When my time comes to pass from this plane of existence unto the next, I can take my eternal rest content in knowing that ‘I was there’ during the golden years of Rare on the N64, circa 1997-2001. It was the heyday of the 3D platformer, with Rare championing the genre by way of such joyous offerings as Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64 and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. It was one of the fondest, most cheery gaming epochs of my life and, judging by the £2 million-plus funding that the self-declared ‘Rare-vival’ 3D platformer Yooka-Laylee received, many people feel the same way.
Read more: the best indie games on PC.
Yooka-Laylee reassembles much of the old Rare team under Playtonic Games, including director Chris Sutherland, several designers, and N64 soundtrack legend, Grant Kirkhope. Within minutes of you starting, it’s evident how zealously it attempts to recapture the particular flavour of 3D platforming that Banjo-Kazooie represented. It’s basically that same game in a parallel dimension, where the main collectables, Jiggies, have been replaced by Pagies, Jinjos have been replaced by ghost writers, musical notes by quills, and of course a bear with a cheeky bird in its rucksack has been replaced by a cheery lizard with a cheeky bat on its head. Even the music of the hub world is an inverted version of the catchy Teddy Bear’s Picnic theme that accompanied you throughout the Gruntilda’s Lair hub in Banjo-Kazooie.
It’s a promising start, front-loaded with nostalgia, but the veneer quickly fades, and for all the game’s cuteness and solid level of challenge, its collect-athon structure feels outmoded and its development incomplete. While Playtonic clearly aimed to mimic rather than majorly improve on the 20-year-old Banjo formula, in some areas it even feels inferior to its, ahem, fore-bear…
Here’s the lowdown. Inseparable chums Yooka and Laylee are in possession of a page from a book that they believe may be of some value. Their plans to cash in on it are scuppered when local mogul Capital B turns on a giant vacuum to suck all the world’s books into his corporate bunker, so as to turn them into pure profit (or something). So the two buddies head into his lair, jumping into worlds via Giant Tomes to recover not only their Pagie, but all of those stolen by Capital B. Perhaps that makes Yooka-Laylee a tale of small-scale enterprise fighting for survival against big business or, more likely, it’s a rudimentary plot put in place so you can get on with the platforming. And at its best, the platforming in Yooka-Laylee is very good – tough, old-school tests of dexterity that aren’t afraid to make you restart lengthy sequences if you fail, or even send you back to the beginning of the world you’re in.
There are five worlds in total, which is about half the number in each of the Banjo-Kazooie games. The slightly contrived option to ‘expand’ worlds when you collect enough Pagies doesn’t really make up for the lack of level variety either; eclectic themed biomes, after all, are as endemic to 3D platformers as guns are to shooters. Of the five worlds, the jungle-themed Tribalstack Tropics is the best designed, with some wonderful vistas, vibrant scenery, and vertiginous structures to scale.
This should’ve been a tease of things to come, but it doesn’t get better than this, which makes it telling that it’s the world we’ve seen most of in the trailer building up to launch. The icy world has a certain festive sleigh-bell charm, the swampy and spacey ones are mediocre, while the Capital Cashino is nauseatingly garish and dull, forcing you into dreary slot-machine activities that are depressingly distant from the verdant platforming of that first world. It’s so poor that you wonder whether this is the point at which the devs ran out of time, funding, or creative juice.
Something that’s easy to forget about those old Banjo games is that, by modern standards, they were pretty bloody tough. There was little sense of direction, no maps, and some gruelling platforming exacerbated by awkward camerawork. All of that (yep, the camerawork too) is recreated in Yooka-Laylee, for better and worse. While enemy encounters are fairly humdrum and can be resolved by a combination of spinning attacks and buddy slams, there are moments of old-school platforming extremity. In one sequence, I had to roll through a dark cave while managing my limited light source and rapidly depleting ‘Power’ bar. If I fell off, I’d have to start right from the beginning of the course. It was