Friday, 7 July 2017

Yooka-Laylee - Review

Developer: Playtonic Games
Publisher: Team17
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One (version played)

Yooka-Laylee perhaps isn’t as interesting for what it is, there are, after all, plenty of character platformers out there. Rather, it’s interesting for being a character platformer in 2017.

Yooka-Laylee breaks the rules. It avoids the trend of moving towards more scripted, event driven isolated levels of more recent Mario titles, and the wonderful Rayman Legends, in favour of revitalizing mechanics last seen in the PS2-era. This should come as no surprise, considering the developer. Developers Playtonic Games are made up primarily of staff who previously worked at Rare.

There’s a sense of freedom when you first pick up and play Yooka-Laylee. You get the impression that it’s a game that’s made precisely because the developers wanted to make it, and are finally free to do so. The crisp, simple joy of platforming is at the heart of Yooka-Laylee and it smartly avoids bogging down its mechanics for the sake of it.

Its world design and level structure, likewise, will be familiar for anyone who played games in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. With a basic hub world of Hivory Tower, players are left to warp to five different worlds over the course of the game, all with the aim of scrabbling up new collectibles.

The game is charming largely because it’s so simple. Yooka and Laylee have the most basic of actions to begin with. A humble double jump and glide, along with a run-of-the-mill spin attack, are all that they initially come equipped with.

And they’re all you’ll need because, at least to begin with, your challenges are...basic. Clambering up a tower full of wonky platforms, racing a sentient cloud around a race course, its activities are as simple as the moveset that underpins them. Yooka-Laylee’s structure is that of a playground, dumping players into a game space and then having them work out what they want to do in it.

Naturally, there is some semblance of structure to the game. The primary focus of all this running around is in the collection of pagies and quills; the game’s primary collectibles with which it charts your progress. Pagies are needed to progress further through the hub world of Hivory Tower, whilst quills are used to purchase new moves.

This allows Playtonic to thread another layer of non-linear free-form exploration into Yooka-Laylee’s structure. Each of the game’s five worlds, each with satisfying alliterative names like Tribalstack Tropics and Moodymarsh Maze, can essentially be completed in any order, provided you’ve scrounged up enough pagies in order to unlock the next one.

Likewise, each world will undoubtedly have a few challenges that will require you to return once you’ve upgraded Yooka and Laylee’s move set. The final power-up even has you remove gravity from the equation, at least temporarily, with the ability to fly, making repeat trips to previous zones interesting in light of your new powers.

It all makes for a game that’s grounded in its level design. Each game space is fun simply to run around and play in, and you’re rewarded for becoming familiar with that game space. The game even quizzes you on these moments during trips back to Hivory Towers with Dr Quack’s quiz.  Like I said earlier, there’s a fascinating layer of charming simplicity to what makes Yooka-Laylee fun to play.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always help shake the fact that so much of it feels overwhelmingly dated. Levels are built around basic objectives, such as climbing a bunch of floating platforms, smashing a bunch of igloos and what not. However, that’s all there really is to Yooka-Laylee and it doesn’t necessarily do this better than games that came out more than fifteen years ago.

Likewise, whilst the worlds themselves are wide, open and ripe for exploring, they also suffer from a vague sense of blandness. It doesn’t help that each zone can be summed up as “swamp world” or “ice level”. Yes, Yooka-Laylee is deliberately harkening back to older games but simply taking the lowest hanging fruit and building a game doesn’t always yield the brightest ideas. Generic, cookie-cutter levels were a problem for platformers years ago, and Yooka-Laylee often does little to rectify this despite having the chance to do so.

This hollowness to many of its levels, despite the abundance of things to do, is compounded with the enemies. Combat is never the primary concern in a platformer, but it is something that needs to be done right, and Yooka-Laylee fails in this regard. Enemies are small, generic gremlins that vaguely change from zone to zone but are rarely satisfying to beat up. The game’s combat lacks any satisfying oomph or tactile satisfaction. Yooka’s spin attack is a limp move when compared to Mario’s stomp or Crash's spin.

And whilst the game’s free-form, non-linear nature is commendable, and certainly one of its more engaging features, it does leave the game feeling rather...aimless. There’s no goals to aim for in Yooka-Laylee, save for the whopping one hundred pagies required to access the final boss. Yooka-Laylee is fun to frolic in for a little while, but it’s like a child’s sandpit; you’ll soon wander off in search of something else to do, and the game doesn’t have much in its arsenal to entice you back.

The game does have bosses, and they’re rather fun, not to mention funny. Fighting a sentient ramp who mistakes you for window salesmen is the kind of daft, oddball humour that’s at the heart of most Rare games and Yooka-Laylee is better for it. However, by making them optional, stuffing them away as just another “thing” you can encounter, hurts the game’s pacing. You rarely feel as if you’ve accomplished anything in Yooka-Laylee, you just go and do more stuff.

Between its flat pacing and mediocre levels, Yooka-Laylee is never bad but rarely is it anything better than painfully average. Nostalgia can only get a game so far, and whilst the game will likely go down better with the twenty and thirty-somethings that grew up on Banjo-Kazooie and its ilk, you still can’t shake the fact that this kind of game was done better many, many years ago.


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