to face the final boss, you’ve got a lot of collecting to do, however, and I’ll say quite cheerfully that I am not spending another second in any of these ghastly environments.
The simple act of moving Yooka around the world is unpleasant. His clumsy, stiffly animated stumbling throughout the world is visually unfortunate and interactively awkward. As the player deals with this, they’re locked in eternal combat with the camera which pretty much does its own thing and is not particularly interested in helping the player advance across haphazardly strewn floating blocks and other trite hurdles.
Combat is brainless, consisting of tapping a single button while enemies walk thoughtlessly into your attacks. Sometimes you’ll not connect with an attack and take damage just because of some reasons. Yooka-Laylee can be quite arbitrary like that.
The meat of the game is Banjo-Kazooie remade, which most people were expecting. It is quite literally that.
It’s a collect-a-thon in which you travel to “unique” worlds and solve puzzles or uncover secrets to earn enough glorified keys to unlock additional worlds. In this case, the asspull collectibles are Pagies, bits of a magical book that came loose after the tome was stolen by Capital B – an evil capitalist who is a bee, you see.
You know the drill if you’ve ever played a late 90s platformer. Pagies are Stars from Mario 64, the things you keep visiting worlds to unlock to so you can visit fresher worlds. Except, y’know, Stars were fun to get.
Additionally, the game is drowning in Quillies, or Quills, or whatever. They’re more contrived bits of magical bullshit you pick up so you can buy new moves from Trowzer the snake (he’s named after a penis).
Some of these moves are crucial to acquiring new Pagies, although the game doesn’t always tell you what moves are needed and when. In fact, it might make you navigate intricate and irritating jumping sections to get to your goal… only to find out you don’t have some as-yet unknown power and will have to repeat everything later. Yooka-Laylee loves pulling this snide little stunt on its players.
Many of the puzzles are tricky not because they’ve been designed to be, but because the game is so terrible at visual communication. Sometimes the puzzles are so poorly placed or conceived you’re not even sure what the puzzle is supposed to be.
This is to say nothing of the awful minigames, none of which feel particularly optional since they all award Pagies. There are several “retro” arcade games that couldn’t even be bothered to use new character models to make anything look retro and take the form of piss-poor racing games or shooters. I don’t know why creating games that actually looked and felt like retro games was too big an ask for Playtonic, but it’s jarring (and creatively barren) to feature a bunch of “arcade” games that look just like the regular game.
Don’t get me started on the minecart rides, which feel almost arbitrary in how poorly placed the enemies and traps are, or the transformations in which Yooka and Laylee combine to form an animal or vehicle that’s even more of a pain in the ass to maneuver than they are.
All of the minigames and transformations feature worse controls than regular platforming – something that shouldn’t be possible – and not one of them has proven to be slightly enjoyable.
Sometimes the game can’t even be bothered to be a game and instead forces a memory quiz on the player, demanding they answer nonsense questions about the things they’ve picked up and characters they’ve met. It tries to make this okay by pointing out it’s a lazy and cheap bit of content padding… but that doesn’t save it from being what it is.
While regular platforming, puzzles, and minigames ruin your day, you’re also having to deal with the dialog noises because this is a game that assaults the psyche on all possible levels. It was never really funny when Banjo-Kazooie replaced talking with grating grunts and moans, but in Yooka-Laylee it’s a fucking nightmare.
Unlike The Legend of Zelda, where one or two noises are enough to get the point across, dialog sections in Yooka-Laylee insist that characters bark and wheeze and groan constantly while talking – every syllable needs an atrocious bloody racket. Some of the cacophony can thankfully be skipped, but not all of it.
Expect to hear plenty of hacking, snorting, and sneering as characters rattle off droll in-jokes and self-references to the point of saturation.
Also, Yooka himself sounds like a total fucking pervert every time he “speaks.” It’s actually quite distressing.
The dialog as written is only slightly less painful with terrible jokes that undeservedly throw shade at other games and Laylee’s “witty” quips routinely insulting the looks of any creature that isn’t her, often using derogatory nicknames based on their appearance. She’ll toss out slurs against snakes, shopping carts, clouds, she doesn’t care. Laylee is a complete racist, and as facetious as I’m being here, she really does come off as a hateful, nasty, thoroughly unlikable little bastard.
Jokes are often repeated and fall firmly into cringe territory with hamfisted fourth-wall breaks and mockery of modern game design – things that could work in a better game, one that was well designed enough to get away with mocking things, or one that’s at least funny when it does so.
Yooka-Laylee is not funny. In fact, as someone who backed it, I can safely say it’s a fucking disaster.
While it’s bright and colorful, the game’s choppy framerate and wonky physics mitigate any pleasure one might derive from the graphics. Stages aren’t particularly detailed in their design, featuring lots of basic blocks, platforms, and ramps, while characters themselves are mildly endearing if somewhat forgettable. It’s the kind of game that looks far better in screenshots than when viewed in motion.
About the only truly competent work on display is the music, which at least does a great job of balancing nostalgia with quality.
Those desperate for a mascot platformer in Rare’s old style might be able to love this, but frankly if you need to collect things in a cutesy animal world that badly, just play Snake Pass. It’s far better.
Yooka-Laylee is a game out of time, clinging so desperately to past glories it doesn’t seem to understand the Earth kept spinning after the N64 was discontinued. It’s everything wrong about the formative years of 3D platforming and it somehow retained none of what made the genre’s highlights endure.
Yooka-Laylee is, in a word, rubbish.