This game was provided by the publisher free of charge.

 

Those of you who have listened to the most recent episode of the Indie Haven Podcast will know the depths of open world fatigue I am currently experiencing. Recent trends have seen more and more game series moving towards Bethesda’s quantity-over-quality school of game design, with homogenous caves and repetitive side missions scattered over huge swathes of otherwise near-empty map space. You might have assumed, then, that I’d be equally critical of Yooka-Laylee’s open take on the mascot platformer. Indeed, as we move into an era of veteran developers breaking free of the confines of the creatively stifling oversight of AAA publishers, we’ve already had one huge disappointment in last year’s Mighty No.9, and Yooka-Laylee could easily have ended up just another nail in the coffin of the burgeoning AAA-turned-indie scene; an “I told you so” from those big budget corporations Playtonic’s developers have defiantly left behind.

I did not think that Yooka-Laylee was one such game, and I really should have. An open world collectathon? It could have very easily been a game that solidified everything wrong with the current market, with a core gameplay loop entirely predicated on wondering around and finding arbitrary miscellaneous objects in order to open new areas in which to wander around finding even more equally arbitrary objects. But if there’s one thing that Playtonic’s team of ex-Rare developers have learned from their many years of industry experience, it’s how to make even the most simple and overdone of concepts fun. Everything about Yooka-Laylee’s design is predicated on the concept of making it fun to play. Every move you gain does everything you’d expect it to and feels extremely satisfying to use. Puzzles and challenges make use of the differences in the game’s six core environments to their fullest, and even with repeated puzzles such as hunting the same five ghosts in each world, the presentation is such that they never feel overdone or stale, and very few puzzles feel to any degree as if they’re there only for the sake of bolstering numbers.

The worlds aren’t huge, but they’re packed full of content, none of which feels like it’s intruding on anything else. Puzzles are masterfully spread to make perfect use of the available space. There’s no vast empty spaces for the sake of increasing map size, and it makes the game come across as immediately more focussed than its peers in the open world genre. Instead, Yooka-Laylee employs a near-Soulsian design philosophy. Levels tend not to spread, but rather loop around themselves, allowing satisfying shortcuts to be opened to the more far-flung regions of the map for easier access and traversal, which also contributes to the feeling of cohesiveness each world has. The way Playtonic handles pacing in an open world is also ingenious, allowing you to choose how quickly the game progresses. You could find all of the easy collectibles in each world and use them to open the next as well as purchase that world’s signature moves, allowing you to traverse each map in full afterwards, or you could complete everything possible with your current movepool in each before moving on and doubling back whenever you learn a move that allows for the completion of a previously impossible puzzle on a prior map.

Yooka-Laylee not only excels in its tight gameplay design; it’s also aesthetically stunning. Environments are sweeping in their colourful beauty, which is aided by a fantastic lighting engine and ethereally beautiful skyboxes that really helps to bring out the tone of each region. The game is also a masterclass in character design. Between the gorgeous, colourful models and strikingly unique animations, everything the player needs to know about a given character is communicated at first sight. A particularly fantastic example of Playtonic’s character design acumen can be seen in the game’s primary merchant character, Trowser, a shifty snake salesman whose tail goes out from one leg of a pair of trousers and up through the other, the tip of which acts as a kind of ‘hand’ for Trowser to pull out a blocky 80’s style mobile phone for his shady business deals. Everything about this design is inventive, comedic, and perfectly simple to understand all at once.

That being said, my praise for the title isn’t universal. My pc can run most games on full settings with no frame dips, but some areas of Yooka-Laylee’s map cause some horrific performance issues. For example, the area outside the entrance to Capital Cashino, the fourth unlockable world, can dip to under ten frames per second, and considering that the area has some fairly precise timing-based puzzles, this can be a real issue. Additionally, I have some real problems with the game’s camera. Moving the camera can be slow and it has a tendency to get caught on walls and objects, and some places automatically switch you to a static camera with no real warning, which can sometimes be helpful but is often infuriating and unnecessary. While most puzzles give you a good idea of what they want you to do, some can be far too obtuse in their execution, while others seem like they should be doable with your current set of moves, they actually require something you’ll get down the line, leaving you frustrated as you keep trying something that very nearly gets results.

Though charming in theory, the game’s approach to adding character voices by playing a random jumble of assorted mouth sounds whenever they talk ends up being far more grating and headache-inducing than anything else, and while puzzle spacing and signalling is generally masterful, the same cannot be said for placement of core characters. Some characters, such as the one that allows you to switch out tonics (interchangeable power-ups unlocked by completing in-game tasks) appear far too often, while seeking out others such as the aforementioned Trowzer can be a real chore as he often sits somewhere shady and out of the way. Most disappointing though are the arcade side games unlocked on each world by finding a coin for the charmingly written polygonal dinosaur Rextro. They’re far too long, repetitive and just irredeemably dull, which is a shame as they have real potential, and beating each one at least twice is necessary to get all of the game’s collectables. They also represent the entirety of Yooka-Laylee’s multiplayer component, so I doubt I’ll be calling my friends over for a round of Hurdle Hijinx any time soon.

Overall however Yooka-Laylee is a stunningly designed, charmingly funny, adorably written collectathon with loveable characters, breath-taking environments and a gorgeous original soundtrack by Grant Kirkhope. The gameplay is lovingly crafted with its focus entirely on just being as fun as possible, a quality sorely lacking from today’s market, so I’m willing to look past the things that don’t work so well and appreciate Yooka-Laylee as a truly wonderful example of what veteran developers can do when freed from the confines of the AAA industry.

Review: Yooka-Laylee
Positives
  • Wonderfully refined gameplay
  • Stunning visual design
  • Heartfelt and genuinely funny writing
Negatives
  • Disappointing mini games
  • Some fairly severe performance issues in places
  • A few general camera issues
8Overall Score

About The Author

Podcast Editor

Elodie is an Mspaint Goddess, composer, cat mother and Gungan Queen from the UK. Ingredients include an eclectic mix of earnestness and absurdity, along with a dash of irony and a pinch of salt. The result is confounding, to say the least. Follow her on twitter for an occasional glimpse of insight amidst Jar Jar Binks appreciation posts and cat pictures, and search ChemicalWordsmith for her musical exploits.

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