It’s possible to beat Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair in under half an hour. Now, hold on a minute. Before you make a beeline for Amazon to start pricing pitchforks (it’s about £25 for a good one, if you’re asking), let us clarify. We said it’s possible. But there’s no way you’ll be able to manage it right away.
It’s all because of the titular Impossible Lair, the ‘final’ level and the game’s major gimmick. After a short intro stage, you’re taken to the world map where the entrance to the Impossible Lair is sitting right in front of you, wide open and ready to be attempted. Beat it and you’ll beat the game, it’s as simple as that. Except it isn’t simple at all: it’s an obscenely difficult and extremely long stage with no checkpoints, and without the right preparation you’ll die long before you come close to reaching the end.
This preparation comes in the form of your ‘beettallion’, an army of fearless soldier bees whose sole purpose is to protect you in the Impossible Lair. The problem is, at the start of the game all the bees are imprisoned in little cocoons – most of which are located near the end of the game’s stages – so you have to beat each level and free them before they can be added to your beettallion.
There are 48 of these bees in total, and each one you rescue will let you take an extra hit in the Impossible Lair without dying. This is a clever way of letting the player decide how hard their final challenge should be. Those less confident in their own abilities will want to collect as many bees as possible before taking on the Lair: after all, when you can afford to take up to 48 hits before you die, that’s a massive help in a very difficult stage. Similarly, the self-appointed ‘hardcore’ will be able to put their honey (ahem) where their mouth is by entering the Lair with a smaller number of bees rescued, to see if they can beat it with less room for error.
All these bee-wrangling shenanigans would be for nought if the game itself was a buzzkill, but thankfully that isn’t the case. Having already delivered a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie with the first game, the team at Playtonic has shifted its focus to the 2D platforming world. Many of them worked on a little-known game called Donkey Kong Country, you see, and there can be very little doubt that Rare’s SNES masterpiece is the main influence this time around.
So much of the action feels like a perfectly natural evolution of the Donkey Kong Country mechanics. Yooka can roll into a ball and plough through enemies (with Laylee riding on top to keep the roll going), just like Donkey Kong could. There are plenty of suspiciously barrel-like structures that fire you out at great speeds when you jump into them. When you grab a swinging vine they tilt in exactly the same way, which is a very niche thing to point out, we know, but if you know the Donkey Kong Country games you’ll know exactly what we mean when you do it. Even the way you can gain a little distance off a jump by rolling off a ledge before jumping is captured here perfectly.
Stage design is meticulous, with challenge after challenge neatly linking together alongside various hidden pathways (and occasional Super Mario World-style secret exit) which are just begging to be explored on a second run. If you want to dash through a stage you can – and your skills will still be tested sufficiently – but to find every last collectable item, you're going to need to hone those skills to their maximum potency; it's no exaggeration to describe this as one of the most finely-tuned 2D platformers we've ever played.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair also carries over two more of the major elements that make the Donkey Kong Country series so notable: the look and sound. This is a gorgeous platformer, with brilliant character animation and beautiful backgrounds, all running at a smooth 60 frames per second. The music is equally brilliant, thanks to contributions of ex-Rare composers David Wise and Grant Kirkhope, who aid the core Playtonic audio team of Dan Murdoch and Matt Griffin with some career-best music. Almost every single track is a winner (our particular favourite is the 'frozen' version of Frantic Fountains) and it's amazing to hear how themes change when level states are altered (more on that in a moment). Add in some of the amusing trademark vocal effects – all generated by the Playtonic team, of course – and there can be no doubt that you’re playing, seeing and hearing a premium product here.
It’s got just the right level of difficulty too: which is to say, it’s high but manageable. You will absolutely die a lot during this game, but unlike in the Donkey Kong Country titles, you have infinite lives here. You’ll also be asked if you want to skip a section if you die a particularly large number of times in one area. Um, at least, that’s what we’ve heard. We’re obviously too awesome at games to have discovered this for ourselves. (Look, shush.) Regardless, the elite may turn their nose up as such optional help, but the reality is that those who tough it out and don’t skip anything will naturally collect more items along the way.
These include T.W.I.T. coins, of which there are five hidden in each stage and are needed to pay off Trowzer the snake, who’s erected literal paywalls in the game's overworld and requires some coinage before he’ll take them down (cue some jokes in the consistently brilliant dialogue about how paywalls are a disgrace). Then there are the quills, which are used to buy any of the tonics you find lying around the overworld. Skipping ahead may help people see more of the game, then, but it’s clearly in your best interests to stick with it.
Speaking of the overworld, this is the main element of the game that can’t really be compared to the Donkey Kong Country games. Rather than a basic world map where you simply travel from stage to stage, the overworld in this game is a huge, sprawling environment full of puzzles, NPCs and various hidden goodies. These include the aforementioned tonics: there are 62 of these in total and while some are found in plain sight, others are hidden away and have to be found (though you can pay some quills to get hints on where to find them).
Once found, each tonic can be bought with quills, after which you can toggle a number of them on and off before entering each stage, allowing you to customise both the look and feel of the game in a way that suits you. Some of them are purely aesthetic – you may want to give the game a 3:1 aspect ratio to give it more of a cinematic feel, or maybe even give it a ‘Hollywood blockbuster’ filter which washes out the colours a bit and drops the frame rate – whereas others actually affect the game’s difficulty.
One lets you keep the T.W.I.T. coins you find after you die, while another gives you more time to catch Laylee after you take a hit (she flaps around in a panic, much like Baby Mario in Yoshi’s Island, before flying away). Most of these difficulty-changing tonics come at a price: apply ones that make the game easier and you’ll have a percentage of quills taken off you at the end of each stage. There are, of course, some that make the game harder: one of them adds googly eyes to enemies, which looks funny but means they take an extra hit to kill. Naturally, these ones instead reward you by giving you extra quills when you beat a level.
The overworld is also home to the game’s other main gimmick: the ability to transform stages into noticeably different alternate forms. Each stage has its own overworld puzzle that, when solved, will let you toggle a new version of that level. We don’t want to spoil them all because half the fun is in discovering what happens – they’re by and large very different each time – but expect weather changes, speed-running and flooding to be among the numerous effects you’ll discover. It's amazing to enter a level you've previously beaten to see it change almost beyond recognition but still retain some core features.
This does bring up a potential sticking point, and while it’s one that’s purely down to personal taste we can see how it could affect things for some. It could be argued that the overworld exploration plays a bigger role than some may have hoped; while many will welcome the fact that there’s a healthy amount of puzzle-solving and witty banter with numerous friendly faces, others strictly in it for the platforming may be frustrated at having to jump through a bunch of hoops before being able to reach the next level.
Luckily, you can warp to levels once you’ve unlocked them, instead of having to traipse through a large open-world area each time you want to head back and try to collect any missing T.W.I.T. coins. Regardless though, do be aware that if you’re buying this purely for its 2D goodness – and there’s an awful lot of goodness here – you should be prepared for some Zelda-lite block-pushing and bomb-throwing in the overworld too. The only other criticism we can level against the game is the fact that some of the loading times are quite lengthy, but that's hardly a deal-breaker, and thankfully you never have to wait long after losing a life and returning to the most recent checkpoint in a stage.
Donkey Kong Country fans rejoice: this is the spiritual successor you’ve been waiting for. The worst thing you could say about it is that the overworld exploration may prove to be too involved for those who are in it purely for the runny-jumpy stuff, but those who are happy to mix platforming with top-down adventuring and don’t mind adapting to the constantly changing pace will find the best of both worlds here. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is a fantastic sophomore effort that pays tribute to Rare's past and establishes Playtonic as one of the UK's most exciting studios.