Yooka featured

Image courtesy of Team17

Several years ago, a massively successful kickstarter campaign led to the establishment of Playtonic Games, as well as the development and subsequent release of the studio’s debut title, “Yooka-Laylee.” You see, Playtonic was founded by a group of former Rare staff, who left that company in order to pursue their own creative endeavors, and their first project was a spiritual successor to “Banjo-Kazooie,” one of the Rare’s most successful past IPs. So, the project was funded, the team was assembled, and in 2017 the world was treated to “Yooka-Laylee,” a 3D collect-a-thon platformer that was met with surprisingly middling reception considering some of the key talent behind the game. I played “Yooka-Laylee” myself and, while it certainly wasn’t free of issues, I still quite enjoyed it. However, it wasn’t exactly the callback to the collect-a-thon genre’s golden years that many were expecting out of the Playtonic team. When thinking of where to go next then, it seems Playtonic decided to take an entirely different swing at things. Fast forward to early 2019, and it was revealed that the next project in the “Yooka-Laylee” universe would not be another 3D collect-a-thon, but rather a 2D platformer taking inspiration from several of the Playtonic developers' past work on the “Donkey Kong Country” series. “Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair” is what came of this project, a 2D side-scrolling platformer that bears a striking resemblance in places to Nintendo and Retro Studios’ own modern “Donkey Kong Country” games. The announcement that Playtonic was now focusing on making a 2D game as opposed to a 3D one was met with skepticism from some. Would the game be too simple? Would it feel like simply a rip off of other, better-constructed games? Had the folks at Playtonic simply lost their ambition and opted for the path of least resistance? I must admit that even I had my doubts about the change of focus for Playtonic’s latest venture. Could Playtonic really craft a game that stood out in the 2D platformer crowd, given some of the flaws that the original "Yooka-Laylee" had? I wasn’t quite sure. So, I have to admit that I was shocked by what I discovered once I had the studio’s latest effort in my hands and started playing.

“Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair” is, in one word, phenomenal.

If you want my recommendation, play this game. There’s no need to see the rest of the review. My simple advice is to go purchase this game on your platform of choice and enjoy. Trust me, you WON’T be disappointed. However, for the sake of not simply ending things off here, let me go into more detail about just what makes Playtonic’s first foray into the realm of 2D platformers so compelling.

Players join the dynamic duo of Yooka the Chameleon and Laylee the Bat as they are hot on the heels of the evil Capital B, who is currently wreaking havoc within the Royal Stingdom, (one of the all powerful One Book’s many Grand Tome worlds, for those of you who are familiar with the first game). Capital B has created a machine known as the Hive Mind, a mind control device which has allowed the greedy villain to seize control of the “Royal Beetallion” army. With this army at his control, Capital B intends to use the Infinity Ink found in the Royal Stingdom to lay waste to the rest of the Grand Tome worlds and recreate them in his own twisted (and financially monopolized) image. Yooka and Laylee cannot stand for that though, and they follow Capital B into his so-called “Impossible Lair”... only to be completely trounced and thrown out the door.

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Can you BEEt the Impossible Lair? (Image courtesy of Team 17)

It is here where the main mechanic of the game comes into play. Once you gain control of Yooka, you can choose to simply go back and attempt the Impossible Lair again. However, the ruler of the Royal Stingdom, Queen Phoebee, informs our heroes that by exploring the various chapters scattered around the area, they can rescue members of her kidnapped Beetallion, who will protect Yooka and Laylee the next time they attempt to storm the Impossible Lair. Each bee that you rescue over the course of the game (of which there are 48 in total) basically amounts to one additional hit that you can take in the Impossible Lair before Yooka bites the dust. This leads to a very “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” approach, in which the final showdown is technically open to you from the very beginning, but your chances of coming out on top without the proper preparation are slim to none.

Now, the Impossible Lair is not, by definition, impossible so much as it is INCREDIBLY difficult. You are never outright forced to take damage, meaning that every obstacle in the stage is avoidable. It just takes such an almost inhuman level of precision to do so that, for the vast majority of players, it simply isn’t feasible. So, that means that you are going to want to rescue at least some members of the Beetallion army to give yourself a fighting chance against Capital B. This involves searching the Royal Stingdom, (which serves as the game’s hub world) for magic books, each of which contain a miniature world inside of them, where the dastardly bee has hidden one of the various soldiers he has captured. Gameplay outside the books takes the form of something akin to a top-down “Zelda” game, albeit with a bigger emphasis on platforming. Using a more limited set of abilities than what is available while inside one of the magic books, Yooka must jump, fight and puzzle his way through the Royal Stingdom in search of new worlds to enter so that he can rescue the captured Bees and bring them back to the side of justice.

Once you locate and enter a book, the game’s perspective shifts to that of a 2D side-scroller. In these levels, players have access to Yooka and Laylee’s full suite of abilities, which include a higher jump than in the hub world, a midair twirl that gives Yooka extra airtime and helps with precise landings, and a roll move that can be used as an attack or a method of dashing to gain momentum. This may sound very familiar to some, and for good reason, as this is where the game’s “DKC” influences can be seen most. Yooka and Laylee control similarly to Donkey Kong, specifically his incarnation in more recent games like “Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze”, but there are some key differences here that give the duo their own distinct feel when compared to DK. While momentum is still a key part of the platforming here, Yooka doesn’t feel as loose and bulky as DK, (rightfully so, I suppose) and jumping feels ever so slightly more precise than in those games as a result. Yooka’s jump also has a higher arc than that of Nintendo’s giant ape, meaning that the levels themselves are built with a lot more verticality than those in the “Donkey Kong Country” titles. To put it simply, Yooka and Laylee are an absolute joy to control. I felt as though every single input that I made was reflected perfectly on screen, and Yooka never did anything that I didn’t expect him to. This meant that any mistake or death felt solely like it was due to a misjudgment on my part, and not due to any kind of interference from the controls, which is absolutely key in any kind of platformer.

It certainly helps too, that the levels themselves are some of the most tightly designed and engaging that I have ever seen in a game of this style. Nothing here, from platforms and enemies to hazards and pits, feels poorly placed or cheap, and the ways that the levels construct challenges for the player feels intuitive and readable, making them an absolute joy to get right. The levels themselves also feel incredibly creative and imaginative, even though most of them are a refinement of concepts that you’ve probably seen in other games. That’s not to say that the game has no new twists up its sleeves, but rather that while most of the gameplay feels somewhat familiar, the game manages to find ways to make the familiar concepts insanely enjoyable and satisfying for the player. The gameplay here is just a lot of fun, full stop. And I think that’s the highest praise that can be given to a game of this nature.

What simply cannot be understated, though, is the way that the overhead styled hub world complements the core experience here. You see, in a move that can only be described as brilliant, every single level in “Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair” actually has an alternate form. These alternate forms change the properties of a stage entirely, often to the point where the alternate stage will be nearly unrecognizable from the standard version. This not only serves to effectively double the level count of the game but also helps the hub world feel like as much a part of the adventure as the main stages. In order for players to access these alternate stages, players must solve puzzles or complete tasks in the hub world, some of which will cause a chain reaction of events that will end up altering the area around one of the books scattered across the map which house the stages (examples include flooding the area around a book, freezing it, flipping it upside down, and more). Even cooler is the fact that the changes seen on the world map are directly reflected in the stages themselves. One notable example of this involves dropping honey all over a book in the hub world, which upon reentering the stage, reveals that the whole world inside the book has been coated in the sticky stuff, allowing Yooka to cling to walls and surfaces in order to reach areas previously inaccessible in the stage’s normal form and taking players down a completely alternate route.

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BEE careful Yooka! (Image courtesy of Team 17)

It’s this very mechanic that makes the hub world feel so impactful to the main game, and what elevates this “Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair” beyond other games with a similar setup. Knowing that the next discovery in the hub world could be the key to causing another level to undergo a form change makes for a very compelling reason to explore it as thoroughly as possible. Sure, the fact that the hub world itself is a joy to simply walk around and explore is the main reason that this concept succeeds, (no one would care about the alternate stages if the gameplay to reach them was awful) but it’s the fact that the hub world’s gameplay and the gameplay of the levels proper establish this perfect, mutually beneficial relationship in which one serves as a direct complement to the other that really pushes “Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair” into greatness. Exploration of the hub world is not only encouraged but, crucially, is almost always rewarded. Whether it results in one of many gameplay altering “Tonics,” additional quills to purchase hints and items from NPCs or even discovering the key to unlocking a particular stage’s alternate form, there is always something worthwhile for the player to discover while searching for the next book world.

The challenge level offered by “Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair” is actually somewhat high, which some players may find refreshing. However, less skilled players shouldn’t read the word “challenging” and equate that with “frustrating.” The game contains some rather challenging level designs, yes, but any potential frustration is alleviated significantly by infinite lives, frequent checkpointing, and near-instant load times back to the action after death. Couple this with the fact that respawning five times or more at a single checkpoint unlocks the optional ability to warp to the next checkpoint and skip that section of the stage, and the game becomes not just accessible but enjoyable to players of all skill levels. If you enjoy the challenge and, despite racking up a considerable amount of deaths, want to see the level through properly, you can easily just ignore the warp, but the fact that the option exists for those who want to make use of it is, in my opinion, a fantastic inclusion to the game and one that is implemented in a notably less intrusive way than in other games with a similar mechanic.

The final aspect that really brings the whole package of “Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair” together is the simply outstanding presentation. Playing on Nintendo Switch, I was greeted with nothing but richly detailed and gorgeous scenery in every single area of this game, all updating at a rock-solid 60 frames per second. While I suspect that a sub-native resolution has been implemented on Switch to help keep performance in check, I can say definitively that it makes no impact whatsoever on the overall look and feel of the game, which remains absolutely stunning. It also has to be said that the soundtrack, (somewhat surprisingly, at least to me) has catapulted its way towards the very top of my personal list of my favorite soundtracks in all of gaming. While I knew going in that the soundtrack had some incredible talent behind it, being a collaboration between the acclaimed David Wise and Grant Kirkhope as well as Playtonic’s own composers Matt Griffin and Daniel Murdoch, I just wasn’t expecting every single piece of music to grip me the way that it did. From the bouncy and cheerful theme of the hub world to the beautiful and ambient sounds of tracks like the one from the “Factory Fright” stage’s alternate form, to say that the composers here brought their A-game would be an understatement.

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Well, I’m out of “bee” puns, but here’s another screenshot regardless (Image courtesy of Team17)

Needless to say, I was incredibly surprised by my time with “Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair.” Maybe it was cynicism on my part, but truth be told I wasn’t expecting a lot from this second outing after the original “Yooka Laylee” was met with such middling reception. However, despite this feeling, I was still rooting for the game the whole time. I was hoping it would be everything I wanted it to be, I just wasn’t sure if Playtonic could pull it off. I can confidently say, then, that I have never been so happy to be proven wrong in all my life. “Yooka-Laylee in the Impossible Lair” is, put simply, an incredible game. I beat it in less than a week, (not due to any lack of content, but rather due to my inability to put it down), and I can genuinely say that I look forward to earning 100% completion on my current save and subsequently replaying the adventure all over again. When planning this review, I tried to take a simple “pros and cons” style approach, and it was then when I realized that trying to come up with talking points for the “cons” list was far more “impossible” than Capital B’s silly lair. I’ll wrap up in the simplest way I can. “Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair” is fantastic. It’s my favorite 2D platformer on Switch and one of my favorite 2D platformers that I’ve ever played. I could sit here all day writing out pages and pages (or should I say, pagies and pagies) of reasons why you should check this game out, and I think there’s only really one verdict I can award a game like that.

Final Score: 10/10

Playtonic and the Impossible Comeback

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