A Banjo-Kazooie Rare-vival!
Back in the Nintendo 64 era, 3D platformers represented the wave of the future. No longer confined to two dimensions, cute mascot characters ran amok through large, sprawling worlds. Lately, 3D platforming has taken a backseat. But Playtonic Games, composed of ex-Rare developers, were eager to revive the genre when it Kickstarted Yooka-Laylee, a spiritual successor to the team’s Banjo-Kazooie series. Replacing the famous bear-and-bird duo with a chameleon-and-bat team, and featuring huge colorful worlds with googly-eyed characters, the game is more than a throwback; it’s a love letter.
Here’s my Video Review for your viewing pleasure!
The story is basic: the big bad Capital B has stolen the all-important Pagies of a magical book, and it’s up to Yooka the chameleon and Laylee the bat to retrieve them. Sure, it’s a forgettable plot, but the characters are likable. Many of them have their own defining quirks, whether it’s a business savvy snake or an arcade-obsessed dinosaur. Shovel Knight’s cameo is a bonus. The writing is also a treat as the dialogue is littered with sarcastic quips and fourth wall breaking humor, and they’re all uttered in Rare’s trademark grunt noises.
The Rare influence goes beyond that. The gameplay faithfully follows the Banjo-Kazooie formula: large sandbox worlds with a hub connecting them, an extensive moveset that you must purchase to access, and loads upon loads of collectibles. Fans of the old N64 games will feel at home. That said, the controls are a bit clunky, and it can be difficult to maneuver around, especially when using certain moves such as the roll attack. At least the camera is cooperative, as I never had an issue keeping it focused on the action.
There are only five worlds, but they are much more massive than even Banjo-Tooie’s large areas. You can use your collected Pagies to either unlock a new world or expand an existing one. The smaller worlds are usually too empty to offer much in the way of needed collectibles, requiring you to enlarge them to make any headway. Most expansions change the stages considerably. However, they are almost too large and confusing to navigate. There are no maps, and the world design doesn’t particularly lead you along from one collectible to another in a clear manner. I would have preferred medium-sized worlds more densely packed with collectibles, as found in Super Mario Odyssey.
With nothing but landmarks to guide me around large landmasses, I often got lost, which didn’t help when looking for collectibles. As you can expect, there are tons of them. Aside from the main Pagies, there are over a thousand Quills (which are used to buy moves) strewn about, not to mention other items that increase your stats or act as payment. The most annoying are the tokens in the casino level, which you must collect just to earn the Pagies within. You usually require a specific move to get most items. Since you must manually purchase your moveset, it’s annoying to come across a Pagie and not know why you can’t reach it. I actually found it most satisfying to rush through to obtain as many moves as possible, then return to a world and exhaust its collectible supply. That’s when I hit a nice groove.
While I’ve been ragging on the game’s design, I genuinely enjoyed Yooka-Laylee. Sure, there’s a nostalgic element to it, but the vibrant and colorful worlds were fun to explore, despite me getting lost. The moveset, gripes aside, was well-tailored to the chameleon and bat duo. Once I was on a roll getting collectibles, it was hard to put the game down. The challenges to get each Pagie are also incredibly varied. Beyond standard trials, there are races, puzzles, and clever boss fights, not to mention the arcade minigames and Banjo-Kazooie-style transformations. And of course, the notorious quizzes return. The setup here isn’t as eye-catching, but I liked being tested on my playthrough. The only challenges I wasn’t fond of were the ones that required you to painstakingly collect gems on a nonstop cart without falling or getting hurt. That’s one element Rare could have left out of its extensive repertoire.
It took me about 20 hours just to get the bare minimum to beat the game, and several more to clean up each world. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a reward for collecting everything, beyond a small bonus and personal satisfaction. Also, it’s frustrating to have only one missing item and no clue how to locate it, so achieving 100% is best left to the completionists. There is some local multiplayer, but it’s very light. Two people can play cooperatively, but the second player only controls a honeycomb reticle used to collect items. Otherwise, up to four players can experience short minigames together, but that’s unfortunately it.
Though there have been reports on poor performance of the game on other consoles, I had very few issues with the Nintendo Switch version’s presentation. The loading times are very long and there were a few brief moments of slowdown throughout, but nothing too distracting. While the game’s lush worlds aren’t quite as beautiful in handheld mode, it was worth being able to play on the go. Finally, the music, composed by the fantastic minds behind Rare’s classic soundtracks, will sound instantly familiar to anyone who’s played the company’s games. Grant Kirkhope and David Wise’s musical styles are just that recognizable and pleasant to the ears.
Yooka-Laylee doesn’t branch too far from its obvious Banjo-Kazooie roots. It simply takes a “bigger is better” approach that doesn’t always work in its favor. Despite its flaws, it’s a joy to explore the worlds and collect every goody. The game may not be the most polished platformer around, but Playtonic Games has created an enjoyable love letter to ‘90s collectathon platforming. Hardcore fans of the genre will want to set their googly eyes on this one.
Note: A review copy was used for this article. This review was originally written on DarkStation.