Yooka-Laylee Review: Too Stuck In The Past

The cast of Yooka-Laylee

Playtonic's Yooka-Laylee is finally here, proving to be a pretty solid love letter to platforming adventures of yesteryear. But while the team has successfully stuffed the game with old-school delights, it turns out that there is some truth to the adage, "you can never go home again."

Believe it or not, Yooka-Laylee proved to be a tricky game to review. From its inception, the team at Playtonic has touted the game as a classic-style platformer, reminiscent of games like Banjo-Kazooie; which several members of the project's team also worked on. However, they made it clear from the start that they weren't out to make an homage to those types of mascot-driven adventures so much as a genuine entry in the genre that would have felt perfectly at home on the Nintendo 64.

And that's exactly what they've delivered with Yooka-Laylee, a game that sometimes soars just as high as the greatest titles the mid-90's had to offer, but also falls victim to many of the era's biggest pitfalls.

So what's so tricky about coming up with a final assessment of the game? Well, as much as Yooka-Laylee frustrated me from time to time, it's hard to argue with the fact that it's also basically pitch-perfect in regards to what Playtonic set out to create. But no matter how much I loved these types of games back in the day, gaming, in general, has come a long way in the past 20 years. As such, I can't exactly overlook Yooka-Laylee's faults.

So I'm saying this to save you some time: If you genuinely want a game that harkens back to titles like Super Mario 64, Crash Bandicoot and Donkey Kong Country, warts and all, then you are going to be very pleased with what Yooka-Laylee has to offer. If you've perhaps grown used to modern gaming niceties, though, you might want to proceed with caution.

In the game, you take on the role of titular heroes Yooka and Laylee; a heroic lizard and sarcastic bat, respectively. The duo have settled down in a wrecked pirate ship when, one day, they discover a valuable (and talking) book whose pages have been scattered across the lands. An evil corporation has been stealing all of the world's literature and...You know what? There's no point in going over the narrative here, because I'm going to sound like a lunatic every step of the way. Plus, it's all basically there just to give you a reason to visit the game's five main worlds while accepting various side-missions, minigames and fetch quests as you run, jump and fly around.

Little here makes sense and, while that's perfectly fine by 90's standards, I wouldn't have minded a bit more cohesion. You'll race against a depressed cloud, search for Pig Knights near an Aztec temple, unlock retro-themed arcade games from a pixelated tyrannosaurus rex and buy new abilities from a literal trouser snake. No, seriously, he's a snake named Trowzer. There are dozens of other characters and occurrences that are just as bizarre, populating worlds where none of it really feels like there's a system of rhyme or reason.

But at least those worlds are easily the game's biggest strong suit. There are five main worlds to explore, and most of them are massive landscapes filled with enemies to pummel, little activities to take part in and secrets aplenty to uncover. Each world has half a dozen types of items you're supposed to collect because, well, that's what you do in these types of games.

However, true to its inspirations, that means you're going to have to do a heck of a lot of backtracking if you want to get the full picture. As you collect pages, you'll be able to spend them on either opening an entirely new map or expanding one that you've already visited. The game is actually rather large in terms of exploration and, for the most part, it's clear that a lot of time and attention went into crafting the main maps.

But then we get to one of those aspects of Yooka-Laylee that proves nostalgia isn't all it's cracked up to be. All of this world unlocking means you're going to be bouncing back and forth, in and out of the worlds. Also, since you'll be unlocking new abilities as you go, that means you'll need to return to each area again and again in order to access places you couldn't reach before. A classic genre trope, but it turns out to be an unwelcome one now that I've got far less patience to keep retreading familiar ground.

Thankfully, the abilities you'll unlock along the way are both numerous and varied, so the simple act of just playing the game is (usually) fun. You'll earn staples like the double jump and the ground pound, as well as nifty tricks like the ability to eat berries and earn different projectiles. Eat a frozen berry, for instance, and you can shoot balls of ice in front of you. Eat a flaming berry, though, and you'll get access to a wide, short arc of fire.

Unfortunately, that all gets marred by a couple of issues that I really wish would have been left in the past. For starters, Yooka-Laylee frequently has an issue where the camera does not want to be your friend. Whether it's giving you a bad angle, refusing to aim where you want it or getting stuck on some geometry, it can be frustrating to fight the camera when you're also supposed to be orchestrating some pretty tricky platforming. The trouble is double, then, when some of that platforming isn't as smooth as I would like. Angles and distances for jumps were especially hard to judge at times and, in a game all about precision, that can be super frustrating.

Thankfully, those frustrations weren't frequent enough to make me bounce off the game entirely, especially since I was just as regularly introduced to sections of gameplay that reminded me why I love this genre so much in the first place. Combine that with some lovely, colorful graphics and a truly great soundtrack and you've got yourself a decent platforming romp.

I can't help but wonder what would have happened if Yooka-Laylee spent a bit more time receiving an extra coat of polish but, as it stands, it's a good first effort from Playtonic. While I would have adored this game "back in the day," I currently reside in "the present." As such, I kind of wish Yooka-Laylee had worried a little bit less about staying true to its roots and more about helping the genre branch off in a new, slightly more modern direction.

This review based on a PlayStation 4 download copy of the game provided by the publisher.

Ryan Winslett

Staff Writer for CinemaBlend.