The video game industry was dominated by wisecracking mascot platformers for decades. Over time, that scene dried up, with few successful franchises remaining outside of Nintendo's established stable. Yooka-Laylee is a callback to the heyday of the 3D platformer, but through modernization, polish, and a whole lot of creativity, it successfully demonstrates that the genre is far from dead.
The setup is simple enough: The bad guy stole a magical book, and you need to retrieve it. That task falls upon the unlikely duo of Yooka, a bipedal chameleon, and Laylee, a small bat that rides on his back. Controlling these characters is easy, as the movement and platforming mechanics feel tight, whether you're jumping across platforms or spinning to take out enemies. The camera is solid most of the time, but has a tendency to get caught up on walls and pillars when the characters wind up in tight spaces.
The hunt for the book takes Yooka and Laylee to five distinct worlds. From a standard ice region housing a labyrinthine castle to an absurd outer space-infused pirate world, seeing where you go next is always a cool surprise. Each location holds two primary collectibles: Pagies, which grant access to new levels or expand upon existing ones, and Quills, a form of currency used to buy new abilities.
Quills are scattered everywhere, and are easy to snatch up. I liked trading them in to expand my arsenal of moves; some abilities earned late in the game even open new areas in previously explored worlds. That realization is always exciting, but the ability pool dries up too soon, meaning unless you want to be a completionist who hunts for all 1,010 Quills, the collection mechanic serves no value in the late game.
Pagies play a larger role in story progression, and thus require you to complete objectives to obtain them. The missions they are tied to vary wildly, from racing a cute cloud character to transforming Yooka and Laylee into objects like an attack helicopter or a school of piranha to complete special tasks. I love the creativity of these challenges, and the thrill that accompanied each clever or difficult objective. With 145 Pagies spread across worlds and hub area, I was never at a loss of things to do – this is a long game.
Fun homages to the genre's history are scattered everywhere. You encounter things like mine cart missions similar to those found in various Donkey Kong Country games, as well as a polygonal dinosaur named Rextro Sixtyfourus, who lets you play arcade-style minigames like a top-down kart racer and a lane-based auto-runner. These are good ways to earn a handful of Pagies during the story, but they boil down to little more than a quick nostalgic detour.
Each world also contains a unique boss battle. These encounters challenge you in ways no other sequence in the adventure does. I don't want to spoil the battles, but I enjoyed every one of them to the point where it's difficult to pick a favorite. Unfortunately, some of the battles are difficult to find; two of them are even hidden behind seemingly inconsequential side missions.
Exploration is a large part of Yooka-Laylee. As soon as you enter a world, you wander around trying to find things to collect. I had a blast branching from one area to the next, and the excitement that comes from discovering a secret area is unrivaled by anything else in this game. While the exploration-based structure works to the game's advantage the vast majority of the time, its insistence on not including modern conventions like waypoints or maps can lead to long stretches of running around in circles trying to find the next mission to complete.
The gameplay and structure lay the nostalgia on thick, but even those parts of Yooka-Laylee pale in comparison to the narrative. Whenever characters speak, the onscreen text is accompanied by grunting sounds like those found in Banjo-Kazooie. This is a charming callback at first, but when you're out in the hub world and the main villain begins taunting you repeatedly, it becomes annoying.
Yooka-Laylee liberally shatters the fourth wall by acknowledging its own existence as a game. Each time dialogue happened between characters, I eagerly awaited jokes about other games. You even get herded through quiz-style sequences; thankfully, these don't serve as roadblocks as much as they do fun allusions to games like Banjo-Kazooie. I laughed out loud at these silly references on multiple occasions, and some of the fun story moments are just as amusing as the gameplay.
Though camera problems and outdated level design are present at times, the moments of exhilaration, discovery, and satisfaction far outweigh those pitfalls. It feels like ages since I've played something like Yooka-Laylee. This is a game that was built for those who look back with fondness on the classics that spawned it, and in that regard, it delivers completely.
Yooka-Laylee is a game built for fans of retro 3D platformers.