Yooka-Laylee is certainly soaking in nostalgia from its spiritual predecessor, Banjo Kazooie. With that being said, it should be noted that Yooka has been created essentially as a direct sequel to the beloved N64 games, except that the team wasn’t able to get the license from Rare. It has everything that fans of Banjo could ever want and works as both a new experience and a trip down memory lane.
An evil corporate businessman named Capital B has stolen all the books in the world in an effort to turn them into profit. It’s up to Yooka and Laylee to travel throughout each of the in-game worlds to collect the lost “pagies” that serve as this game’s version of “jiggies”. In fact, every collectible from Banjo Kazooie has a 1-1 counterpart in Yooka-Laylee: music notes are now quills, honeycombs are butterflies, Jinjos are Ghost Writers, etc. It succeeds in maintaining everything that was great about Banjo, yet it adds new subtleties that keep the player looking forward. For example, there are classic moves like the ground pound and glide ability, but also many original ones that allow Yooka and Laylee to traverse the map in new ways.
Gameplay-wise, Yooka-Laylee is the most polished N64-style platformer that has possibly ever existed. When Yooka runs around the map defeating enemies with a tail-spin attack, it feels fluid and natural, which is partly due to the excellent character animation. Double jumping and gliding across gaps to reach the next platform is wondrous, since Laylee has far more wing power than Kazooie ever did. Wide chasms are crossed with ease, even when it seems too far for the adventurous duo to reach. Yooka’s tongue lick ability allows him to perform a multitude of tasks such as collecting butterflies to replenishing health, grappling onto certain ledges and inheriting the traits of different elemental flowers. These grant the ability to spew fire, spray water, shoot ice, and toss grenades which can all be used to activate switches and open new pathways in the environment.
Each of the game’s five massive levels contain 25 pagies, 200 quills, and a handful of other collectibles to find. I found myself exploring every nook and cranny while getting lost in the playful, cartoonish world. Some environmental themes may be familiar to Banjo fans such as the icy landscape of Glitterglaze Glacier or the ancient ruins of Tribalstack Tropics, but each world is far more fleshed out. I spent roughly three or four hours in a single level until I felt that I had seen and collected everything that was available to me at that time.
Part of the joy of progressing through the game is learning new abilities from the slimy snake salesman, Trowser, who divides his attention between talking to the game’s protagonists and making deals on his 1980’s cell phone. There are 1-3 abilities to learn in each world, which open new possibilities for traversing unexplored parts of the map. Additionally, Dr. Puzz can transform the duo into a new form in each level. Exploring as a snowplow or helicopter yields new abilities and new perspectives on the world, plus it’s downright fun! One of the great aspects of Yooka-Laylee is revisiting worlds, using new abilities to uncover previously inaccessible areas. With so many layers to each level, it is clear that a great amount of care went into sculpting these sandboxes.
A certain amount of pagies are required to unlock each story world, or “grand tome”, which can later be further expanded for a few more pagies. This is a great way to get some new perspective on a world that you just spent hours exploring. My strategy was to do everything that I possibly could in the “vanilla” world, then let it grow so that I could see what else was in store.
In addition to great level design and animation, Yooka-Laylee manages to create the perfect atmosphere that is brimming with personality. The soundtrack is phenomenal, and I often find myself humming the tunes long after I’ve finished playing. The smooth swing of Capital Cashino’s main theme has a great basic melody that is complimented by muted horns. Gliterglaze Glacier feels like a magical place due to its dreamy, majestic soundtrack. In fact, every level has a memorable theme that uses a wide variety of instruments. This is definitely one of my favorite video game soundtracks in recent memory.
In addition to Trowzer, a quirky cast of characters inhabit every world, many of which recur throughout the game. Helping them rewards you a pagie, whether you’re curing the woes of the melancholy shopping carts in Moodymaze Marsh or tracking down the lost hats of Glitterglaze Glacier’s snowmen. Most of the characters are memorable, thanks to the wittily written dialogue that is “spoken” by way of funny gibberish sounds, just like in Banjo. Yooka Laylee shines in its ability to deliver goofy dialogue, character designs, and animation without becoming overbearing and obnoxious. I actually prefer Yooka and Laylee over the iconic bear and bird duo, whose childish expressions sometimes grated on me, even at a young age.
Levels in Yooka Laylee come with their fair share of new challenges in the form of obstacle courses and scavenger hunts, but there are also a number of characters who offer their services throughout the levels. Minecart challenges can be completed by talking to Kartos, who prompts you to collect a certain number of gems in exchange for his precious pagie. The simple tracks are fairly well-designed, with an emphasis on course memorization and precision platforming. Rextro is an outdated arcade cabinet dinosaur, who has a unique minigame for you to play in each world. They are a neat idea, but ultimately end up being more frustrating than fun due to bad controls and dull concepts. Each time I encountered Rextro, I dreaded the large amount of time I knew I would be spending with his lousy games. He holds two pagies hostage, requiring you to complete the minigame for the first and beat the high score for the second — a truly miserable experience.
If there was ever a problem with 3D platformers during the golden era it was the camera, and unfortunately that is still an issue with Yooka-Laylee. Vertical and rotating platforming often present issues when trying to focus the camera on the protagonists in order to figure out the next place to jump. Tight spaces can be difficult to navigate, especially since a lot of challenges require precise, quick movement. This can also come into play during boss battles, one of which can be found in each world. Fighting the literal uphill battle against The Great Rampo in Tribalstack Tropics involves jumping over rolling logs in order to reach the villain himself. This is made more difficult than it needs to be due to the fact that you can hardly see what’s ahead of you, not to mention the shoddy controls when using the roll technique. As for the rest of the bosses, they are fairly underwhelming and not a whole lot of fun, especially compared to how strong the rest of the gameplay is. The final boss, in particular, tests the player’s patience and endurance due to its multi-stage design.
Though there are only five levels, they are memorable and significant enough to warrant this as a meaty full-length game. Before taking on the endgame, I found myself going back to old levels to see what I had missed. All of my levels remain incomplete and I cannot seem to find everything, despite thoroughly combing them for hours at a time. My final completion time was about 35 hours, which includes a lot of exploration and backtracking. For those players who love to find everything, it’s going to take a while to 100% each level, even with all the abilities unlocked.