First off, I need to apologize. This review is late and it's my fault. Well not completely. A lot of blame goes to her.
She joined our family about the same time this review was getting started and the review completely stopped while we kept her from chewing, eating, and peeing on everything in sight. Having a new puppy is a lot like having kids except that the dog has better health insurance and come to think of it, better chances of going to Harvard too. So I've spent a fair amount of the last month not reviewing this game and missing out on all that Destiny loot that will soon be completely irrelevant. Oh, and I got food poisoning too, but luckily no one took pictures.
For me, it's been a long time since I've played a really good platform game. The last two that stand out were Super Mario Galaxy and Little Big Planet 1 and 2, although the Ratchet & Clank series is sort of platformer-like. When these games were new, the gameplay, level design and story progression put a huge smile on my face. Super Mario Galaxy so enjoyable for me that I earned all 121 stars twice. Once as Mario and again as Luigi. Fast forward years later and my son is struggling on one of the purple coin comet levels and he asks “Dad, did you do this level?” I smugly said “I've done everything in this game”. He then followed up with “like die a lot?”. It was a tender bonding moment that brought a father and son closer together, after the beatings*. With that in mind, will Yooka Laylee fill that platformer void until Super Mario Hats opens on Broadway later this year?
Short answer: no.
The longer answer is still no because of controls, camera, and a lackluster story. But let's start with the good stuff first.
Lots to Like
Yooka-Laylee is graphically vibrant. Everything is rendered crisply and I didn't notice any artifacts or graphical degradation or framerate drops. Actually, there was one place I noticed a drop and ironically it's on the level loading screen. Often times the backround animation freezes when loading new levels. When I first saw the loading page struggling, I was very worried what the rest of the game would be like. But it's fine. If you're going to drop frames, the loading page is the best place to do it.
The dialogue contains copious amounts of British humor, which I absolutely love. There's something about humor that requires just a little thought to get to the punchline that appeals to me so much more than the typical American toilet humor. If there happens to be American toilet humor in the game, I didn't find any during my gameplay. The dialogue has plenty of 4th wall breaking as well as a tremendous amount of throw backs to that earlier time when game consoles had numbers that were powers of 2. Trust me, the number 64 shows up plenty of times during gameplay. Banjo-Kazooie fans will be the only ones who will be able to fully appreciate some of the subtle and not so subtle hints and call backs to the original game and the N64 console.
Minor spoiler, there's one section where in order to progress you have to beat one of the bosses at a quiz show about the game. Yep, you read that right. You have to answer questions about levels in the game given to you by a duck submerged in some sort of liquid contained a gumball machine. This was a level of creativity I've never experienced before in a game, or at least a platform game. If you thought you could just breeze through the levels without paying attention, this level will stop you in your tracks.
What's not to Like
While the game's humor and story is infused with British humor, it's delivery method and plot leave a lot to be desired. Because this game is a spiritual successor, it appears there hasn't been any effort to modernize the way the story is unfolded to the user. Each of the bits of story is delivered in small chunks in very large text accompanied by gutteral grunts and other noises that kinda-sorta resemble vocal tones. This was normal for video games twenty years ago. But today it not only feels dated, it gets old and annoying real quick. Story by text message is no longer a viable story delivery method and I feel that it just drags the game down as a whole each time you have to talk to an NPC.
The plot is pretty thin. In fact, the whole plot is unveiled in the opening cut-scene of which I've saved for your viewing pleasure. It's about four minutes long, but it also highlights the older story delivery I just mentioned.
If you made it all the way through, I commend you. If not, I don't blame you. To summarize for the impatient. Yooka and Laylee have to recover a book that they were using for a drink coaster. All the books in the world are being stolen by the bad guys and this book looked valuable to Laylee because it's pages were golden. The pages escape from the book and it's up to you to recover them. As much fun as it sounds to be looking for a gold book, culturally speaking, this is all the plot there is and it feels too weak to be the motivating driver of the game. Contrast this with say the Uncharted series, and you have a story that unfolds as you progress throughout the game with the story taking twists and turns. You, the player are rewarded for playing. As you progress through Yooka-Laylee and recover "Pagies" as they're called, you earn the right to extend the existing levels and return. That might sound like a good thing, but it actually feels more like a chore than a reward.
The other progression aspect of Yooka-Laylee is you have to purchase new moves, with in-game currency. Trowzer, the games most sleazy NPC will sell you his collections of moves, for a price. That price is paid in quills, an in-game currency you collect in the levels. They're essentially like coins in any Mario game, just more feathery. Again, I felt that this was a needless grind to force you to get acquainted with the level before you can really do anything useful to find more pages. It just doesn't have the same emotional payoff as Metroid or its many clones where you earn your upgrades. However, I do have to compliment the makers. They did manage to make Trowzers' vocals tones sound Australian-like even without saying an actual word. I'm still amazed at that accomplishment.
If the plot and delivery method were the only things not to like, then this would actually be a pretty good game. The things that really bring it down in my book are the controls and camera. They don't work together and sometimes that seem to work opposite each other. First off. Yooka moves very fast, like Spelunky fast and it takes a little bit of time to get used to that. But the controls are no where near as crisp or tight as most 3D platform games. I believe this was intentional to increase the difficulty of the game. So instead of the crips controls of Super Mario Galaxy, you get the opportunity to drive a Ferrari that's been hooked up to the controls of 1978 city bus.
Again, that's not terrible, but the camera has trouble keeping up with the chameleon that acts likes its late to his Geico commercial audition. It wobbles. As you move through a level the camera will pan from side to side on its own. Not only that, it pans up and down whenever it feels like and zooms in and out as you stop and go. Just going in a straight line becomes more difficult because of the camera's inexplicable panning that changes the relationship of the stick controls relative to your viewpoint. The change in viewpoint causes your character to drift in the opposite direction of the camera drift. You can see the issue in the video below. I'm pushing up on the stick. While doing that, the camera drifts left and causes Yooka to drift to the right.
What ends up happening is you fight the camera as you move. This to me is the dealbreaker. After about a hour of straight gameplay, the combination of camera wonkiness and mushy controls produced something I've never ever experienced in a video game before, motion sickness. I've written a few thousand lines of code while driving on a state highway in rural Arizona and didn't get motion sickness. But this game consistently made me feel like I was going to throw up after playing for an hour or so. Considering I put in about 10 hours of game time reviewing this game, that's a lot of barf-bags. When you combine the motion sickness with a grindy level design and a weak plot, then trying to progress to the next world let alone finish the game becomes tortuous drudgery. I didn't care about the book, or the pagies, or any of the SMS sized dialogue bits while I felt like hurling. Yooka-Laylee might not do that to you and I certainly hope it wouldn't, but it could and it's the number one reason I can't recommend it.
Spiritual successors are hit and miss. The problem that they face is that the tend to highlight the limitations of their underlying game engine rather than pushing the boundaries of what's possible. Nintendo has done this with every new console with Mario and Zelda with great success. Yooka-Laylee does harken back to an earlier period of video game creation. But you have to ask yourself if you really want to go back to that time. It's a bumpy ride and there's no barf bags in the seat compartment.
* The beatings referred to were purely virtual in nature. The beatings spanned a range of games including, but not limited to, Smash Brothers Wii U, Rocket League, Super Mario Kart 8, Pro Evolution Soccer, and more Rocket League. Egos may have been bruised. Humble pie was eaten afterwards.
- Graphics are vibrant and beautiful
- Oi! British humor
- A quiz show!
- Retro mini games
- Very challenging levels and sub challenges
- Motion sickness inducing camera
- Mushy controls
- Wafer thin plot
- Lackluster rewards for progression
- Gratuitous overuse of slide whistles