A New Generation of Bear and Bird: Yooka-Laylee Review
Nostalgia is a powerful thing: it can be beautiful, affecting and oftentimes deceitful. Kickstarter games have been taking advantage of consumer’s nostalgia for a long time now, with developers often banking on the hope that nostalgic feelings towards a bygone genre or game series will elevate a player’s experience with a modern reproduction of those games, with little thought given to the game’s place in today’s greater gaming landscape.
When I watched the first Kickstarter pitch for Yooka-Laylee, I went through a range of emotions: wonder, excitement, scepticism, and dread. I was amazed at the amount of people that had such strong feelings of nostalgia for Banjo-Kazooie. I was excited at playing a game that was exactly like Banjo-Kazooie in 2017. Then when I actually thought about it a bit more, I was sceptical about playing a game that was exactly like Banjo-Kazooie in 2017. Then I dreaded playing a game that was exactly like Banjo-Kazooie in 2017.
I didn’t back the Kickstarter, but I did watch quietly as it passed one stretch goal after another. It hit its funding goal and I decided I’d give the game a chance when it came out, but I wouldn’t set my expectations too high.
I set these rules for myself because I have finished Banjo-Kazooie more times than any other game. It’s one of my top five favourite games simply due to how much I loved it as a kid. I play it and its sequel almost once a year and I know that if I hadn’t played those two games as a kid and was coming to Banjo-Kazooie for the first time in 2017, I would probably hate it. I know the focus on collectibles and obtuse puzzle-solving would feel like frustrating busywork to me - but because I played these games so much when I was younger, I know the solutions to every bizarre puzzle and the locations of each hidden collectible.
That’s why I was sceptical of Yooka-Laylee. I worried that Playtonic would be too faithful to the original Banjo-Kazooie formula, reproducing the things that I have no tolerance for nowadays. I’ve put a lot of time into Yooka-Laylee and in some ways I was right – Playtonic were extremely faithful to the BK formula. But I was wrong in thinking that I wouldn’t enjoy this formula in 2017.
Yooka-Laylee looks and feels exactly like what I imagined a reskinned Banjo-Kazooie would look and feel like in 2017. Aesthetically speaking, the developers absolutely nailed the music and visual design: the kooky characters have plenty of personality, the worlds are bright, colourful and varied; and for the most part, the game looks pretty damn nice graphically. The music composed by David Wise and Grant Kirkhope fits the tone of the game perfectly and really captures the essence of classic Banjo tunes whilst also feeling fresh and appropriate for the new levels.
When it comes to the gameplay, Playtonic were also extremely faithful in the recreation of the classic BK style – which is both a positive and a negative. The positive aspect is that the classic gameplay loop of exploring a huge sprawling world, completing challenges and finding hidden collectibles is still a lot of fun. You get a great sense of wonder and curiosity every time you unlock a new world, simply because there is just so much to see and do – whether it be finding new kooky characters or a fun new gameplay mechanic (the Dr. Puz transformations are pretty great, with a few exceptions).
The negative aspect of this accurate reproduction of classic BK gameplay, is the way the game controls in some situations. Running around, butt-stomping, double jumping and gliding all feels nice and responsive. However, any challenge involving flying, rolling, sliding or requiring precise camera control ends up being an extremely frustrating experience. There’s a weird sense of momentum on the rolling and the flying that makes controlling these abilities feel very inaccurate and slippery – but these are minor issues compared to that of the camera control.
The camera behaviour in Yooka-Laylee feels archaic and extremely frustrating. It’s constantly pointing in the wrong direction, it’s constantly getting caught up on geometry, and it’s constantly lagging behind in a way that is really detrimental in a third-person platformer. You can use the right stick of the gamepad to move it around, but it quickly loses its positioning. You can also hold in the right bumper on the gamepad to have the camera snap behind you (as was the case in Banjo-Kazooie with the N64 controller), but due to the characters, quick movement and turning speed, holding this position is uncomfortable and impractical for platforming. Later on in the game you get the ability to fly around freely, but due to the bizarre momentum and the awful camera controls, the most freeing and useful ability in the game feels frustrating and burdensome to use.
These aspects didn’t stop me from enjoying the heck out of Yooka-Laylee though. I liked the characters, I loved exploring the interesting worlds and I had a lot of fun with the standard platforming. However, I can’t recommend this game to everyone – especially at the full $40 price point. I still think the gameplay loop will frustrate many genre newcomers, and the gameplay mechanics will frustrate 3D platformer veterans. There’s plenty of fun to be had here, you just need to be aware of what you’re getting yourself into.