Review In Short
Ben says: "The very height of shameless "inspired by" Kickstarter schemes (in this case Banjo Kazooie by the people that made it) but it is a damn good game. If you harken for a '90s 3D platformer then this is the closest you are going to get in the modern age!"
Back in the ’90s, you couldn’t move for 3D platformers that featured colourful characters, tricky jump mechanics, and tons of collectibles. The best games of this genre were all made by Rare and included one of my all time favourites; Banjo-Kazooie. By the late ’00s, nobody really made those games anymore apart from Nintendo with its series of 3D Mario games. Banjo and Kazooie were still around in the form of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts, a completely new style of game (which I also loved) developed exclusively for the Xbox 360, but I’d still go back to playing the HD remakes of Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie when I wanted an old-school 3D platforming fix.
Fast forward to 2015 and Playtonic Games (made up from Rare staffers) put up a Kickstarter for a modern version of these games entitled Yooka-Laylee. It was the fastest game to reach $1m and ended up with almost 12x more money than they originally asked for netting just over £2m. After being delayed from an October 2016 launch, Yooka-Laylee launched earlier this month and I’ve managed to get to 100% completion after 24 hours of gameplay.
The Banjo-Kazooie similarities are pretty clear…
The first thing to note is that this follows the trend of Kickstarter games being called “spiritual successor” when they actually mean “walking a very fine line of copyright infringement”. If the characters were a bear and a bird instead of a chameleon and a bat, this would just be a new Banjo-Kazooie game. That isn’t a complaint — it’s exactly why I backed the game! — but don’t go into this thinking that it is a new fresh IP with a completely different style; this is almost a carbon-copy of those mechanics just written in a modern gaming engine rather than for the N64.
You have your buddy duo, a hub world which requires collectibles to unlock each new world, a quiz to get to the boss fight, and characters that talk in grunts and gurgles as the text scrolls across the screen. You also have a wonderful soundtrack by Grant Kirkhope that really sells the fact this is a Banjo-Kazooie game in all but name. Rather than a witch that has stolen your sister, the main villain is Capital B, a bumble-bee who slightly resembles Gru from Dispicable Me who has stolen a magic book that you had for some reason. Your quest is to go through the five different worlds to collect enough missing pages from the book so that you can then fight him and stop him from stealing all the books from the world (the reason for which is never fully explained but looks like it is building up to a sequel).
The hub world is vast and contains a number of its own collectibles. The main game, though, is contained within five worlds that range from tropical ruins to a massive casino. Each world contains 25 ‘pagies’ (rather than jiggies) that you need to collect in order to open further worlds. An interesting new mechanic is that each world can also be upgraded (for a pagie price) which adds more detail and more quests; its a fun way to make you go back and forth between worlds although I ended up pretty much doing each world in sequence and upgrading them before even entering. The quests are pretty much what you expect from a 3D platformer with basic fetching, puzzle solving, and racing with nearly all of them given by the bizarre characters of the world from talking shopping trolleys to racing clouds.
There are many colourful characters in the various worlds. This is an urban trolley.
The real bread-and-butter of the game is in collecting and there are no shortage of shiny items to pick up as you traverse through the large open worlds. Quills are the new notes and there are 200 to collect in each world; you’ll use these later to purchase moves from Trowzer the snake (ah that ’90s humour) and they are often the hardest item to collect as they can be so easily hidden on little platforms and the various nooks and crannies of the worlds. Each world also contains both a heart and an energy extender which take the place of the unified honeycomb pieces from the previous games. More interesting are the ‘ghost writers’, five ghosts that appear on each level and require different methods to catch; one might require you to feed it first whilst another requires a sonar move to reveal it. Finally, there is secret pirate treasure hidden on every level that will net you an achievement although they don’t show up in the totals screens for each world.
The other two items to collect relate directly to quests that happen on every world. The first of these is a play token for Rextro’s arcade, a mini-game that you need to complete to earn a pagie, and then complete again beating a specific high score to earn another. These mini games range from a top down racing game to an infuriating Flappy Bird clone and the one thing that all share is that they outstay their welcome. The games from worlds four and five are particularly long and frustrating with the added requirement of having to complete them a minimum of twice making them more a chore than fun. It would been nicer had the games been half the length and if you could have earned two pagies by beating the high score on your first playthrough.
The second item is a ‘mollycool’ that acts much like the mumbo tokens from Banjo-Kazooie with the difference being that these power Dr Puzz’s DN Ray rather than Mumbo Jumbo’s shaman magic. Each world will have one of these tokens that allows the Dr to transform you into something that will help solve some quests be it a pollentating flower or a pirate ship. One disappointment I had is that there were no quests that required you to take your new form out to the hub world or a different world and the number of quests that related to each transform was fairly minimal (especially on world three).
Some of Rextro’s arcade games are frustratingly difficult
In order to earn all of these collectibles, you will need a range of moves that can be purchased from Trowzer both in the hub world and in each of the worlds. Many quests and items can only be earned from moves you’ll pick up later in the game so sometimes you have to evaluate a puzzle and wonder if you are being stupid or whether you need something later on. The moves begin in fairly standard form with the ability to ground pound, glide, roll, etc but later develop into more powerful techniques such as flight, sonar explosions, and higher jumps. A particular favourite of mine is the ability to use Yooka’s tongue to eat various items that will give you a projectile or environmental effect for a short period of time; for example, you might eat a small bomb to gain the power to fire wall-smashing projectiles or you could lick a honey pot to gain the ability to stick to slippery surfaces. This seems better than the ammo collection that was prevelant in Banjo-Tooie whereby you had to collect various different eggs and feathers to use as projectiles but it does also mean that it is fairly obvious when you need to use each ability (i.e. a tree with frozen berries on it probably means you need to freeze something nearby). Most of the abilities will require a certain amount of energy taken from a stamina bar that refills slowly over time or can be filled by touching pink butterflies that permeate the worlds. I was pleased that the rate at which you earn moves is fairly steady resulting in a genuine sense of excitement as you realise what areas of previous worlds you can now access thanks to your new abilities; it is exactly the same experience I praised in Hollow Knight.
In addition to the moves you can also visit Vendi, a ’50s looking vending machine who dishes out special tonics when you reach certain milestones such as killing 10 enemies or collecting a certain number of pagies. These tonics act as an always-on buff and you can only swap them when you are with Vendi similar to the charms in Hollow Knight although you are limited to having just one active at a time. The tonics generally fall into the camp of giving you a bit of extra health, letting you use a move more frequently, or some minor tweak to the game such as helium voices for characters or giving Yooka a pair of blue shorts. The most useful is definitely the ‘hunter’ tonic that causes a small whistle (I’m convinced it is the Jinjo sound effect) whenever you are near a sufficiently difficult collectible such as the mollycool or one of the last few quills in a world. It is just enough of a boost to stop you going to a walkthrough guide when searching for the last few collectibles on each level.
Yooka-Laylee is definitely one of the best looking Unity games
I didn’t have any major problems or breaking issues with the game but there were a few minor frustrations:
- One of the quests put me in a room that was filled with fog but it was so thick I could barely see anything including the way out; I spent 10 minutes trying to escape before just massively increasing the brightness on my monitor to see the wall edges.
- Rextro’s games, as I mentioned earlier, were a major frustration especially as you had to beat them twice.
- There is no clear delineation between what quests require a particular move and which ones don’t. This was far more like the open world of Banjo-Tooie than the more “one world at a time” methodology of Banjo-Kazooie.
- Whilst some dialogue could be skipped, a lot of it (including during the boss fight) couldn’t.
- The game would always crash when quitting using the GameStream with the NVIDIA Shield TV (a minor issue but meant I had to always go back to my PC to turn it all off properly).
- The entire game worked perfectly on my 21:9 monitor (aside from cut-scenes having black bars at the sides) but when purchasing from Trowzer it wouldn’t show me how many quills I currently had as it had been cut off at the bottom of the screen.
- Much like Thimbleweed Park, there were a few too many knowing jokes about it being a game and little winks to the user about things that would come in the sequel. Once or twice is fine; doing it more than that becomes tiresome.
All of these are fairly minor issues and I didn’t have any problems with the camera or the controls as some earlier reviewers experienced although a lot of this was fixed by the day one patch.
There is still quite a lot of content that has yet to arrive as it was postponed in order that they didn’t need to delay the game further. This includes a 64-bit retro mode which will be available as a tonic, an orchestral soundtrack (more like Nuts and Bolts which was fantastic), and a developer commentary. There was also an intriuging clue about a secret if you reached 100% in the Kickstarter-backer exclusive Toy Box that was released last year; I followed that clue once I’d reached 100% completion in the game and it unfortunately results in the INEPT robot telling you to be more patient. I expect this will arrive in the same patch as the other content above.
It took me exactly 24 hours to get 100% completion
I had fairly low expectations for Yooka-Laylee prior to launch. I didn’t really enjoy the Toy Box that much and felt it looked a little bit too much like it was made from stock Unity objects. The pre-release reviews were also fairly mixed and so I figured I’d play it for a bit and then move onto something else.
Instead, it has turned out to be one of my favourite 3D platformers of all time probably because it doesn’t stray far from what made those games great; it took me around 24 hours to reach 100% completion and it never felt like a grind. Those that were looking for something more modern or that played in a different way would be better served by Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts or by the upcoming Super Mario Odyssey. This is a truly modern take on the old classics in that it is just updating the graphics, not changing the gameplay in any major way. Whilst I didn’t like the look of the Toy Box, I can honestly say this is one of the best looking Unity games I’ve played with some absolutely beautiful texture and lighting work running at a smooth 60fps; I’ll be very impressed if it retains that when it launches on the Switch later this year.
If you are not a fan of collectibles and 3D platforming or if you wanted a modern take on Banjo-Kazooie with some huge gameplay twist, this game is not for you. For fans of the ’90s 3D platformer though, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything better. I didn’t like the characters going on about appearing in future games, but I really hope to see Yooka, Laylee, and even Trowzer again in the near future.