When Playtonic Games, a group of ex-Rare developers, announced their intentions to make a spiritual successor to the Banjo-Kazooie games, the internet lost its collective mind. The game in question, Yooka-Laylee, was crowdfunded into existence at a record pace, peddling promises to deliver a collect-a-thon platformer with exciting new gameplay elements. Now the game is on store shelves, indeed packed with new elements, some of which are great, and others... not so great.
The plot here is simple. Yooka and Laylee are relaxing in the sun when their magical book releases its "pagies" in an attempt to escape the clutches of corporate screwball Capital B. Like thousands of other books, Capital B plans to distill it in his factory and rewrite it to serve his agenda. Now it's up to the titular duo to find those pagies on a quest through vast worlds, not just to rebuild the book, but to save history itself. It's an amusing setup, even if the villain's goals are murky and the stakes never feel dramatic. Everyone, characters included, knows what we're really here for, and while obstructions certainly pop up, the plot isn't one of them.
I've already said this, but Yooka-Laylee is a collect-a-thon platformer. That means you'll be running and leaping through giant, colorful areas and picking up trinkets to make progress. Expect to meet a plethora of visually memorable characters, gain new abilities at a steady pace, and engage in clever boss fights. All of this would've been enough, but then there's a hearty heap of new elements. Some of these, such as the ability to expand the worlds, are excellent additions to the genre. Others, like the series of agonizing quizzes, aren't so great. That all sounds like a lot to digest, but thankfully it's not dropped on you all at once.
And that means you'll have ample time to take in the sights and sounds. Here, Yooka-Laylee is a bit of a mixed bag. Its first world is especially prone to visual details - things like shadows and even object geometry - materializing only when you get close, and the engine has a an unpleasant, jittery way of handling your duo when they collide with complex rocks or corners. But then there's the art style, which uses fat, bold shapes and energetic colors to make the experience a beautiful one nonetheless. The game's music is not as catchy as that of its forebears, but it carries a sense of fun and atmosphere that suits your adventure nicely. The sounds you'll hear when playing are memorable and rarely abrasive, but the same can't be said about the gobbledygook used during dialogue segments. What was soft and understated in the Banjo games is now overly loud and percussive, and I always found myself mashing that X button to cut it off.
Even if you've played a collect-a-thon before, it's probably been a while since then. With this in mind, it's astonishing how comfortable it is to explore the massive, collectible-riddled locales of Yooka-Laylee. In today's ocean of open worlds brimming with superfluous things to pick up, what might have felt archaic last generation now comes off as a breath of fresh air. And that's largely because of this game's wise decision to limit its nicknacks to things that yield genuine rewards. New moves, weird transformations, and better health are just a few of these, all of which will aid you on your pagie hunt. In nearly 30 hours, I never felt like my reward for collecting things was just more of them to collect, and that's a testament to smart design.
As well-crafted as the collectible economy is, I was unpleasantly surprised by other elements that really hurt the pace. Beautiful as they are, each level houses its share of challenges that just aren't worth the tedium. The worst of these pop up in Capital Cashino, where you'll have to contend with at least one of the several slot machines using your sluggish ground bash maneuver. And the Dr. Quack quizzes I mentioned earlier - those are mandatory. Unlike those ghastly slot machines, it's not so much the challenge that offends as it is the way it's delivered. The corporate duck honks unskippable inanities at you in stilted intervals between every question, quickly eliciting many a cry of "get on with it!" And then you have the arcade games. Decent at best and irritating at worst, they tragically yield too many pagies to be ignored. The game as a whole just carries a lot of extra fat that could've - no, should've - been trimmed for a more streamlined experience.
That's not to say Yooka-Laylee doesn't introduce anything good. Tedious as some of the new elements may be, the absence of lives and the generous auto-save system are two ways that Playtonic's flagship title improves upon the past. Death is less punishing than it used to be in the genre, especially now that you tend to revive close by. You're a bit more likely to take damage, but this is offset by an abundance of health pickups. And the ability to spend your pagies in order to expand the worlds means that you're encouraged to hop between them, thus strengthening variety. It just feels great to expand Tribalstack Tropics using pagies you found in Glitterglaze Glacier.
When areas are expanded, they typically introduce more vertical level design. Unfortunately, this is where you'll be fighting the most persistent villain in the game: the camera. Unlike the quick, no-questions-asked angles that you could snap to in the genre's heyday, Yooka-Laylee's camera swivels unresponsively about. Adding to this is the lack of location-specific angle changes. Some of the more intense platforming sections compound their own difficulty with a system determined to put the viewpoint close to the duo, even when it's the worst possible angle for the situation. It won't often get you outright killed, but fighting the camera doesn't get any less annoying. Of all the problems I mentioned, this is the most glaring, and the first that should be fixed if a sequel is in order.
Yooka-Laylee excels at giving you abilities that are fun and intuitive to use. When Yooka first licks a beehive in order to stick to slippery surfaces, you can't help but smile. Likewise for when Laylee learns how to make the two invincible with a sonar shield. Such abilities make for great revelatory moments when you come back to old challenges that require them. And then there are the little additions that allow you to get things without those abilities. A stealthily placed rock might jut out next to something that at first seems to require the high jump. A hidden platform might wait next to a pagie that seems a mile away. Moments like these exude a tremendous sense of discovery and satisfaction. When you defeat the boss battle of each world, you'll get a nice feeling of accomplishment to complement the intrepid attitude. This is Yooka-Laylee at its adventurous best; when it comes together as a genuine, cohesive journey.
As a whole, Yooka-Laylee is an old-school platformer both marred and bolstered by what it introduces. Tedious distractions abound, but the addition of cute and thought-provoking abilities is impossible not to appreciate. Other tweaks lend a greater sense of adventure than the collect-a-thons of old, but again, there are new problems - like that awful camera - that constantly butt their way in. Ultimately, Yooka-Laylee isn't really a categorical improvement or downgrade from its predecessors in the genre; it's just different. If Playtonic Games can produce a sequel that eliminates the problems and expands upon the strengths, we may yet get a true masterpiece. What we have for now is, at the end of the day, a good game.