By Daniel Lein
I don’t mind bragging about my brother in law. He recently graduated with a game design degree from Full Sail University. I’m sure he’s told me a lot about the lessons he’s learned there, but the one that has stuck with me the most is the reasons for making a game. According to Full Sail University, there are only ever two reasons a video game should be made. The first reason to make a game is if the game you are making has never been made before. The second reason to make a game is if you believe you can make a game like one done in the past, but much improved. By that logic, Yooka-Laylee should never have been made.
I’m not saying Yooka-Laylee is bad mind you, but rather that I’m not sure why it exists. Okay, that’s a lie, I know that it only exists to satiate the need all of us seem to have for mid 90s 3D platformers, Banjo-Kazooie specifically. This won’t come as surprising information to anyone though, partly because it’s made by the people behind Banjo, partly because the game’s ad campaign is all about going back to that retro style, but mostly because the game reminds you about its retro roots every five seconds or so. Take the writing for example, a term I here use loosely. In literally every single conversation there is at least one reference to Yooka-Laylee’s bear and bird predecessor, which loses any ounce of charm it had by the thirty-eighth time. While I’m on the subject of writing, I should also point out that Yooka-Laylee tries so desperately to be funny. Stupid puns, fourth wall breaks, and snide too-cool-for-school insults litter the dialogue boxes like the many pairs of skid-mark-ridden underpants in a teenager’s bedroom. They are unfunny and downright painful. I found myself skipping the dialogue entirely. If, for whatever reason, you can stomach the writing then the surely you won’t survive the story. I know it’s a platformer, and therefor doesn’t require a story of high quallity, but due to the amount of conversations and interactions Yooka and Laylee have, there should at least be some degree of context or plot motivation. What you get instead are flat characters, dull villains, and a plot that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Let me try and break it down as best I can. The bad guys are books salesmen, who are stealing all the books of the world, especially this one very special book with talking pages called pagies. Some of the pagies are captured, and you must free them so that you can spend them to unlock more books to find more pagies. I can’t seem to find the motivation in this plot. At the beginning Laylee makes some dumb greed based comment about wanting the Pagies for herself, but that plotline never resurfaces. In addition to that the pagies never do anything worthy enough of being saved and the villain never does anything nefarious enough to be stopped. By the three-hour mark I realized I was mindlessly ambling from world to world, without any sort of purpose or goal, which would have been fine, if the gameplay was any kind of interesting.
Sometimes, the gameplay is fun. Sometimes you engage in some big involved platforming challenge, solve an environmental puzzle, or defeat a boss. When you complete these challenges you feel accomplished and are justly rewarded with a pagie. However, those enjoyable moments are few and far between, surrounded by super short quests or challenges that can be completed in thirty seconds. Challenges like romp-stomping on five igloos, or “fighting” ten bad guys. These would be fine if they were in the tutorial, but they and other similar challenges regularly show up in the second world. What really sucks though, is that the reward for these challenges is also a pagie, which diminishes the value of the pagies. “If I can get a pagie in this thirty second trial, why would I waste my time on something more challenging?” was another question I found myself asking. This undermining of worth made the game feel hollow, tainting every section with a shade of “un-fun”. No game should ever make a player feel like they are wasting their time.
It isn’t all bad though. The gecko and bat duo control well; they’ve got a good weight to them, and the double and triple jumps feel satisfying to execute. The game also looks pretty, though not unique. It has an indistinct quality about it, a sort of non-identity that is reinforced by the endless references it makes. It’s hard to explain, but nonetheless gives the game a strange feeling that I could never shake. The worlds are also put together strangely. I often got lost in them, which is another no-no in any 3D platforming, but especially a collect-athon.
At its best, Yooka-Laylee is an almost fun stagger down memory lane. At its worst, it’s a boring stranger who won’t quit droning on and on about its favorite game from the 90s. The stranger keeps saying things like, “remember this?” and “wasn’t that radical?”, but I just kept nodding my head, hoping he would go away.
Yooka-Laylee earns a 4.5/10