In a post-Super Mario Odyssey world, the bar has been set even higher for 3D platformers. How, then, can a game like Yooka-Laylee stack up - a game so firmly focused on the past rather than the future? Though it may not quite hit the heights of some contemporaries, Yooka-Laylee still stands as a fantastic modern take on 3D platforming and a worthy follow up to the Banjo-Kazooie series. It’s been a long wait for Switch owners, but Playtonic hasn’t been wasting its time; this is the most polished, well-put together version of the game.
Yooka-Laylee is a nostalgic platformer that celebrates the greatest of the collectathon platformer genre, though this time it’s starring a chameleon and a bat rather than a certain bear and bird. The evil Capital B wishes to take over the world with the help of the One Book, and so the titular dynamic duo sets out to collect Pagies hidden in each of the five worlds. Along the way there are platforming challenges galore that can be tackled in just about any order, prioritizing freedom of choice above all else.
Gameplay in Yooka Laylee is straightforward, yet there’s a delightful amount of variety and depth that adds different nuances to proceedings. As you explore the five worlds you’ll slowly build a collection of moves that expand the duo’s abilities and unlock new opportunities for them to collect things. These are all relatively expected, but they nonetheless make the player feel more empowered as the game goes on and provide a steady sense of progress. Once enough Pagies have been collected in any given world, they can then be either spent on unlocking a brand-new world or on expanding one of the worlds you’ve already unlocked, filling them with new, slightly more difficult challenges.
These elements combine to form a tight, focused gameplay loop that constantly rewards the player. Whether you’re collecting quills for new moves or spending Pagies on unlocking a new world, every action you make feels purposeful and well thought out. Yooka-Laylee doesn’t feel obnoxiously bloated, a pitfall many games in this particular genre have fallen into; worlds feel densely packed with collectables and secrets, tempting you to search every corner, yet they don’t go too overboard. It’s striking that perfect balance; collectables don’t feel like they’ve been shotgunned over a map for the sake of adding “content”, yet there’s more than enough to keep you searching for quite some time.
There’s more to this game than strictly collectables, too, adding new dimensions that round out the package better. Each world contains a new transformation that allows our duo to combine into some mutant creations with new abilities, like a helicopter or an acid-spraying plant. These all manage to change the playstyle in unique ways, and they can just be fun to mess around with. A lovable, scanline-covered dinosaur named Rextro 64 also runs an arcade full of minigames, with a new one being unlocked in each world. Though these can be rather shallow affairs, they still add a satisfying break from the platforming action and you can always come back to try to beat your high score. There’s also an in-game achievement system in place that rewards the players with “Tonics” (geddit?) for accomplishing certain tasks. These all help make the game a little easier in some aspect, like help to find collectables or decreasing the energy usage of some moves, though you can only have one tonic equipped at a time.
From a world design perspective Playtonic mostly gets it right, though there are some missteps here or there. World layouts can be sprawling and confusing at times — Yooka-Laylee definitely would’ve benefitted from a minimap — but it gets easier to navigate as you familiarize yourself with each area. The world themes are nothing new either, though they’re packed with enough interesting things to do that you don’t get bored running through another ice level. Some may also be disappointed at there being just five worlds — not including the hub — but these are a cut above the likes of what you’d find on an N64, for those drawing that comparison. While more variety certainly wouldn’t hurt, the five worlds are interesting enough and have plenty of challenge and secrecy to them.
Yooka-Laylee absolutely nails its presentation, too; this has all the charm of an N64 platformer and none of the jagged models and washed out textures. Environments are detailed and well-realized, full of colour and little things that give it that extra level of visual flair. The writing is just as snarky and irreverent as you’d expect, too; the fourth wall is absolutely shattered, and hardly three lines will go by without Laylee insulting whoever they’re talking to. It’s fun to read, and helps to create a whimsical, lighthearted tone that’s maintained throughout. The soundtrack is another plus, opting for a goofy, bouncy vibe that sounds an awful lot like what you’d hear in Donkey Kong 64 or Banjo-Kazooie. It fits the game perfectly, and there’s more than a few tracks here that are pretty catchy and will no doubt be stuck in your head for some time.
Plenty of improvements have been made for the Switch version, too, arguably making this the definitive version. It’s been well documented that Yooka-Laylee was met with a lukewarm reception upon launch, but Playtonic has been hard at work polishing it up in the months since and the game that now exists on the Switch is notably improved. The poor camera AI that was often criticized has since been fixed, and there’s now a manual option for those who want full control. The controls are more responsive, frustrating sections have been tweaked, dialogue and cutscenes can be skipped, and this is overall a significantly tighter game than earlier builds. All of this carries over into undocked mode, too - the game looks just as good and plays just as well when on the go.
Even so, Yooka-Laylee still stumbles every now and then; a menagerie of minor annoyances can combine together at times. The camera may work well for most of the time, but it still has a tendency to get hung up on geometry a little too often. And though the worlds are mostly well designed, there are some instances where pacing is lost; perhaps a certain quiz minigame is just a little too unforgiving, or a level is too barren in some sections. Yooka-Laylee never truly misses the mark on anything, but it doesn't always hit the bullseye. There are minor yet noticeable dips in quality that rear their head sometimes which don't in any sense break the game, but they do hold it back from being something even more special.
All told, Yooka-Laylee is a worthy modern tribute to the collectathons of yore, and it is highly recommended for Switch owners. This feels like a game that belongs in 1996, but with all the quality improvements of a game made in 2017, making for an excellent blend of new and old. Though it can be a little uneven at times, the game as a whole manages to succesfully achieve its goals.
Do yourself a favour and give this one a go; it may not have been too well received to begin with, but Playtonic has polished it up quite nicely; it is a worthy addition to the Switch library.