Nearly five years after its announcement, Playtonic games’ debut title Yooka-Laylee finally hits consoles and PC on 11th April. A throwback to classic N64 era platform games, and an attempt to revitalise the genre for a modern audience, does the adventures of a chameleon and his bat chum ring out in tune or snap like a knackered old string?
Developer: Playtonic Games
Reviewed On: Xbox One (Review code provided by publisher)
Set in an anonymous fantasy land, the story revolves around Yooka, a laid back chameleon and his cocky bat sidekick, Laylee. There’s a criminal mastermind in town, Capital B, owner of the Hivory Towers corporation who, along with his sidekick Dr Quack, a duck’s head floating in a water filled gumball machine (don’t ask), are plotting to steal every book in the land to both monetise and gain a monopoly on literature, as well as find a magic book that will give them ultimate power. Fortunately the book, being sentient, has spread all it’s pages throughout multiple literary worlds and it’s up to Yooka and Laylee to find the pages, rebuild the book and stop Capital B. It really is as bonkers as it sounds and it revels in this madness.
The most obvious influence on Yooka-Laylee is Rare’s classic Banjo-Kazooie (indeed, many of Playtonic’s team are former Rare developers from the Banjo era) and from the moment you boot it up, the game feels both like a retro throwback and something quite fresh. Visually it’s a treat, its crisp cartoon graphics setting it apart from the current trend of bland, brown realistic games and taking you back to somewhat more colourful times, but there is a distinctly modern feeling to the visuals as well. The higher resolution afforded by the current gen consoles provides smooth lines almost completely bereft of aliasing; there’s a long standing cliche of stating that a cartoon game looks “like a Pixar film” but modern titles in this style such as Yooka-Laylee and last years Ratchet and Clank reboot are truly pushing that boundary. It’s gorgeous to behold and breathes a lot of life into the experience.
The impressive art extends to the sheer scope of the game. There are only five game worlds to uncover as well as a hub world, but Playtonic have truly opened up the possibilities of these areas with lush scenery, huge draw distances and some breathtaking vistas you really want to explore. And explore you must – the core mechanic of Yooka-Laylee is the age old art of the “collectathon”. As well as having to find the “Pagies” (as they’re called) of the magic book, there is a veritable cornucopia of discoveries in each world from Ghost Writers (five in each world, each one requiring different tactics to catch) to quills, the games currency. The duo start the game with a simple two move arsenal, a jump and spin attack, but more moves can be bought from a snigger inducingly named snake called Trowzer (that one will go over the kids heads) which will allow them to not only find the elusive collectibles, but also progress in the hub world to find new areas to explore. And if the prospect of only five game areas seems stingy, each world can be expanded to almost twice its size by collecting the requisite amount of Pagies. Yooka-Laylee is a deceptively large game which both encourages and rewards exploration, something increasingly rarer in modern, more tutorial focussed games.
It’s a shame, then, that as games become richer in how they explore narrative, the story of Yooka-Laylee is probably its weakest point. Sure, the genre as a whole is hardly known for its deep storytelling, but Yooka-Laylee is pretty weak even by retro standards. Dialogue is delivered by often unskippable talking heads and rolling text with no actual speech, while the puntacular script is unfortunately smattered with a liberal dose of fourth wall breaking. These characters are acutely aware that they are not only in a videogame, but also a videogame that is influenced by a very particular retro genre. It’s funny the first time; maybe it’s also funny the second and third, but when almost every exchange results in the characters commenting on how mad and crazy this retro inspired world they inhabit is, it starts to become grating, tiresome and sadly lazy. It’s a shame as the game is so genuinely fun, charming and full of polish that what is ultimately a rather minor point (and also one on which many players results will most definitely vary) feels like a bit of a let down.
Performance wise we tested Yooka-Laylee on XBox One which runs in 1080p at a reasonable 30fps. There were some noticeable frame hiccups but nothing that really impacted on the gameplay too much.
Yooka-Laylee is a great throwback to retro 3D platform games which does some smart things to modernise the formula while being held back by some occasionally disappointing writing. It’s a great come back for a sadly missed genre, though, and one that is very welcome in the current generation of consoles. More like this, please!