When the Yooka-Laylee crowfunding campaign got underway in 2015, its developers stated that their intention was to "create a spiritual successor to our most cherished work from the past." Now that the finished product is ready for players, it's clear that the team's dedication to recapturing the magic of Banjo-Kazooie is both its biggest success, and its biggest limitation.
Yooka-Laylee feels like a version of Banjo-Kazooie that was released in a parallel universe — and, at times, a remake of the first game that expertly dodges a host of intellectual property infringements. It should be no surprise that it apes its inspiration at almost every turn, but that approach will not please everybody.
It's difficult to imagine gamers that didn't grow up playing the 3D platformers of the late 1990s and early 2000s being drawn into the genre by Yooka-Laylee. However, as someone who thoroughly enjoyed those games at the time, it didn't take long for Playtonic Games' debut effort to win this reviewer over.
For the first couple of hours of the game, it will be difficult for anyone who has played through Banjo-Kazooie not to spend their time spotting similarities. As Yooka and Laylee start to unlock new moves, the similarities to the Nintendo 64 classic's core gameplay mechanics become quite apparent — and the resemblance doesn't stop there.
The structure of the game is broadly similar to its inspiration, with the player tasked with exploring the villain's hideout, with more levels being opened up as they learn new moves and unlock previously inaccessible areas of the hub world. There are even trivia sections to break up this progression, just like in Banjo-Kazooie.
At times, Yooka-Laylee goes a little too far in trying to mimic its predecessor. For instance, one challenge in the game's second level requires players to perform a ground pound on several huts, an assignment that's almost identical to one of the first tasks in the first level of Banjo-Kazooie.
However, the more time spent with Yooka-Laylee, the players will appreciate it on its own terms. It's no secret that Playtonic wanted the feel and the structure of the game to be reminiscent of Rare's classic 3D platformers, but there are new ideas at work, also.
For one, the rolling mechanic is a big improvement over the Talon Trot move from Banjo-Kazooie, offering up a wide range of gameplay implementations while retaining the applications its predecessor offered in terms of level design. Similarly, the perks players can unlock and use to customize their character are a novel addition.
The game's Ghost Writers are one example of how Yooka-Laylee offers a marked evolution of some of the ideas seen in Banjo-Kazooie. In the Nintendo 64 game, each level had five Jinjos for players to find, but they were simply hidden around in the environment — here, capturing each of the five different types of Ghost Writer requires a slightly different process.
Ghost Writers are still one of the game's various different kinds of collectibles, but the time has been taken to ensure that they're not just another thing to pick up. Everything players collect in Yooka-Laylee tends to have a purpose, whether it's unlocking new moves, expanding levels, or just showing off a different gameplay mechanic.
Admittedly, there are some areas in which Yooka-Laylee pales in comparison to the games that inspired it. The game's humor is a pretty flat retread of what's been seen before, and its protagonists are nowhere near as charming as the best characters from Rare's back catalogue. Some of the new faces do work — Trowzer is a standout — but the stars of the show aren't particularly engaging.
The game's audio, on the other hand, is excellent. Between the game's sound effects and its excellent score, Yooka-Laylee certainly does live up to Rare's reputation for top-tier sound design. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the game's music will be remembered as fondly as tracks from Banjo-Kazooie are years after its release.
In truth, any single element from Yooka-Laylee is unlikely to compare too favorably to the titles its mean to serve as a spiritual successor to. Despite that, the game manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Even now, I want to return to Hivory Towers to seek out missing Pagies and collect every last Quill.
Yooka-Laylee is built on a foundation of tried-and-tested gameplay, and it's packed with content, considering it's priced at $40 rather than $60. Anyone that's eager to revisit the 3D platformer genre will be well served by this game. However, those that don't enjoy a sense of nostalgia for jump-and-runs of days gone by might not find much to enjoy among its rough edges and throwback atmosphere.
Yooka-Laylee launches for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC on April 11, 2017, with a Nintendo Switch release set to follow later this year. Game Rant was provided a PC code for the purposes of this review.