Yooka-Laylee, while still a new intellectual property, suffered an initial rough break. It was billed as a retro revival designed to tap into the nostalgic love of 1990’s collectathon 3D platform games in vein of Banjo Kazooie. However, their first game had a lukewarm reception and for a while it appeared that the duo was on the rocks. Personally, I genuinely enjoyed 2017’s Yooka Laylee and felt the game delivered everything it set out to do. Regardless, Yooka and Laylee are back for round two in Yooka Laylee and the Impossible Lair, this time as a 2D platformer specifically designed in the style of the Donkey Kong County series.
Let me get this out of the way up front. This game is excellent and I had an immense amount of fun with it. The levels are beautiful, tightly designed, and the game offers some really neat concepts ranging from deep jungles to the much dreaded water levels (but they are actually pretty good here), and from construction sites to factories, as well as high wires and vines. Each level has five hidden T.W.I.T. Coins that serve as collectibles and are often devilishly hidden or require incredible mastery of the move set in order to reach them. You only need to collect about a third of them to beat the game, and I never found myself having to grind for them, but they are certainly a challenge for those who want to complete each level.
Laylee serves as an extra hit point for the player. Once Yooka takes damage, Laylee flies around in crazy patterns much like baby Mario from Yoshi’s Island, but in far more erratic and difficult patterns. If you manage to catch her in time she will come back. If not, Yooka will be on his own until he can find a Laylee Bell to summon her back. When Yooka is on his own, he cannot double jump or perform a ground pound, making many secrets impossible to find and the game much harder in general. But all levels can be completed without Laylee if you’re skilled enough.
Quills are used to unlock paths and progression obstacles in the overworld, which is a really nice touch, as well as tonics.. Between each level you move around from a quasi 3D isometric view. The overworld is packed with secrets, puzzles, and a surprising amount of platforming challenges as well. There are numerous NPCs to interact with, plenty of hidden caves and secrets to explore, and so much to do. While some players may dislike having to navigate a somewhat large and labyrinthine overworld to get to the next level, I greatly enjoyed it. The good news is for those who don’t like the overworld aspect, once a stage is unlocked, you can immediately warp to it.
There are no lives, just checkpoints and the ability to try again as many times as you need. The punishment for death is losing quill and if you die over and over, the game gives you the option to skip ahead to the next checkpoint and bypass that part of the level entirely. While I never used the feature myself (except once to test it out for the review), I am glad it is there for less skilled or younger players who want to keep going but simply can’t make that one tight jump. More optional accessibility is always a good thing in my book.
While in the overworld you can spend your quills to either unlock obstacles (such as doors and chests that might contain things like keys or specific items an NPC might require) or unlock tonics. Tonics are hidden all over the overworld and they are numerous. Once found though, you must spend your quills to actually unlock and use them. Tonics range in function from silly things like giving Yooka a comically large head or changing the color palette to resemble an original Game Boy screen. Most of these cosmetic changes are fun and harmless. But tonics can also be used to adjust the difficulty of the game. One might reverse your controls or take away your ability to attack while others might give you more hit points or make Laylee easier to re-collect. Tonics that make the game easier apply a negative multiplier at the end of levels to your quill count, so the easier you make the game for yourself, the less you will be rewarded. Conversely, the harder you make the game for yourself the more you will be rewarded in quills through positive multipliers. This is a great and unique risk/reward system and I had a lot of fun with it. Tonics that apply cosmetic changes like CRT filters or making Yooka and Laylee look like Saturday morning cartoons are just for fun and don’t apply any multipliers.
Another cool feature is that each level can be modified through the overworld. These modifications are almost always so severe that they are essentially entirely new levels. For example, one of the earlier levels has many fountains of water that can be used like mobile platforms. However, in the overworld you can take a frost berry and freeze the level. Now if you go back in the level the entire thing is frozen. The water streams are solid resulting in new paths and entirely new areas to see and explore.
Every level in the game can be modified like this, often with great creativity. Other examples include a saw mill which is then modified by covering it in sticky honey, preventing the saws from being able to move and allowing for some neat wall climbing. Probably my favorite example is a level that is flipped entirely upside down. If you’re worried that these modifications are slight and cheap, don’t be. In almost all instances they result in drastically different levels that are modified so heavily that only the general themes of the levels remain.
Being able to actually modify these levels though takes some overworld exploration. Some times the key to changing them will be right next to the level and other times you will have to explore vast stretches of the world in order to find the object that can change the level. Fortunately, once you do you can very easily change each level between both states without having to do it all over again. The key to switching the level back and forth is always located just a few feet away (often in creative ways), and that is much appreciated.
The musical score is also quite good. The tracks mostly fit the levels very well and are nice to listen to. However, none really stood out or stayed with me after I put down the game. The music is good, but ultimately isn’t very memorable, which is a bit of a shame considering the soundtrack was composed by two legends in the business, Grant Kirkhope and David Wise. The good news is when you are listening to them they are pleasant and do not overstay their welcome.
Finally, there is the Impossible Lair itself. The final challenge stares you right in the face right from the very beginning. Yooka Laylee and the Impossible Lair takes A Breath of the Wild approach to the final boss. You can go there any time you like, even right at the start. Good luck though, as you are going to get stomped. While it’s called the Impossible Lair, it isn’t technically impossible but in practical terms? Your skills would have to be legendary to actually beat it. I genuinely look forward to the speed run community that is surely going to form around the game.
So, if it’s so impossible how can you win? Well, at the end of each regular level you will free a member of the Beetallion. Once freed, these bee soldiers will hang out in the barracks right outside the Impossible Lair and form a cloud of bees around you, essentially giving you additional hit points. Each time you take damage, a member of the Beetallion will take the hit for you and your HP level will go down by one. Each time you fall in a pit, the soldier will carry you back up, but die anyway due to exhaustion. In this way, the Impossible Lair grows a little less impossible each time you beat a level. And let me tell you, you are most definitely going to need these bees.
The fun thing is, you can try to take on the Impossible Lair as many times as you like and each time you die, the game leaves a little marker indicating how far you got. My skills were most definitely not up to the challenge of beating the Impossible Lair without the Beetallion, but I sure had fun trying. I genuinely had a blast with Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair and you will too if you have any love for the genre at all. The game was pure fun.