Yooka-Laylee is a 3D collect-a-thon platformer made by ex-Rare employees now known as Playtonic Games. The game is made as a spiritual successor to the Banjo-Kazooie series and released on multiple platforms. I’ll be going over the Nintendo Switch version and covering the game from the perspective of someone that loves Banjo-Kazooie and the genre in general. Just keep my potential biases in mind when reading onward and hopefully it’ll all make sense. Oh… and I have no one to play with so I didn’t get a chance to check out the multiplayer. Sorry.
Yooka-Laylee stars the titular duo buddies of Yooka the lizard and Laylee the bat hanging out at their shipwreck of a house. Or… house of a shipwreck. Potato tomato, right? Laylee finds a book on the ship that Yooka believes is pirate treasure due to the fact that the pages of the book itself are golden. Before Laylee’s idea to sell the book for a large sum of money can come to fruition… in fact, this happens almost immediately after… it gets sucked away by the evil corporate villain of the game, Capital B. His begrudging sidekick Dr. Quack has created and activated a machine that sucks up all books in the world and essentially plans to have a monopoly on the book market. There are also rumors of something called the One Book that is a magical book with the power to rewrite the world as we know it. You can see how this would prove quite useful to a comically evil antagonist. So Yooka and Laylee follow their pirate book towards the source of the sucking. On its way to the machine, the book loses most of its pages. It’s up to this unlikely pair to explore Hivory Towers, Capital B’s workplace-gone-hubworld, to find all the missing pages and restore their chances at a fortune.
The gameplay starts with a brief tutorial on the basics of gameplay like jumping, attacking, moving the camera and so on. This is where you’ll learn the concept of collecting quills in order to purchase new moves from the snake Trowzer. Once you get into Hivory Towers you’ll learn about the concept of a hub world, which houses the entrances to the actual worlds of the game. To get inside you’ll need activate the grand tomes by adding enough of your collected golden pages known as pagies. This is also where we learn that the book they’re looking for just so happens to BE the One Book and requires the pagies to work. Inside of the worlds is where most of the gameplay happens. Each world has a total of 200 quills and 25 pagies to collect. You get them by solving puzzles, completing challenges, and doing special tasks. Most worlds will have some form of quest initiated by resident of the area asking for a favor. At least one pagie in each world is obtained by completing a mine kart riding minigame where you must collect and keep a certain number of gems by the end. Another recurring type of pagie is for finding and capturing all five ghost writers in each level. Each ghost writer must be captured in a slightly different way, such as attacking, feeding, uncloaking, or simply touching them. And each world has a pagie as a reward for beating that world’s boss as well as one for collecting all 200 quills.
The quills are scattered about in places to catch your interest and also to reward you for exploring the level. You’ll need them to learn Trowzer’s new moves. While he does teach you one new one before each world in Hivory Towes, he’ll generally teach you one or two in each world as well. These techniques are needed to traverse the hub to find new levels as well as complete all the challenges in the levels. Each world will also have a hidden item to extend your life meter and one to extend your energy meter. Your health is represented by butterflies, which is also what you eat to regain it. However, if you simply walk through butterflies instead you’ll recharge your energy, which is consumed during certain special techniques. The energy meter will also refill on its own after a period of time. There’s also a play token in each world which can be given to the polygonal dinosaur Rextro to play that world’s arcade-styled minigame. You’ll usually get two pagies for these games. You get one for completing the game and another if you can beat Rextro’s high score. The last of the easily trackable one-a-world collectibles is the mollycool which can be given to Dr. Puzz in order to use her machine that can transform the duo into some… thing… depending on the level. You’ll generally need this transformation for at least one pagie as well. There IS one other collectible in each world, but these are not shown on your totals screens and seem to only pertain to unlocking the achievements in the main menu. They are called pirate treasures. They are rotating skulls that are well hidden in each world for you to find. You can talk to Vendi the company vending machine to equip a tonic. Tonics each have a specific effect to somehow alter your game experience, but you can only equip one at a time from the available tonics. You unlock more for doing specific tasks as listed in the tonic menu. In order to collect all of the collectibles in the game, you’ll need to not only unlock all the worlds but also expand them. Each world can be expanded once by giving its grand tome more pagies, giving you the option to move on to more worlds or expand previous ones to get more pagies, quills, and abilities. At a few points between worlds you’ll also have to take on Dr. Quack’s Quickfire Quiz where you answer trivia questions about the game before being allowed to advance. You need only 100 pagies in order to take on Capital B.
Yooka-Laylee definitely had lots of promise for me. The genre, the look, and the constant nods to what this game wanted to be but legally could never be definitely pulled at my nostalgia. The colorful visuals and collect-a-thon style backed by a Grant Kirkhope soundtrack sets the tone perfectly for my expectations. The big open playground-style level design is a pleasant throwback to a genre the game industry has been telling me I don’t want for years. It’s really interesting to see how the team tried to recreate the familiar moveset of Banjo-Kazooie, how they altered it to make it work for these two characters (and reduce odds of legal action), and how they used the traits of these new characters to do things that wouldn’t even make sense for a bear and bird anyway. The characterization is pretty fun. The NPCs are full of that Rare… er… Playtonic charm you’d want in a game like this and even though I’m often a hard sell on the humor of written dialogue, this game managed to get some damn good chuckles out of me. There’s a good mix of fun exploration and difficult challenges that keeps the game from getting too frustrating or too boring. Plus, the fact that you only need to get so much to beat the game helps lessen the burden of the more difficult tasks. It’s clear there was a lot of heart put into this project. If you wanted to see what Banjo-Threeie on the GameCube would’ve been like, this definitely delivers what that would likely be like!
However, that’s kind of the problem. Sure, likening elements of this game to Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Country goes in its favor, but it also gives me shades of Conker’s Bad Fur Day… in a bad way. The variety is often hampered by a lack of polish. Most of the minigames, most of the transformations, and even some of your special techniques have slippery sloppery control. I often feel like I’m sliding all over the damn place or unable to reliably do what I want even when I understand the wonky nature of the mechanics at hand. This means that most of the difficulty in the game comes not from challenging sections but rather from lackluster control. This made some of these long minigames and challenge sections an infuriating feat to finish. On top of that, the game feels like it suffers from the Banjo-Tooie flaw of world design. These levels are HUGE but there’s a ton of unutilized space, even once the worlds have been expanded. There’s 200 quills in each but there are so few other collectibles that it doesn’t really earn the scope. This often leads to there being interesting nooks and crannies that have no reward for exploring them, which is very unlike the source material of Banjo-Kazooie. Expanding the worlds is a neat concept on pagie… er… paper, but in practice it doesn’t do much for me. Instead of getting 10 modestly-sized worlds chocked full of goodies and unique settings, we’re given five overblown worlds separated by this expansion mechanic. The only reason not to expand the world right away is just to track your progress better as to what you’ve already done for sure before making the world bigger, but you can’t get everything until you expand anyway. Also, while I think the weird camera and goofy hitbox glitches could be played off as part of the intended experience, they certainly aren’t a welcome part of the authenticity.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that Yooka-Laylee delivers on the expectations of being what you’d expect an unofficial Banjo-Threeie on the GameCube to be like. It doesn’t feel like a modern take on the genre. Maybe it would’ve gone over better had I not already played Super Mario Odyssey, but THAT game did the genre in a modern way so damn well that the competition was terribly stiff. So I think if I want a modern collect-a-thon 3D platformer, I’ll likely just play that. And if I want some classic Banjo-Kazooie action, I’ll just play Banjo-Kazooie. In fact, after finishing the game my friend asked me if I thought I enjoyed Yooka-Laylee more or less because of how much I love Banjo-Kazooie, my favorite game of all time. The answer is… a bit of both. I think I enjoyed it more due to all those ties to a game I love and that helped form my appreciation for the genre and thinking about game design. It’s hard to separate Banjo-Kazooie from my love of games in general. But it also made me enjoy it less because of my expectations. They were never going to be fully met, but even my more realistic expectations were let down. So that’s very telling of my recommendation here. If you’re a big Banjo-Kazooie fan, even though this isn’t even as in-the-spirit as Grunty’s Revenge, I think it’s worth playing when you’re coasting on fumes of that bear and bird high. If you’re looking for a good modern take on the genre, see Super Mario Odyssey. If you’re looking for classic Banjo-Kazooie goodness then just play Banjo-Kazooie. At least I finally got to play this and know for myself. That experience is always worth it. Remember that. A game only wastes your time if you get nothing out of it.