Yooka-Laylee (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Yooka-Laylee (2017)

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I'm not immune to nostalgia.

That's the most painful lesson I learned playing Yooka-Laylee.  It was one of the few projects I backed on Kickstarter and one I was excited for.  Colorful levels built on stone monuments with gameplay built from the core of old Rare employees who made their mark during the Nintendo 64 era.  They were responsible for some games ahead of their time like the complex and awkward-to-control shooter Jet Force Gemini, brilliant bits of destructive ingenuity in Blast Corps, and set the standard for console competitive multiplayer shooters with GoldenEye 007.

A solid pedigree, but you may notice I didn't include their platformers like Banjo-Kazooie or Donkey Kong 64 in that list.  Those were, at best, clunky if charming with far too much reliance on collecting things instead of tight platforming.  They still had their moments with Donkey Kong 64's "Donkey Kong Rap" setting an impossibly high bar of cheer while going through what each member of the crew can do.  So I let those positive memories numb my usual resistance to nostalgia, backed Yooka-Laylee based on its pedigree and colorful screenshots, and waited - waited - waited - and waited some more - for the game to be released.

Enjoy the first level of Yooka-Laylee because the quality's about to plummet.

Yooka-Laylee is a thoroughly depressing and unpleasant experience.  Whatever bitterness developers Playtonic Games felt toward their superiors at Rare seems to have been channeled through multiple aspects of Yooka-Laylee in a passive-aggressive test to see just how much more of this bitter game I could handle.  I was so excited to be playing a colorful 3D platformer again that I barely registered the warning signs up front with the introduction.  A giant corporation with bleating and moaning leaders begins sucking up pages from the world while the protagonists lay in a shipwreck that, "feels like home," because of the, "vibrant paint job."  The dev's past achievements are wrecked, and it's thanks to this spiffy new graphics engine that things are better again.

I got to maneuver around the wrecked ship and surrounding land to find Yooka had a rough time moving with any sense of precision.  Tilting the joystick forward ever so delicately could mean a teeny step or an unexpected lunge forward.  This wasn't too much of a problem because the platforms I could navigate were large enough to compensate for Yooka's interpreting my controller inputs more as suggestions than commands.  Traversing the first level - featuring all the rainbows, waterfalls, and impressive stone structures from the preview images - was a joy.  I got enough Pagies to expand the level and seeing those pretty structures jut out into a gravity-defiant series of challenges further boosted my confidence in my choice to back Yooka-Laylee.

The control is so wonky that it's possible to get stuck in the silliest places, like when I couldn't move, flip, glide, or otherwise escape this fire.

Then I got to the other levels.  Well, eventually I got to the other levels.  The hub for Yooka-Laylee is the earliest example of Playtonic Games' passive-aggressive approach to level design.  Prominent paths forward lead to additional challenges, not the next level, and its the out-of-the-way tiny tunnels that lead to the next level.  The worst of which is the path from the third swamp level to the fourth casino level, where a small corridor in between two locked gates from a room with about six different exits is the path forward.  The hub is designed to draw attention to the little stuff, and the near hour I spent trying to figure the path back to the fourth level because of the branching tunnels was one that morphed the hub's passive-aggression into my actual aggression.

The main levels suffer from a dip in quality so quickly it gives the impression that the bulk of Yooka-Laylee's development was spent on the beautiful stones of the first.  The second ice-based level isn't too bad, though it features the same labyrinthine exits with little indication of where to go for each challenge that the hub does, and ends with a nod to classic isometric platformers like Equinox for a series of fun challenges.  Traversing the first two levels was fun, had space to spare for Yooka's cumbersome controls, and there was some logic behind their layouts.

The damned tunnel leading to the fourth level.

All that went out into the toxic dump of Yooka-Laylee's factory with the third level, a flat expanse of poisonous swamp where nondescript trees towered over a brown, black, and green landscape.  It became clear at this point Yooka-Laylee was a sprinter trying to run a marathon as the beauty of the first two levels vomited out a flat third.  The fourth casino level is no less disappointing, trading the flat poisonous landscape of the third for milquetoast games and slot machines that prove the casino level peaked with "Casino Night Zone" in Sonic 2.  By the time I got to the fifth I was exhausted by Yooka-Laylee and got kind of used to the disappointment.  The repetition of the flat expanse of the swampy third replaced with a solid purple sea and a few rocks was now par for the course and I was too tired to care anymore.

Part of what made me so tired of Yooka-Laylee by that fifth purple level was the way Playtonic Games implemented power-ups.  Almost all the challenges of those interesting first two levels are rendered trivial by the power of flight, making me wonder what the point of all those elaborately designed structures is if I can soar over them with no problem.  Flight also gives a broad view of how simplistic those later levels are with an eagle-eye view of the flat landscape.  Then there's the nearly absent explanation of Yooka's ability to turn translucent then refract damaging lasers to complete challenges and open up doors.  I say, "nearly," because if there's an explanation for the translucent power-up's ability to do this I missed it entirely and had to look up a guide to find out I could shoot lasers out of Yooka's bum (yes, bum, which reverses the controls for aiming and makes this nearly unexplained power-up more annoying to use once I finally knew what the blasted thing could do.)

This is when the pool of optimism cultivated by the first two levels cratered into anger then depression.

It was at this point my rage gave way to depression as I struggled to make Yooka take the tiny steps needed to awkwardly aim the nearly unexplained bum laser when he took my input as suggestions.  This is what I get for plunking money down on something in advance when all I have to go on is a pedigree of games made nearly two decades ago that I didn't like that much the first time around.  I only have myself to blame for Yooka-Laylee.

Apparently Playtonic Games feels the same way in crafting each bitter layer of presentation.  In addition to the hostile relationship between my controller and Yooka, the vomitous wailing and groans continued with each painful exchange of dialogue.  Laylee, seemingly unaware she's on a colorful adventure, takes time to put down just about every character she comes across.  Capital B (the big bee boss) mocked me with talks of opening up strategy guides during minute 40 of my attempt to figure out the horror of the hub.  Then there's the painful pun of Trowzer, the snake who wears pants, who dishes out the power-ups in exchange for quills.

Trowzer snake's shop of dubiously helpful power-ups.

I love a good pun, as any kid raised on a steady diet of The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle should.  But when the most present example of puns comes from "Trowzer snake" it might be time to take a step back from obvious jokes and study some limericks or buy a few Rocky & Bullwinkle episodes.

My time with Yooka-Laylee ended with my mood turned into a polar-opposite reflection of the cheer I started it with.  Such a bitterly written, clumsily designed, and aggravatingly presented experience was not possible without the support of players like me.  Lesson learned, that's the last time I listen to a warm feeling in my gut when only screenshots are available, because the eventual meal may leave me sick.

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Posted by Andrew

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