It's been a couple of years now since the team at Playtonic had their kickstarter funded in record time. Since then there's been a tangible increase in interest for the style of early 3D era platformer that Playtonic pitched. Everything old is new again and there's seemingly no better candidates than former Rare talent of that era to re-capture that look and feel of an old character collect-a-thon.
Playtonic makes it pretty obvious that Yooka-Laylee is nothing if not a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie. I'd even go so far as to say that it's in fact Banjo 3 in everything but name. That similarity is apparent and deliberate right down to a couple of the jingles upon claiming some of the collectibles. The premise is pretty straightforward. The big bad Capital B has made off with Laylee's magic book and it's pages have been spread across the five worlds of the game. The duo then sets off to recover these "Pagies" and foil the plans of their corporate nemesis. Along the way you'll collect about a half dozen other types of items or tokens that will either contribute to getting more Pagies for the set or health and ability upgrades. Quills are the most numerous of these at 200 per level and these will also serve as a currency that you'll use to buy new moves from the shorts wearing snake named Trowzer. These moves will be what effectively gate off later levels and some of the Pagies in the early stages. New moves will grant access to new areas of the hub world and the entrances to the other main stages. It's a system that kept me pushing to explore deeper into the corporate lair of Hivory Towers and also returning to previous stages to get stuff that I either missed or simply couldn't access the first time around. You'll need to spend collected Pagies to not only unlock new worlds but also expand them to fill out the rest of world. When you first unlock a new world you get what feels like a demo version of the full level with only a few Pagies accessible until you get enough to finish unlocking it. There's often not enough Pagies in the initial part of the level to unlock the rest of it so unless you've built up a bit of a stockpile of Pagies ahead of time the cycle of backtracking was necessary and admittedly could get a bit tiresome when I got hung up with being just a few Pagies short. There was more than one occasion when the prospect of going back to old worlds to keep looking for the ones I couldn't find just didn't seem appealing. Worse were the times that I knew the location of a few but simply didn't want to engage with the activities required to get them.
With 25 Pagies to collect in each world and 20 more in the hub world there's a pretty good variety to the things you'll be doing to get your hands on them. At their best these challenges can be fun boss fights or mechanically interesting puzzles that, while not exactly reinventing the wheel manage to be a fun callback to a previous era of gaming. At worst they can be yet another mine cart challenge that even the heroes themselves seem reluctant to take part in. There's a somewhat redeeming quality to all this and that's in the writing for some of these side characters that want your help. With jokes that range from offering clever commentary on the games itself to literal toilet humor the fact that it doesn't take itself seriously can be a lot of fun. It's worth noting that Yooka-Laylee is totally self aware and the light jabs at both modern games and the self deprecating nature of how some of the challenges are presented to you gave me a few chuckles throughout. It doesn't change the fact that some of the stuff you're required to do can be dull but it's eagerness to frame it with characters that are written to be out of date made for some entertaining dialogue in spite of itself. You'll run various types of races both on the ground and in the air, do various tasks for a cast of goofy characters (including a cameo I won't spoil) and collect what is the equivalent to Banjo-Kazooie's hidden Jinjo's. There's even giant mini-golf puzzles in a couple of levels. With so many of these challenges relying on acquiring specific abilities it was fun figuring out what the new ways I could interact with the worlds and how I could pair things together to do things I couldn't before. There's an aspect of discovery throughout that I really enjoyed. Transformations also make a return from which it takes inspiration and sadly they seem to be a bit of a mixed bag. There's one transformation available per level when you find the appropriate missing piece for Dr. Puzz's DNRay. While a couple of them seemed to really open up what I could do on a given map and were fun to mess around with the others seemed catered to unlock 1 or 2 specific Pagies and their usefulness outside of that was otherwise limited.
In terms of both music and visuals Yooka Laylee pretty much nails down the feel of an early 3D platformer. Environments and character designs have a simplicity and goofiness to them that is as endearing and nostalgic in a way. A vibrant color palette and just the right amount of ambient detail ensure that Yooka-Laylee feels like something I'd be playing with a N64 controller. The best thing I can probably say is that it looks how I remember some of those old games looking rather than the way they actually do. For everything I like about how Yooka-Laylee looks and sounds there's also a thing that pushes me away. More than once I found myself whistling along with the sometimes catchy world themes after playing them awhile and simultaneously reaching for the mute button for some of the unskippable irritating blabbering and grunts of character speech. On the visual side as appealing as it is there's also a disappointing amount of chug throughout the experience. It was never really enough to get in the way of controls but performance hitching happened often enough that it turned an otherwise smooth experience into a frequent distraction albeit a minor one.
After spending about 20 or so hours with Yooka-Laylee, I'm happy to say I enjoyed a good bit of it. It's a callback to Banjo-Kazooie from the creators of Banjo-Kazooie and that's the experience you should expect going in. It's deliberately dated designs are often peppered with enough self awareness that I could often find a bit more entertainment in what the game itself had to say about what I was doing than I did with the act of actually doing it. Despite that it certainly does do a good job of capturing the feeling of nostalgia and familiarity that it's going for and provides some funny commentary on itself throughout. Yooka-Laylee is a lighthearted romp through a bygone era of games that feels fresh out of sheer irony if nothing else. If you liked Banjo-Kazooie and aren't expecting it to do anything too different with that formula then there's a good bit of fun to be had.