Platformers—particularly 3D platformers—are 100% my jam. We don't get many of them these days (outside the occasional, excellent Super Mario Galaxy or Mario 3D World), but when we do, I perk up. Yooka-Laylee, Playtonic's "spiritual successor" to the Banjo-Kazooie games, from a team with several members from the elder series, is just around the corner, and folks, I'm heartbroken to say that it doesn't do the series justice.
I adore the Banjo games, and think they hold up beautifully (I played them both again when Rare Replay arrived, so, I'm not going off of nearly 20-year-old-memories with this). The original Banjo-Kazooie arrived in 1998 on the Nintendo 64, and it offered much more than great platforming fundamentals. The game had layered level design—with incredible verticality and depth, and hidden nooks and crannies everywhere—and an approach to activities that borrowed from adventure game puzzle design. Once upon a time I even argued that Banjo-Kazooie is a better game than Super Mario 64, on these expanded elements (Mario 64 is a more important game; Banjo just took the core design and ran with it to excellent results).
Banjo-Tooie, the 2000 sequel, isn't as beloved, nor as tightly designed, but it leaned into those adventure game elements. There were puzzles that spanned across levels in fun and interesting ways, instilling a sense of continuity, life, and logic across the world. In one puzzle in the dinosaur-themed land, you encounter a bunch of hungry triceratops. You've seen food somewhere… right? Yeah! There's a burger and fry stand in the theme park world (ahem, WitchyWorld).
There are paths and connections among worlds, not siloed "levels." Not only is this clever, and in keeping with the adventure-game-lite paradigm, it's fun. I loved figuring out how these lands interacted.
I went into Yooka-Laylee not with sky-high expectations, but with the hope that the game would offer what its predecessors did: good, tight 3D platforming, movement that feels "right," and maybe a touch of that adventure. I wanted big, expansive worlds with secrets tucked away.
What I got was… a very pretty-but-stiff and ultimately lackluster imitation. Yooka-Laylee looks and plays much more like a less directed and nearly combat-free Skylanders game. Its level design, at least a few hours into the game, feels hopelessly flat, expanding out into discrete "paths" through a given world that feel depressingly transparent. What you see is what you get, and what you get doesn't feel great.
It legitimately bums me out. Yooka-Laylee certainly sounds a lot like a Banjo game, with beautiful, dynamic music from Grant Kirkhope, the series' original composer. The goofy sound effects are back. The character designs are cloying, for sure, but cute in the same way the old games were (minus a really fat-phobic character in the first world, which is stupidly self-referential and not actually funny). At least on a surface level, it looks and sounds like it should work.
But it falls apart at the two most crucial elements of a platformer: the protagonist (or protagonists, plural, Yooka and Laylee come as a package deal, just like the bird and bear before them) feels stiff with a weak jump, and the level design is uninspired.
Let's look at the first world of Banjo-Kazooie—Mumbo's Mountain—and Tribalstack Tropics, Yooka-Laylee's opener. Thematically, they are similar, with a sort of jungle vibe. The "point" of these worlds is the same, to introduce you to the game proper after the tutorial gave you a primer on basic movement. In Banjo, there are several distinct areas, all of which teach you about different mechanics. New moves are introduced directly adjacent to an activity that uses it. There's a gorilla you need to pelt with eggs (teaching you to… throw eggs). A steep hill where you learn to walk on Kazooie's legs. A first animal transformation area that gets you used to the idea of using Mumbo spells and changing into another critter with unique movement abilities.
Everything made sense, everything was on a valid path. But, importantly, there were secrets to suss out. If you left the world while still in animal form, you could get a prize in the overworld. Jinjos (a collectible, don't worry about it) were tucked into nooks and crannies and high points alike, encouraging you to explore and get out there. And the whole thing offered different terrain—it was set on a mountain, after all. It's a very small world, by series standards, but it felt like a coherent place, not a random assortment of middling activities separated by obvious roads.
Climbing to the highest point just means I can see more… flat areas.
That's what I'm getting from Tribalstack tropics. There's no real sense of place and practically no depth or verticality. Climbing to the highest point just means I can see more… flat areas. Activities—a race, a shooting gallery, a place to purchase new moves from Trowzer (he's a snake. Yup), are just kind of… there. It feels flat and uninspired, and I have no real motivation to look around and actually explore.
Walking into say, Freezeazy Peak in Banjo-Kazooie, I was dazzled by scale. The disparate zones in Tooie's WitchyWorld all felt like parts of a shitty (intentionally so) theme park. The same game's Gruntilda Industries feels massive and dense by the standards of any 3D platformer. I've yet to find a world in Yooka-Laylee that conveys half of the sense of wonder or depth I got from the earlier games.
I'd like to reiterate here, that I'm not basing my reaction off of nostalgia. The earlier titles had their flaws, but they were well-constructed. I would gladly give all of Yooka-Laylee's visual polish for level geometry that teased secrets, high peaks that demanded climbing, worlds that felt good to move through. 3D platformers aren't easy to get right, by any means. And there are good ideas here, certainly—there's an option to spend your collectibles on expanding an existing stage or opening up a new one, for example, that doesn't work out all that well in practice, but could've offered some decent variety. The game doesn't feel lazy, or hastily thrown together. It just fundamentally misses what really worked about its predecessors.
I'm still playing Yooka-Laylee. Maybe it gets better later on, with the kind of level design that I crave from this style of game. Maybe there are bigger and more impressive worlds to play around in. But my impressions from the first few hours of the game are not hopeful. Unlike Banjo drowning slowly in Clanker's Cavern, I'm not going to hold my breath.