Team17 / Playtonic Games
Xbox One, PS4, Switch, Steam (Xbox One version reviewed)
Banjo-Kazooie and its sequel Banjo-Tooie were released back in 1998 and 2000 as alternatives to the glory that was Super Mario 64.
Both games were developer Rare at its best: colourful platforming worlds, witty dialogue, music that was catchier than bird flu and more collectibles than an amiibo addict’s shelves (I speak from experience here).
For a decade and a half fans had been hoping for a Banjo-Threeie, but after Rare was bought by Microsoft it started to look unlikely (the unsatisfying spin-off game Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts aside).
When Rare then switched its focus to Microsoft’s ill-fated Kinect peripheral, all hope of seeing a Banjo-Threeie died.
That’s when a bunch of former Rare staff members from the Banjo days decided “fuck it, let’s just make it ourselves”. Cue Playtonic Games with Yooka-Laylee.
If it wasn’t already apparent from the title, this isn’t strictly Banjo-Kazooie 3. Microsoft and Rare still own that IP and unsurprisingly they weren’t about to give it to former staff so they could show everyone how it’s supposed to be done.
So, instead of a bear called Banjo and a bird called Kazooie, you’ve got a chameleon called Yooka and a bat called Laylee.
They’re still named after musical instruments, the latter still rides on the former’s back, you’re still collecting a lot of shit… essentially, it’s Banjo 3 in all but name and character design.
Indeed, Yooka-Laylee is an almost perfect recreation of Nintendo 64 era 3D platformers, which can either be good or bad depending on your gaming past.
The best bits from that era are present and accounted for here. Each of the game’s five worlds are bright and colourful, and everything is beautifully animated: from the titular protagonists themselves to the characters you meet, to even the dancing collectibles.
Speaking of which, there are indeed loads of things to collect, ensuring you explore every nook and cranny of the game world. It isn’t quite overkill like Donkey Kong 64 famously was back in the day, but there’s still a healthy selection of goodies to find.
It’s also got the same sense of humour as Rare’s N64 era games with a load of bad jokes, plenty of boots at the fourth wall and a fair helping of self-deprecation.
(Full transparency: the chap in charge of writing for this one is a former editor of mine, but that isn’t why I like it. Since I’m critiquing his game on a professional basis the guy isn’t exempt from criticism: for example, he likes West Ham and I think they’re shit).
There’s a wide selection of supporting characters too, from Trowser the snake (geddit, etc) to Kartos, a moustachioed minecart who offers you familiar rail-based challenges that will have Donkey Kong Country fans sweating a little.
On top of this, your moveset is constantly expanding thanks to Trowser selling you new techniques as you collect quills, the game’s currency of sorts. Many of these moves are throwbacks to the Banjo games, meaning long-time fans will feel right at home.
As a tribute to the turn-of-the-millennium 3D platformers, then, it’s an accomplishment of pinpoint accuracy. But that means it incorporates both the good and bad elements of that era.
The 3D platformer was still in its relative infancy at that time, and over the years the genre saw a number of improvements made and bad habits ironed out. As Yooka-Laylee’s such an accurate representation of the earlier days, a lot of these bad habits return.
Expect to do a lot of roaming around without any real idea where you’re going: you’re expected to explore here without much of the handholding you get in modern games.
The main hub area is tricky to navigate and finding the next world can be a bit of a mission in itself: it’s certainly far more confusing than some of its predecessors like Peach’s Castle in Super Mario 64.
Other returning old-school issues include some unskippable cutscenes (sitting through a boss’s spiel numerous times can be annoying), a camera that often goes a wee bit haywire and some iffy missions you’ve seen loads before like card-matching memory games.
To be fair to Playtonic, it was always going to be in a ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t’ situation.
Its mission briefing was to deliver a spiritual successor to the Banjo-Kazooie games that felt like they did back in the day. Had it tried to tinker too much with it and modernise it, it risked losing that authenticity and disappointing the fans who’ve waited so long to get that exact type of game again.
At the same time, anyone who didn’t grow up with those N64 platformers and are coming to Yooka-Laylee fresh, more familiar with modern examples of the genre, will potentially be less forgiving of its rough edges and lack of signposting.
The only area in which it could really get away with pushing the boat well and truly out is the music, and it’s incredible. Put together by former Rare composers Grant Kirkhope, David Wise and Steve Burke, this orchestral score is a piece of magic: the Glitterglaze Glacier music in particular gives you chills (pun always intended).
Ultimately then, the conclusion is a boring but accurate one. If you weren’t a Nintendo 64 gamer back in the day and Banjo-Kazooie is one of those series you’ve always heard about but never played because it was before your time, there’s a chance Yooka-Laylee may not appeal to you.
At the risk of sounding harsh though, that’s because it wasn’t made for you. It was made for long-time gamers who were big Banjo-Kazooie fans back in the day.
If you’re one of those and you fondly remember the likes of Gruntilda and Mumbo Jumbo, and all you want is a new ‘sequel’ that captures the look and feel of the N64 originals – a time machine back to the days of the Millennium Bug – then consider this your DeLorean.
Yooka-Laylee is released on Xbox One, PS4 and Steam on 11 April, and is coming to Switch at a later date. You can buy it digitally or pre-order it from Amazon UK.
In order that I could write this review, I received a free copy of the game from a PR. The content of my review and the opinions therein were in no way positively influenced by this.
If you enjoyed this review and want to help me write them more frequently, please consider donating to my Patreon account. Alternatively, if you’re a UK reader and can’t afford to support me on Patreon, please do your normal Amazon UK shopping via this link: it won’t cost you any extra, and Amazon will pay me a percentage because I sent you there.
I have always enjoyed your reviews and this is no exception. The N64 era games hold a special place in my heart so I was keen to read this and I fall into the camp of forgiving a game for old design style for the nostalgia value alone.
Keep up the great work 🙂
As someone who regrets never playing Banjo-Kazooie, I backed Yooka-Laylee as a sort of penance. It’s a little bit of a shame to see such a hyped-up game getting such middling reviews but I’ll take “it’s good but not great” over “terrible” any day. Still looking forward to playing it once my copy arrives (though I’ll have to buy a Switch as well); it’ll be interesting at the very least and, hopefully, it’ll do well enough to encourage other developers to try their hands at making more modern 3D platformers like it.
I think this would be more at home on Switch. Team 17 did say this was coming to Switch, right? It just has that Nintendo “feel” – it’s hard to explain.