Yooka-Laylee plays like a 3D platformer born in the N64 era

The early hours of Yooka-Laylee are a throwback to a simpler time, and don't do much to push 3D platformers forward.

If you could stick a second joystick onto the Nintendo 64 controller and cram an Nvidia GTX 1060 into that old console, you'd more or less be able to play Yooka-Laylee on it. Playtonic's new 3D platformer is a pretty enough game to live in 2017, with a fun pair of heroes who jump with aplomb and have a lot of goodwill propelling them because, really, they don't make 'em like they used to. But Playtonic wasn't kidding when it pitched a game like Banjo Kazooie, which many of the creative leads worked on at Rare in the early 2000s. The jokes, the talking heads, the minigames, the user interface, the world all feel rooted in that era of gaming. That's as good and bad as it sounds.

Unlike an N64 game, Yooka-Laylee runs at smooth 60 frames per second, and kept up that performance even when I ran video capture on a GTX 980M laptop. Playtonic has found a nice colorful art style: characters look vaguely like plastic toys or claymation figures, and the world feels like what I'd imagine an N64 game would look like a decade and then some later. 

Much like the 3D platformers they used to make, Yooka-Laylee is filled with all types of collectibles. Pagies are googly-eyed scraps of magic books that let you unlock and enter different game worlds. Quills are feathers that are scattered around each world, to the tune of 200 per. There are sometimes scraps of pagies that you have to scavenger hunt for, putting them together to form a full pagie.

Googly eyes are actually an enemy. They possess inanimate objects and bring them to life.

There's a story, but it's so barely-there there's no reason to pay attention to it. Characters make constant grunts and warbles as their dialogue s l o w l y rolls across the screen, and it's so annoying that I soon wanted to mash my way through dialogue as quickly as possible. This is the real story: you control a chameleon, and a bat, and you're going to collect a bunch of shit.

While you're collecting things, little monsters charge at you with toothy grins. They're cute but not interesting to fight, and easily ignored. Combat is as simple as pressing a button to do a Mario-style spin attack into enemies. One bit I love, though: after you've killed a few, the survivors will sometimes throw their hands in the air and run away.

I definitely haven't seen this many puns or googly eyes in a game since Banjo Kazooie, and they're very nice and very silly but never quite have the freshness to be genuinely funny. Trowzer is a snake who sells you new skills. Trouser snake, get it? Ha!

Great character design in service of a silly pun. Classic.

Yooka-Laylee settles into this playful silliness, never really making me laugh, but at least making me grin a little bit as I run into new characters, like Sir Scofffsalot and the Knights of Hamalot. "I bet you have a weight-related name," jokes Laylee. Does admitting you're about to tell an obvious joke make it funnier? Rare's trademark meta jokes are still here, too, with one early line about how they blew the Kickstarter money on boss fights. 

The more nostalgic you are for old Rare games, the more you'll enjoy these jokes and the general atmosphere of Yooka-Laylee. I'm happier about the big picture than the specifics: Mascot platformers are good for the heart, and Yooka-Laylee does well with its fundamentals. Jumping and moving feel good off the bat, and you're quickly given the ability to smack enemies with a Mario-style spin attack and to curl into a ball for a high-speed roll that can get you up hills.

Navigating the world feels nice enough because the basic character movement is responsive and expressively animated and the camera (controlled with the right stick on a gamepad) stays out of your way. 

But the world also feels a bit, well, basic, at least in the first two worlds I dipped into. There are fun characters to run into (there's a race-an-NPC minigame, Rare fans will be happy to know), a few scatterings of basic enemies. Light platforming challenges dotted around the world. Simple puzzles. But when I think back to playing Mario Galaxy, I remember a sublime joy in getting from one place to another with Mario's acrobatic moveset. Long jumping across dangerous gaps. Triple jumping just to feel the satisfaction of that press-press-press button rhythm. Wall jumping instead of riding an easier platform. I miss that stuff here.

Mario's moves gave emptier spaces reason to exist, because I could make my own fun in them. Without that acrobatic moveset—at least at the start—bouncing around in Yooka-Laylee is a milder pleasure. It doesn't excel.

They see me rollin'.

After buying a few abilities from Trowzer, I started to get a taste for how a more complex moveset could make Yooka-Laylee's environments more interesting. I picked up an ability that let Laylee emit a sonic screech, which reveals some invisible platforms and momentarily stuns enemies. In the second world, Glitterglaze Glacier, I grabbed a skill that let Yooka absorb the properties of certain objects in the environment, which changes her body. Honey makes you sticky and able to climb slippery slopes. Bowling balls make you heavy and let you barrel through enemies while rolling along. 

I hope later worlds throw more platforming challenges at you that require a combination of these skills, along with jumping and rolling, to get from place to place. In Glitterglaze Glacier and Tribalstack Tropics, I only used them in brief bursts to grab Pagies. Hopefully later worlds also diverge from the basic jungle/ice/lava template we've seen in so many platformers. And maybe Yooka's full arsenal of chameleon powers and abilities purchased from Trowzer make for a huge, exciting moveset that need to be combined in interesting ways. It's certainly a possibility—in addition to unlocking new worlds, pagies also expand worlds, adding new areas and things to find within them. That could make all the difference.

I hope all that's the case, because Yooka-Laylee's first two hours are just a bit too familiar: mildly fun, like visiting your old stomping ground, and the new decor is a nice touch. You'll have a fine time, but you'll mostly spend that time reminiscing about all those past visits. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

As hardware editor, Wes spends slightly more time building computers than he does breaking them. Deep in his heart he believes he loves Star Wars even more than Samuel Roberts and Chris Thursten, but is too scared to tell them.
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