The second Yooka-Laylee game is more like Donkey Kong Country than Banjo-Kazooie, but is the movie to 2D an improvement?
The original Yooka-Laylee, while accomplished in many ways, and deliciously nostalgic for fans of the golden age of Rare, didn’t totally hit the spot. It was too hard in places, and its broad similarities to Banjo-Kazooie left it wanting next to that all-time classic. It was a good start, but wasn’t the game fans were hoping for, at least partly because of its difficulty, compounded by the intractable problems associated with 3D platform hopping on a 2D screen.
Its sequel moves on from Banjo-Kazooie, drawing inspiration instead from Rare stablemate, Donkey Kong Country. So while Playtonic’s delightful chameleon and bat team remain 3D, along with enemies and level furniture, this is a resolutely 2D side-scrolling platform game. At a stroke that removes the original’s biggest stumbling block, even if there are still moments where the level of challenge is pretty high.
What hasn’t changed at all is the very British use of sigh-worthy Dad humoure puns. Whether they’ve got worse since Rare’s heyday, or we’ve just got older and grumpier, is up for debate but they’re everywhere, and with the bee-centric subject matter there’s a lot of appropriately weak material to work with.
That means you’ll be helping Queen Phoebee defeat baddie, Capital B, who has created a thought control device called the Hive Mind that he’s using to steal the queen’s workers, forcing them to do his evil bidding. Your job as Yooka-Laylee is to get them back in order to assemble a bee shield, the Beettalion, a living force field of bees that helps you get through the ferocious final stage intact enough to defeat Capital B.
In a neat twist, you can actually go and attack Capital B at any time during the game, but without a very substantial bee shield even Dark Souls alumni are going to struggle because the Impossible Lair is not an idly named threat. Each bee in the shield takes a single hit for you, and at its maximum you’ll be able to weather 40 mistakes before restarting. Even with that in place, it can feel like a daunting challenge.
Your job, then, is to explore the game’s open world map, solving environmental puzzles and chatting to the colourful characters you meet while looking for chapters of a book. Each one contains a level that includes a range of secrets and collectibles, as well as one member of the Beettalion right at the end of it. You’ll also be hunting down golden quills that act as the game’s currency, and T.W.I.T. coins, five of which are hidden in each level. You use those to pay Trowzer the Snake (please, make it stop), who unlocks new areas of the map.
The final collectible is a range of over 60 different tonics. They confer various powers to Yooka-Laylee, some helpful, some purely cosmetic, and some that act to increase the challenge. For example, one gives you an extra mid-air jump to get you up to previously inaccessible parts of a level, and another adds additional checkpoints. Others make the game black and white or give characters giant bobble heads. One, called Broken Controller, makes left into right, up into down, and R1 into L1.
You can equip up to three tonics, and many affect the number of quills you can earn. Cosmetic modifiers make no difference, but if your tonics reduce the difficulty, they’ll also constrain available quills, while deliberately increasingly it will give you a small quill multiplier. Unlocking tonics, which are hidden both in the overworld and in many concealed platform areas, is a continual source of surprise and delight.
The platform action itself is good, even if it doesn’t quite match the joy and accuracy of controlling Mario; Yooka-Laylee’s slightly floppier jumping style never feels quite as exact or predictable. It works just fine though, with Laylee the bat acting as an extra life for the duo. Take a hit and she’ll fly off in a panic. You can often hop about and recapture her before she flitters away for good, but even if that happens there are bells scattered around levels that you ring to call her back.
The final twist is that each of the game’s 20 chapters has an alternate version triggered by flooding the level, say by diverting a river, or freezing it using a frost berry plucked from a nearby bush. Those modifiers change everything, remaking levels with theme-appropriate extras, whether slippery ice to form new platforms or long underwater tracts – the latter supplying a pleasant surprise.
Normally aquatic sections prove clumsy, inadvertently breaking the mechanics that make games interesting. Here they’re beautifully orchestrated, Yooka-Laylee’s underwater dash and swimming stroke are impressive in their precision and ease of control. It makes each flooded section a treat rather than a desperate chore, which is a welcome change from most games’ uneasy relationship with water.
For fans of the original Rare games, this is a blissful trip down memory lane. Even its level names – Gasping Glade, Wild Web Woods – offer a little pang of nostalgia. For everyone else, it’s a quality Donkey Kong Country-esque 2D platform game with far more than its fair share of secrets, and a level of challenge that will certainly keep you busy.
It may not have the rampant invention of Mario or Rayman at their best, and its puns remain head-shaking, but it’s a highly entertaining platform game at a time when those are in short supply.
Yooka-Laylee And The Impossible Lair review summary
In Short: A polished, challenging and colourful 2D platform game that recalls the best of Donkey Kong Country on the SNES, even if it doesn’t really move beyond it.
Pros: Great level design and platform action. Loads of secrets, a heady hit of nostalgia if you were around for the Rare’s halcyon days, and a level of silliness not often present in modern games.
Cons: Yooka-Laylee’s jumps don’t feel as pinpoint accurate as they could be. The puns may be too Dad-grade for some and it’s not exactly bursting with fresh ideas.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Release Date: 8th October 2019
Age Rating: 3
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