Yooka-Laylee might just be the most realistic game I've ever played in my life. Its not the visuals or the movement that make me say this, but rather the simple fact that the camera perfectly recreates the feeling of being an iguana with a bat stuck on its head!
Despite this fairly massive setback Yooka-Laylee does manage to brush up against greatness every now and then, but the question remains, is it a worthy successor to Banjo-Kazooie and a collecathon you can really sink your teeth into? Well, that's not exactly an easy question to answer, as you'll soon realize.
Video version of this review (~12 minutes)
Since a platformer is only as fun as its controls its probably wise for us to start with Yooka-Laylee's biggest issue - the camera. Instead of being a constant companion you can rely on throughout the various platforming challenges, the camera in Yooka-Laylee is actually your worst enemy, and it will struggle against you at every opportunity. There are a variety of small issues that make this so, but the biggest problem is that it doesn't function around walls or tight spaces very well. It often gets stuck in uncomfortable positions that leave you staring straight at a blank wall, while any attempts to correct the issue usually result in the camera getting launched violently forward, which is about as disorientating as it sounds. You can get around this problem by constantly micromanaging the camera in tight spaces, but this is easier said then done when you're also trying to perform tricky jumps and glides at the same time.
The second and thankfully final major hurdle with the camera are some of the fixed-perspective sections. In theory the fixed camera angle is there to help you out with difficult platforming obstacle courses, but its often so awkwardly placed that its next to impossible to see what exactly you're doing. The very first boss in World 1 perfectly embodies this whole problem. He is your generic "climb a hill while avoiding falling debris" type of boss, and outside of the last phase requiring some good timing there is really nothing special about him. What is special, however, is the camera that constantly points towards the slope at a low angle, essentially making it impossible to see anything at all. The camera is so unusably bad in this section that you can easily blindfold yourself and not notice a difference in your performance. And if that wasn't enough, when you inevitably fail and slide all the way down the camera will instantly transfer from a fixed perspective into a standard 3D perspective, completely and utterly ruining any sense of direction you may have had. As such I spent 20 minutes fighting an incredibly easy boss, purely because I couldn't see what was going on. I do love a good challenge, but the difficulty should never come from mechanical issues!
I am fully aware of how negative I sound right now, and if this was an isolated issue I would be more than willing to overlook it, but it simply isn't. Throughout my ~10 hour playthrough the camera has been a constant source of annoyance and frustration, and even the most recent pre-launch patch has not managed to get it into a workable state. Many of the bugs and issues have been fixed in the past few days, however, so I can only hope a post-launch patch will be able to sort the camera out as well.
Poor visibility + high speed + slow turns = fun times
As for the controls themselves, they are mostly perfectly fine. The dynamic duo feels just a bit too floaty while jumping around, but that's easily offset by a variety of moves you can perform. You can glide around, butt-stomp enemies into oblivion, roll up into a ball and move surprisingly quickly, double jump, shoot out sonic waves, and the list goes on. You unlock these power-ups by collecting a whole bunch of Quills scattered across the five unique levels, and as far as incentives for exploration go this is a pretty damn good one. Collecting 200 Quills just to get 100% completion is boring, but if that same process unlocks two new moves for you to mess around with, then that's worthy of consideration!
There's also a couple of places where you can transform into other forms, each with their own unique twist on the gameplay, but I can't say I found any of those to be particularly enjoyable. Take for example the very first transformation you can encounter - the plant. It gives you the ability to grow other plants in order to finish puzzles you previously couldn't, and you can also uncover a few hints pointing you towards some of the secrets on the level. Where the problem arises is that the plant is not only slower than your normal form, but it also jumps significantly lower. As such actually moving around is a painfully slow process, while trying to complete a jumping puzzle with 1/2 of your usual jump is an exercise in pure frustration. A similar story applies to the other transformations, with a special shoutout going for the snowplow form that controls so badly I spent more time falling off cliffs than completing the objective.
The plant form might look adorable, but its just a bit too tedious to play with
The camera problems are a real shame since Yooka-Laylee's world is quite a thing to behold. Most of the enemies look more cute than scary, the friendly NPCs are all ridiculously over-the-top, and the world itself is rather colorful and charming. In terms of visual fidelity Yooka-Laylee won't be winning any awards given how many low quality textures are plastered all over rocks and pathways, but the design is strong enough to carry the experience and draw attention away from some of its flaws. So unless you're like me and you decide to snoop around every bit of the scenery, chances are you'll find the visuals to be more than appealing.
I wish I could say the same about the writing and some of the characters. The story doesn't take itself very seriously, and its more than willing to poke fun at both modern and ancient gaming cliches, but almost all of the jokes are so predictable and forced they just fall flat. When they aren't predictable they are just mean-spirited and petty, which makes it incredibly hard to get any sort of emotional attachment to our two protagonists. What also doesn't help is that most of the characters are straight up annoying to listen to. Instead of being either silent or speaking in a normal language, all of the characters express themselves through a variety of beeps, blops, and blurps. For example, Yooka sounds exactly like Duke Nukem humping a wall in search of secrets, just a constant barrage of "UGH, UGH, UGH, UGH, UGH" with absolutely no end in sight. I didn't find it funny in Banjo-Kazooie, and I must admit the years have not made it any better.
While the dialogue audio may be occasionally torturous, the soundtrack is simply excellent! Its cheerful, upbeat, and almost perfectly matched with the level it plays in. I might have a bone to pick with pretty much every aspect of Yooka-Laylee, but the soundtrack is definitely not one of them - its just too delightful!
A great opportunity was missed by not giving Trowser only one eye
What isn't delightful, however, is the level design. On first glance it appears to be wide and expansive, full of secret areas and deviously hidden collectibles to find, but all of that is nothing more than a facade. Instead of being an interconnected world where you have to solve puzzles and platforming challenges to move forward, the levels in Yooka-Laylee are essentially a theme park. Each collectible and secret is locked away in its own little area, completely disconnected from what's going on in the rest of the level. Since there is very little to do while you meander from puzzle alcove to puzzle alcove the world feels somewhat dead and empty, despite the strong art direction trying its damnest to give it some personality.
If you can get past that bizarre design choice you will find that the actual challenges that await you are very reminiscent of Banjo-Kazooie, and I mean that in a good way. There's collectibles to find all over the place, some of the jumping puzzles are nice and easy while others are deceptively difficult, and best of all, there are plenty of ways to 'cheat' through particularly nasty sections. What I mean by this is that if you don't feel like solving a puzzle you can sometimes just ignore its mechanics and do ridiculously precise platforming in order to bypass it. Its not the most optimal of solutions, but there's a special kind of joy in being able to outsmart a game at its own... uhh, game. The same goes for the platforming given that Yooka-Laylee doesn't use invisible walls to prevent you from going out of the play area. If you are so inclined you can jump off the map onto random pieces of scenery, and while this will usually get you hopelessly stuck it does occasionally offer an interesting shortcut. Like before this really isn't an important part of gameplay, but it goes a long way towards making you feel truly free, and that is something I can certainly appreciate.
With a bit more work the levels could've been truly amazing
Besides the five main levels there's also a bunch of minigames you can toy around with, and for the most part they are a nice little diversion. My favorite must be the cart-racer, simply because the combination of slightly floaty controls and randomly appearing obstacles makes for some hillarious spin-out deaths. Its not the most balanced or intricately designed minigame out there, but its quite enjoyable for the 5 minutes you'll spend playing it. If you are so inclined you can also play these minigames in multiplayer, and while I wouldn't bring them out as the main attraction I can still see them being a bit of fun in between games.
What isn't jolly, or fun, or even funny, are the mandatory quiz sections. You have to answer around 10 questions correctly in order to proceed, and while that doesn't sound too bad these questions are so stupidly specific that you'll often trip up and have to begin all over again. Due to some prior obligations I started off my playthrough fairly slowly, completing only one level over the course of three days. Outside of forgetting the controls this is usually no big deal, but the god-awful quiz in Yooka-Laylee expects you to remember how many collectibles you picked up in each location, how many it took you to unlock a certain area, and what each of the side-characters are doing! Its incredibly tedious, slow, and aggravating, and even though the characters mock it in-game that doesn't prevent it from being one of the worst sections I have been forced to play through in quite a few years! I have to give credit to Yooka-Laylee though, its not often that you see a game go from great to terrible, and then all the way back again within the span of 30 minutes.
Why... just why?
Yooka-laylee attempted to bring back the 3D platformers of old, but has unfortunately gotten stuck in the 1990's with them. It definitely serves as a nice little homage to Banjo-Kazooie, but it never quite manages to reach the same level of greatness. When removed from the context of its predecessor, however, Yooka-Laylee is nothing more than an average platformer. It'll give you a dozen hours of entertainment, but chances are you won't be coming back to it again. That said, I would love to see a Twooka-Laylee somewhere down the line because the concept really is solid, its just that the execution is a bit clumsy.
Yooka-Laylee might have problems, but its artwork is defintiely not one of them