Yooka-Laylee: we go hands-on with the bright, surprisingly tricksy platformer

Imagine what a game would look like if it had been designed by an anthropomorphic rainbow. That’s Yooka-Laylee in a nutshell. Headed by former Rare developers who worked on Banjo-Kazooie, its stratospherically successful Kickstarter project from Playtonic Games was funded in just 38 minutes, with trailers and gameplay chunks floating around on the internet showing just how ferociously their minds were bubbling over with ideas for this literary-themed 3D platformer. Sure enough, the dazzlingly bright game is filled with quirky characters, worlds overflowing with personality, and enough tongue-in-cheek quips to amuse the most stonefaced gamer. We got to frolic around during our very own hands-on with Yooka-Laylee - here’s what we thought of it. 

Characters

I had forgotten just how cheeky the old Rare games can be, and hearing Laylee positively roast any and every NPC you encounter is a chuckle-worthy delight. It seems like the grunted, oohed, and ahh-ed dialogue in Yooka-Laylee is chock-full of self-aware and self-deprecating humor, all playing off the notion that the whole shebang is just a video game meant to evoke the nostalgic good ol' days of 3D platforming. Fortunately, there's just enough earnestness to keep the jokes from veering into the smarmy 'get it?' tone of something like the Borderlands series (though calling the anthropomorphic minecart Kartos is pushing it). Yooka and Laylee seem like an adorable duo so far, and I especially love their little happy/sad/angry/taunting animations mapped to the D-pad directions seemingly just for fun.

Controls

There’s some occasional discomfort with the camera - though it seems oddly fitting that Yooka-Laylee's camera would be afflicted by the occasional strange zoom-outs or camera-stuck-on-geometry moments of its 64-bit predecessors (though at least here you've actually got a second analog stick to work with this time). But controlling Yooka himself is a joy: running, jumping, and attacking all feel like they have just the right weight and momentum, and the extra moves you pick up are sensibly mapped for a comfortable control scheme. My only hope is that you never have to switch to the behind-the-back 'aiming' mode for any boss fights, because trying to line up shots on a moving target seen from such an awkward viewing angle could get pretty gnarly. 

Level design

Keeping in mind that we've only dabbled in the first two worlds Yooka-Laylee has to offer, I'd call the early level designs good - but not great. It's as if they're keeping too true to the beloved platformers they're modeled after, presenting simple spaces and obstacles that don't often intersect. And yes, this is early on in the game, but there doesn't seem to be much opportunity for combining the mobility-enhancing moves at Yooka's disposal to traverse the gigantic stages. It seems like you just have to intermittently use some required move to progress - roll up a slick incline, use Laylee's sonar to activate invisible platforms, get extra jump height with your springy tail - without needing to master these abilities and devise an entirely new style of locomotion, as you might in Super Mario 64. Each move has great feedback when performed individually, but it doesn't feel like the levels encourage your platforming powers to flow together in an organic, satisfying way just yet.     

Exploring the world

Instead of using my collected Pagies to expand Tribalstack Tropics, I bounced back to the hub world in the big bad Capital B's hideout in search of the second world: the wintery Glitterglaze Glacier. And boy, Yooka-Laylee is in a tight spot here: including the obligatory ice world feels expected, but leaving it out would seem like a glaring omission. The level itself looks great, with crystalline ice caverns, fluffy snow banks, and a gorgeous skybox depicting a sunset on one side and the glow of a bright full moon against the night sky on the other. But the layout feels a bit too spacious at first blush, as if every interesting structure or group of enemies was its own island surrounded by a sea of simple, unexciting ground to cover. Good thing I upgraded Yooka's speedy roll move to take up less power and effectively last longer, because I think hoofing it from Point A to Point B would've been a tad boring.   

Challenges

Cavorting around Yooka-Laylee's worlds was a breezy, pleasantly steady progression of snagging Pagies - then out of nowhere, a mission in the Glitterglaze Glacier turned vicious and repeatedly smacked me down. It's a minecart ride along rails in the sky, which sounds simple enough... until you factor in the need to collect at least 100 preciously-placed diamonds dangled above instant-death pitfalls and enemies who can send you reeling toward your doom. Such a severe difficulty spike felt like stepping on a thumbtack while frolicing through a field of daisies, and I desperately hope this is just a mission that needs some more tuning. Whatever the case, it feels like I've gotten a sour taste of just how cruel Yooka-Laylee could potentially be. Its late-game challenges might either intimidate or entice you, depending on how punishing you like your platformers when striving for 100% completion.