The problem with Yooka-Laylee is that pretty much every criticism levelled at the throwback platformer can be waved away with a 90s novelty foam hand: it's supposed to be that way. But where recent revivals like Shovel Knight have managed to revisit games gone by through rose-tinted glasses, Playtonic's take on the Nintendo 64 classics of yore suffers from age-old problems: a dicey camera, seemingly limitless gameplay variety at the expense of polish, and a general lack of direction at times.
Of course, the trouble here is that this is exactly what the ex-Rare employees set out to do: to revisit a genre that's been dormant for far too long. And so in a sense it's been successful: this vibrant adventure featuring a lizard and bat double-act is everything that the studio said it would be. The question then must transition to whether it's enjoyable in this day and age, and that's much more difficult to answer.
It has its moments, for sure: a tense Super Mario Galaxy-esque scramble across levitating asteroids and a desperate hop across floating tree trunks in a Hallowe'en-themed marsh. But for every high-point in the game, there's a low: an infuriating sprint through a pitch-black cavern or a Pachinko machine in Capital Cashino. The developer deserves credit for reinventing the title's gameplay every few minutes, but so much frustrates that it's arguably bitten off more than it can chew.
Every challenge is conducted in service of Pagies, the dancing MacGuffin goodies that plot your progress similarly to Jiggies in Banjo-Kazooie or Stars in Super Mario 64. There is a plot, though it's about as threadbare as that pair of Levis you've been wearing since the Spice Girls ruled the world: it's all about a book that's been stolen and scattered across the world, and you must recover its contents. And that's about it.
Unfortunately, for a game that has very little to say, it sure likes to chatter away. Some of the writing is genuinely charming, as it recycles Dad jokes like they're going out of fashion – but the problem is that there's just far too much of it, and when coupled with the title's infuriating penchant for gibberish, it all gets tiresome quickly. We fully appreciate the intent here, but when you've been listening to a synthesised squeaky toy rattling away for 30 hours, you may come around to our point of view.
As alluded there, this is a much longer game than you may be anticipating. There are five themed worlds, each interconnected by a hub known as Hivory Towers. As you collect Pagies you'll be able to both unlock and expand each of these levels, opening up new gameplay opportunities and enabling you to gather more of the title's trinkets. You'll also encounter Trowzer in each area, an anthropomorphised snake oil salesman who's all too eager to thrust his "Movesss" in your direction.
What this means is that you're constantly unlocking new skills as you progress, from the ability to turn invisible to the option to fly. And with new moves comes new possibilities, allowing you to return to older levels and clean up challenges that you may have missed. This does enable a nice sense of character development – there are entire portions of levels that you'll unlock once you have the requisite capabilities – but it also means you need to psyche yourself for some serious back-tracking.
And the problem is that some levels are better than others: Tribalstack Tropics – the jungle-cum-Mayan metropolis that has comprised much of the release's marketing – is a brilliant stage, bulging with verticality and buried secrets where Capital Cashino – an almost empty open-floor casino where you need to collect coins that can be traded for Pagies – is flat and featureless by comparison. You can almost sense the budget limitations as you play.
No more is this true than in the ice world Glitterglaze Glacier, which restricts its expansion to the desperately disappointing Icymetric Palace. This pays homage to the isometric adventures that are much a part of Rare's origins, of course, but it fails to accentuate the best parts of Playtonic's platformer, and is such an insult that the title even sees fit to poke fun at it. There are a lot of fourth-wall breaking gags like that, but the joke's often on the title itself.
For example, the game likes to remind you that cartridges load faster than Blu-rays – but seeing as we played through the title directly from our PS4 Pro's hard drive, we'd like to know its excuse. Performance is a big problem here: the aforementioned loading screens stutter and chug with regularity, while the frame-rate's partial to the odd dip – and yes, we made sure to try the release with Boost Mode enabled.
The camera's arguably the bigger problem: it wants to wrestle control from you at every opportunity, and it's quite startling at a time when cameras have gotten so intelligent that we hardly notice them anymore. This constant battle between your analogue stick and the way that the title's programmed will lead you to many a Game Over screen, and it's another 90s attribute that Playtonic would have done well to eliminate entirely, rather than rekindle.
But it's the amount of guff that will ultimately wear your patience thin. The arcade minigames announced a few weeks back are by and large abysmal, and the pattern-based boss fights are universally a bore. But even with the inclusion of some real low-points – the Donkey Kong Country-inspired kart rides are frankly atrocious – the compulsion to collect everything holds steady, even if you'll be reaching for the power button through sheer irritation more times than you'd like.
It's colourful, there are collectibles, and it's got a rotten camera: Yooka-Laylee is a 90s platformer to a tee. Unfortunately, rather than a rose-tinted look at the titles of yore, this game falls into all of the same pitfalls as its predecessors: it's rough around the edges, often annoying, and at times even a chore. And yet for all of its flaws it's still packing the most important ingredient of all: the compulsion to collect everything is strong here – and it'll remain even when you're grinding your teeth.