So we're finally here. It's the day 3D platforming fans have been yearning for since they whipped their Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts Xbox 360 discs out the window in a storm of rage-fueled tears.
OK, that's a little dramatic. Nevertheless, the anticipation for Banjo-Kazooie's true successor, Playtonic's Kickstarter-funded Yooka-Laylee, has been noticeably intense. Collectable-heavy 3D action games have been in short supply since Rare's halcyon days on the N64, and nostalgia for the genre is certainly starting to bubble over.
Playtonic Games is almost done with its loving homage to Banjo-Kazooie.
Let's get down to brass Jiggies, then. Is Yooka-Laylee the one-for-one Banjo-Kazooie successor its name (and brightly-colored character duo) implies?
Yes. Definitely. But before you fall on your knees before a gold idol of Capital B and indulge in thankful worship, know this: Yooka-Laylee has myriad issues. It's as buggy as the contents of a chameleon's stomach. Its controls are slippery. The environments are rambling and confusing. The frame rate is choppy. And every step you take, every move you make, you'll be fighting with the camera.
But Yooka-Laylee's heart, soul, nuts and bolts are all 100% in the spirit of Rare's classic catalogue. There's no question about it.
No surprise, then, that the premise for Yooka-Laylee involves two animal pals teaming up to find golden MacGuffins. Yooka (a chameleon) and Laylee (a bat) are lazing around the shipwreck corpse that serves as their home when Laylee's "One True Book" is grabbed by the game's villain, literal corporate drone Capital B. Yooka and Laylee need to collect the One True Book's scattered "Pagies" (they're often found in cagies) and administer a "Thank You" kick to Capital B's stinger-tipped bottom.
Yooka and Laylee admittedly don't have the chemistry of Banjo and Kazooie. Laylee is barb-for-barb a Kazooie clone, and thus she has an endless supply of insults. That's fine, except Yooka is too darn nice. Banjo was a great foil for Kazooie's trash-talk because he kind of deserved to hear it; he was a bit bumbling, a bit lazy. Yooka just wants to help people, no questions asked, so Laylee's insults feel baseless.
Fortunately, Yooka and Laylee share the stage with a host of googly-eyed NPCs who are brimming with glib remarks and tasks. Some of the Pagies you're after are in plain sight, whereas others can only be won by indulging a request from, say, an old cloud who's "too tense" to let his water flow, and asks you to provide some "stimulation."
The cloud with a prostate problem works as a metaphor for Playtonic: A team of ex-Rare staff who've been holding onto their cheeky jokes since the turn of the millennium and are clearly relieved to just let them all cascade forth. You learn your moves from a snake named "Trowzer," which says it all. My personal favorite quest-slinging NPCs, however, are the grungy shopping carts in the marsh level. As all city-dwellers know, polluted rivers and stagnant ponds are where shopping carts go to die.
Playtonic's joy at being allowed to finally do its own thing reflects in Yooka-Laylee's core gameplay, too. It's certainly a collect-a-thon, but things don't get out of control the way they did in Donkey Kong 64. Gathering Pagies is your main task, as they're what you need to unlock new worlds. Picking up Quills, which you exchange with Trowzer for new moves, is your next priority. There are five worlds in all, and each one provides tons of opportunities to explore, climb, and swim. Once a world is unlocked, you receive the option to expand it. Doing so tacks on more collectables, more objects to scale, and more hazards.
I would personally prefer a larger variety of smaller words over five potentially gigantic worlds, but Playtonic is a small staff working with a limited budget: I understand why re-using assets is preferable to constructing new ones. My problem with Yooka-Laylee's huge worlds is that they're incredibly easy to get lost in. There's no map, no compass, no radar. Some levels are lacking in notable landmarks. Yooka-Laylee isn't a short game — you can easily get 15 to 20 hours out of it, even if you're just going for the smallest Pagie count needed to trigger the final battle — but a lot of time is just spent re-treading old ground in search of an NPC you had to pass over previously, or a tracking a Pagie you thought you saw in an earlier visit.
Fortunately, Yooka's "Reptile Roll" lets you bowl through levels at the speed of sound. Unfortunately, it's difficult to control. In fact, Yooka and Laylee are a lightweight pair, and are a bit all over the place when tricky platforming is called for. You do get used to their floatiness, but it still makes for frustrating moments — especially when you're trying to solve a puzzle in a confined space, slip out of its boundaries, and are forced to restart.
Far worse than Yooka-Laylee's reptilian slipperiness is its camera. You can technically adjust it however you like, but like a car badly in need of alignment, it invariably tries to go its own way. Sometimes the shift is gradual, and sometimes your point of view is very suddenly thrown askew. Yooka-Laylee's camera is at its worst when the duo take flight, and that's incredibly disappointing.
When I first flew in Banjo-Kazooie, I felt a breathless sense of freedom that even Super Mario 64 couldn't offer. By contrast, flying in Yooka-Laylee gives me nothing but stress. When you're airborne, you can't see the landscape below unless (again) you fight with the camera, so controlling your flight into the wild blue yonder is a bear – and not the lovable banjo-playing kind, either. Even landing is clumsy and difficult.
Flying also threw me headlong into one of the game's more significant bugs. When I first received the ability to fly near Capital B's lair, I immediately tested it. Before I could get much height, Laylee was violently thrown downward and into a wall. The game then soft-locked. What should have been Yooka-Laylee's crowning moment turned into a huge downer.
Yooka-Laylee has notable framerate issues too, though to hear the tittle-tattle around the internet, most of those problems are exclusive to the console versions of the game. I played on the Xbox One and suffered frequent pauses. Said pauses only lasted half a second, but even a half-second game of "1-2-3 Red Light!" is not something you want to experience when you're in the middle of some tricky platforming.
Doubtlessly, hearing about all these technical issues plaguing Yooka-Laylee is a heart-punch for people looking forward to a Rare-style collect-a-thon. Let's cut to the million-Pagie question, then: Should you spend your time (and, depending on your status as a Kickstarter backer, your money) on Yooka-Laylee?
If you've been dying for a true-blue successor to Banjo-Kazooie, yes. Go for it. Despite its problems, it's still what you want – and it's not unplayable by any means. Most of the issues I've kvetched about can be patched, and I expect Playtonic will do exactly that over the coming months.
If you're just Yooka-curious, however, sit this one out until Playtonic's inevitable fixes are in place. And if you never liked Banjo-Kazooie in the first place, there's nothing here for you. This is bat country. Roll on. Roll on.
The Nitty Gritty
- Lasting appeal: If you love collecting shiny things, block off some time on your schedule; you're gonna be busy for a while.
- Sound: Some very nice tunes from veteran Rare composers, including the venerable David Wise. Tons of nonsensical Rare-style jibber-jabber, too. Might want to turn down the game's sound effects if you don't want to drive your loved ones bat-ship crazy.
- Visuals: Camera issues and frame rate stutters aside, Yooka-Laylee's candy-colored world is a joy to look at. The character designs are tons of fun.
Yooka-Laylee is built out of the heart, soul, guts, and bones of Banjo-Kazooie. It's exactly what fans of Rare's classic 3D wanted. Unfortunately, technical issues stick to it like bat guano.
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