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Video Game Spotlight: Yooka-Laylee and If 3D Platformers Still Hold Up


          Over the past seven years or so ago we’ve seen a movement that could easily be labeled as the rise of the independent game developer.  With the popularization of social media and digital store fronts like Steam and GoG, developers, amateur and professional alike, have found ways of reaching and connecting with audiences all around the world that don’t require the traditional gaming publishing system.  But by far the greatest asset to the independent developer has been the advent of crowd funding websites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Patreon.  With websites like these, developers have been able to get the funding for the innovative games they want to make, that the risk averse AAA publishers are less willing to get behind.  Backing from such sites has seen the development and release of critical and commercial hits like The Banner Saga, Wasteland 2 and Pillars of Eternity and several upcoming games like Star Citizen, The Banner Saga 3 and Bloodstain: Ritual of the Night.  And today we’re here to talk about the most recent release from such a crowd funded game; the Playtonic game, Yooka-Laylee.


            With a Kickstarter campaign announced on May 1st, 2015, Yooka-Laylee is a game that was developed by several former Rare employees who left the company and banded together to create a spiritual successor to the Banjo-Kazooie franchise that had sadly died out in the early 2000s.  Ultimately, the game would reach its initial £175,000 goal in less than an hour and would go on to earn over two million pounds by the time the campaign ended.  It’s main promise?  To create a game that would have the look and feel of a 90s 3D platformer that had all but gone extinct in the AAA gaming industry.  And in this writers opinion, the game does succeed in this.  Yooka-Layleeis very much the 90s-style 3D platformer that the developers set out to make.  For better and for worse.
            Now before I go any further in this review I do have to stress one point.  As of writing this article I have NOT completed the game.  As someone who doesn’t get review copies of games and works full-time hours at a regular job, there are certain compromises that I have to make in my life when it comes to video game review articles.  We’ll get into why I was unable to finish the game in a timely manner later on, but both Nerd Hub Editor Jack Flowers and I felt it was necessary to put in a disclaimer before we got to the main body of the review.  However, I will say that as of writing this article I have put roughly seventeen hours into the game and my opinion of it was more or less set in stone after just five.  If you feel that this is not enough for a credible review I am sorry that you feel that way.  So, without further ado, let’s dive into the depths of Yooka-Laylee.


           The plot revolves around a lizard and a bat named Yooka and Laylee who find a mysterious book in the inside of an old pirate ship that they have decided to make their new home.  Not long after a corporation under the leadership of an anthropomorphic bee named Capital B activates a machine that sucks all the books in the world into his headquarters, The Hivory Towers, in order to convert all the world’s literature into pure profit and for some reason covets the book that Yooka and Laylee possess.  When said book is taken by the machine the pages, or Pagies, flee the book as they contain magical properties.  The two follow the book and must explore the various Grand Tome worlds to find all the Pagies, rebuild the book, and defeat Capital B.

            Sadly, this is all the plot has to offer.  Beyond the initial setup, the game really doesn’t have any real plot or story to it.  You run around the Hivory Towers collecting Pagies to unlock and expand the Grand Tome worlds and collect even more Pagies in said world while learning new moves before eventually getting the hundred needed to face down Capital B in his main office.  There aren’t any major plot twists, (at least none that I reached anyway), no gradual escalation of events, no reoccurring subplots or even individual storylines for the various worlds you go to.  You have the setup and the rest of the time you’re collecting Pagies to move on to the next world and are rewarded with an occasional cut scene to remind you that there is in fact a plot in this game.  That’s all and is the game’s first major blunder.
            What it lacks in plot and story, however, it makes up for it with genuine charm in its characters and world.  The game is a bright and beautiful one full of vibrant colors that pop out in the best ways possible.  In fact, it seems to actively avoid the grim, overly serious aesthetics that the medium has only recently taken steps to get out of.  Even when it does go for a darker look it never abandons the light-hearted tone that makes the rest of the game so appealing.
            The characters themselves lack a great deal of depth and have next to nothing in terms of character arcs but do make up for it with personality and humor.  Yooka and Laylee do the odd couple routine that we’ve seen a million times before but it’s one that works very well when done right and it is done the right way here.  Laylee is a wisecracking smartass of a bat who is quick to demand payment for his services and is always fast with a brutal insult.  Yooka is the exact opposite, playing the straight, more traditionally heroic foil to Laylee and the banter is always enjoyable to read.
            The game is also chock full of jokes, ranging from lame puns to legitimately hilarious swipes at the AAA gaming industry and fourth wall breaking smartass remarks.  In fact, if there is one positive thing to take away from this game is that it’s very existence is effectively a giant middle finger to the entire AAA publishing business.  Over the past ten years far too many game franchises have taken themselves WAY to seriously and everything about them reeks of an overall deprived sense of fun.  But in Yooka-Laylee we have a game that is not afraid to be bright and colorful.  It’s not afraid to crack jokes at the expense of itself and the industry at large.  And, above all else, it’s not afraid to try and be fun.  It’s just a shame that the core gameplay design isn’t up to these lofty goals.


           Now to fully understand my criticism of the gameplay design you need to understand the genera that Yooka-Laylee is trying, (and in my opinion succeeded), to emulate and why that gameplay style more or less died out in the mid-2000s.  The actual genera seemed to have reached its peak in the late 90s with several solid games and franchises soaring in both sales and ratings.  These franchises included Banjo-Kazooie, Crash Bandicoot, Super Mario 64 and my personal favorite, Spyro the Dragon.  These were great games franchises that were different enough so as not to oversaturate the market but all had some fundamental similarities.

            The main thing that these games had in common was that they all revolved around collectables and in some cases, move sets.  To progress further in the game, the player had to collect a certain amount of the items that the game revolved around and in some cases supplemental items that the level barrier required for you to pass.  Often this would involve playing certain quests repeatedly to complete the objective under whatever additional challenges the developers decided to throw at you.  Additionally, it meant combing over every nook and cranny of every world, making sure that you didn’t miss some obscure gem or side quest in a hard to reach area.  Ultimately, games were designed like this back in the day for exactly one reason; to pad out the runtime.

            Today trying to find a game that will occupy your time for a good 20/30 hours isn’t exactly hard.  You could literally close your eyes in a GameStop, spin around ten times and grab the first thing that you fall into and probably get that amount of time out of said game.  But back when these franchises were at their heights, this wasn’t always the case.  Creating vast worlds with tons of unique quests and optional content was far more difficult.  This was not only due to the astronomical cost that it would put on the developers and publishers but the very simple fact that you literally couldn’t fit that much content on the disk or cartridge.  To counter this problem, the developers would often cram in as many simple, item hunting themed quests that they could into the individual worlds, as this was far less taxing on the developers and data space then say building an entire new world or putting together a whole new plot thread.  This is why, for example, in the original Spyrotrilogy you had to get every single gem and special item in the game in order to get the true endings.  Or why the Crash Bandicoot games forced you to go through the same level multiple times for its special items to complete the game.  Or how Banjo-Kazooie made you do everything the game had to offer before you could watch the end credits roll.  But then technology advanced and not only were diverse and varied worlds and quests more feasible, but expected from the consumer.  Long running item hunts became side quests for XP, money or a special item and the industry stopped building entire games around the concept.  And this, sadly, is where Yooka-Laylee made its biggest blunder.


           Having a game that revolves entirely around collecting items is no longer fun.  Jumping around platforms that would only be hard to reach if the controls were broken is no longer fun.  Going through entire obstacle courses only to discover that you don’t have the proper move to progress is no longer fun.  Going back to this area across a rather large world to discover that it only has a single Pagie past a simple platform is no longer fun.  Constantly backtracking across these worlds to find that one obscure item that you missed but needed to progress is no longer fun.  Having to get a ridiculously high number of collectable items to fight the final boss is no longer fun.  Constantly doing simple yet frustrating puzzles is no longer fun.  In summary, these kinds of games ARE. NO. LONGER. FUN.  


            Now I’m sure that for some people this is exactly what they were looking for.  They longed for something that can help them recapture the magic of their childhoods and I can’t say that this game didn’t affect me at all in this regard.  Unfortunately, the crushing simplicity of it all coupled with the constant backtracking that revolved around collectables was just too much for me.  I didn’t hate the game by any means.  In fact, I wouldn’t object to the idea of playing it again nor allowing my nephew to play it when he gets old enough.  But it did affect me on a deeper level in a way that makes me uncomfortable.  It made me take a good hard look at the older 3D platformers that I loved as a kid and realize that they do not hold up.  That they do not, in fact represent the best that the console generation had to offer.  That, in fact, the big gaming publisher may have been right to let the genera die off.  And that thought sends a chill down to my very soul.

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By Trey Griffeth

Trey Griffeth is the Head Writer of The Nerd Hub's Comic Book Spotlight section as well as a contributing writer to Video Game Spotlight. In addition to his work with The Nerd Hub, he is also a Staff Writer for Heroic Hollywood.