Platforms: PS4 (tested), Xbox One, PC, Switch
Developer: Playtonic Games
Release Date: 11 April (Switch TBA)
Nostalgia is a tricky beast to tame. Divert too freely from the original formula and fans won't be happy, but re-purposing archaic concepts in the name of familiarity is also a surefire way to remind players how and why video games have since evolved.
The first two open, platforming worlds in Yooka-Laylee pull on every nostalgic string available. The sheening greens of Tribalstack Tropics stun as you roam the luscious landscape in search of collectables to advance the plot.
Quills are used to unlock new moves for Yooka or Laylee (the game's chameleon and bat protagonists) which can then be used to access places previously unreachable. Then there are Pagies – which are central to the game and used to unlock new levels entirely or expand existing ones. Pagies can be found dotted around levels but most require completion of a puzzle to unlock them.
There's a sense of wonder in the opening hours as you explore, jumping and rolling around the first expansive locale. Where's the next Pagie? I wonder how I get up there? What's around this corner? How do I pass that bit with a security camera without being seen? You'll regularly be questioning your surroundings and making mental notes of where you can't yet access, with the intention of heading back later when equipped with the right moves.
World 2, Glitterglaze Glacier, is almost as enjoyable as the first, but it's here that I began to notice how many faults I'd encountered but overlooked in those first few hours .
Yooka and Laylee suffer fall damage, a strange decision for a platformer targeting a young audience in 2017. An unlockable tonic offsets this bizarre design choice, but with other tonics upping damage potential or extending the life of your roll, there are few reasons to select it over others. You may be thinking: 'Well, just don't fall off things,' and normally you'd be right, but then there's Yooka-Laylee's biggest fault... a homicidal camera.
Exhibit A: The image below. In this puzzle, I needed to stand on the right side of a cylindrical pipe to make it roll Eastwards. A solid puzzle, but the camera jerks upwards, giving you a great view of Yooka and Laylee's dumb faces as you struggle through a puzzle that's more difficult than it needs to be. Need to take a tight corner? If there's any landscape or objects in the way the camera will jolt around the screen, causing you to move in the wrong direction and often fall off. When the game punishes players for its own mistakes, it's not a good look.
Then there are the bosses. Do you remember when you were 13 or 14 and there was that one game that made you want to bounce the controller off the wall? The first world's boss, The Great Rampo, sees the player roll up a steep ramp to tail-whip its teeth out. There are logs rolling down the ramp, and hitting one will send you right back down to the bottom. Dying restarts the encounter, and if you come out of your roll even briefly, you'll slide back down to the bottom. Defeating this boss unlocks a whopping one whole Pagie. The challenge wasn't the task at hand but how it was implemented, and it was far from fun.
Playtonic's debut title also suffers from a lack of any meaningful direction that really hinders what enjoyment there is to be had. At first the freedom of being sent into a world in search of Quills and Pagies is liberating in a nostalgic way – It's how games were when I was a kid! – but by the third world, when you have no idea where you should be going, how certain mechanics work and what it is you're supposed to be doing, the game becomes a chore. You'll spend hours just walking; walking aimlessly hoping something of interest sticks out. Something. Anything. But probably not what you end up finding.
Between select areas players are challenged to Dr Quack's quiz shows. Get the questions right and players can move across a bridge to the next area. Get three wrong, and you start again. All the questions are about the game... and includes references to characters you haven't even met yet, questions about how long you've been playing the game, how many Quills you have, and other aspects you aren't likely to remember off the top of your head. To quote Laylee "Oh no. Not this again. I haven't been paying attention to anything." How many useless snowmen are there the in world 2? Nobody knows that.
Around the 10 hour mark, players will have unlocked all the worlds, upgraded them and purchased every available move. It's then that when the idea of collecting another Pagie fills you with dread. When all that's left is a showdown with the villain Capital B, the game demands you hold off and go back to previous worlds to collect – wait for it – one hundred Pagies. Why? Because someone decided Yooka-Laylee needed to be 20 hours long, not 10.
There is one saving grace, however. The writing is BAFTA-worthy. It's witty, and full of in-jokes. Whether its Laylee making a joke about the game's quality assurance (QA) to which a character responds with "Of co%3urse not!", jokes about microtransactions, or the moment when a Pagie exits its cage by simply moving slightly to the left, it'll have you genuinely laughing out loud. With the exception of an out of place Stockholm Syndrome joke, Yooka-Layee is exceptionally funny in an industry full of seriousness.
It's clear Yooka-Layee has been created with a lot of love. Graphically it delights, musically it enchants, but for every instance of praise comes criticism. The basic controls are precise, but as you unlock new abilities, the game struggles. Using Laylee to fly is nightmarishly difficult for example. It tries to create the sensation that Yooka is being pulled through the air by something much smaller, but it's too obtuse to be an enjoyable mechanic.
It's difficult to recommend Yooka-Layee to adults let alone the children this game is aimed at. The unbalanced challenge it presents and the lack of in-game direction is sure to infuriate. You could argue kids of this generation could play the game alongside a YouTube video for help, but why should any game need to be played alongside a video guide? The first three-hours of Yooka-Layee are delightful, but after that the experience quickly sours. Playtonic's ode to platformers past should have been something special, but instead it's a reminder why video games have evolved, and why quality over quantity should be the first decree in every developer's rulebook.