Yooka-Laylee was born out of a desire to return to the 3D mascot platformers of the mid-nineties. The initial game by Playtonic, a studio that has several ex-Rare staffers in its ranks, found a degree of success in this mission statement, but it didn't quite measure up to expectations. It's a cutesy, colourful collect-a-thon with nice environments and that nostalgic vibe, but the design is clumsy, there are a few technical annoyances, and it feels a little forced.
Fast forward a couple of years, and Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is a different beast. This sequel of sorts ditches the 3D approach entirely, opting instead for two-dimensional levels connected by a top down overworld. It's quite a change from the original intent for the bat and chameleon duo, but the results speak for themselves: this is undoubtedly an improvement.
Despite making some fundamental changes, a lot of elements from Yooka-Laylee are intact, if a little different. Lots of side characters return, including the dastardly Capital B who's once again stirring up trouble. The overworld features some familiar environments, and Tonics are back too -- although they play a larger role this time. You're still collecting quills, but Pagies are no longer the end goal; this time, you're after members of the Beettalion, one at the end of every stage. The central characters themselves have had their abilities trimmed down, but the minimised moveset fits the more concise levels.
After completing the tutorial, you'll be plonked into the overworld. At first it will seem pretty limited, but as you progress through the game, it gradually opens up -- whether that's through Trowzer's paywalls or nifty environmental puzzles. This side of the game proves to be just as engaging as some of the main levels; simple conundrums and miniature side quests will have you scouring the map, leaving no stone unturned. It's nothing groundbreaking, but expanding the overworld is compelling, and a nice change of pace outside of the proper stages.
There are 20 levels to tackle, and they're much leaner than anything in the original game. Your objective is simply to reach the end, but there are a number of optional things to look out for on your way. Quills, as mentioned, are your regular collectables, and various coloured ones will give you tricky tasks to complete along the way. If you complete these, you're usually rewarded with yet more quills, but sometimes they'll drop useful items or even TWIT Coins (yes). There are five of these per level, and many of them are devilishly well hidden. You'll need them to unlock Trowzer's paywalls and open up more of the overworld.
Controlling Yooka is largely pretty smooth, although he does have a little momentum to his movement that can take some getting used to. Occasionally you may feel that your suite of moves is somewhat limiting, especially compared to all the abilities the pair have in the first game. Eventually you'll be combining these moves to good effect, but sometimes it feels like you're meant to have been unlocking more manoeuvres. If you take a hit, Laylee will fly off, and you've a limited amount of time to reach her before she scarpers altogether. When you don't have Laylee with you, your moveset is even smaller and Yooka will die if hit on his own. There's clear incentive to keep Laylee with you, but the trouble is she flies so erratically that it can be trickier to reach her than to simply carry on with the level. Thankfully you can recall her with special bells dotted through each stage, but this mechanic can and will trip you up.
In fact, the difficulty can be a little bit inconsistent. Some levels have very tricky segments - especially some of the paths that lead to TWIT Coins - and returning to the overworld is a breath of fresh air. At times you'll almost have to employ the use of certain Tonics to get through levels you're stuck on. These items, mostly hidden throughout the hub map, range from improving your abilities to changing the visual effects, and are purchased with quills. You can equip three Tonics at once, but they have an impact on the amount of quills you obtain in a level. Basically, if you want an easier time of things, you'll have to sacrifice a percentage of your quill total. It's an interesting tradeoff, and as the majority of Tonics are simply visual changes, you don't need to worry too much about having enough quills.
If 20 levels doesn't sound like an awful lot, don't worry -- each stage has an alternate state, essentially doubling the number. These aren't just for show, either; they fundamentally change how the level is played. For example, a level you've previously cleared could now be submerged in water, covered in honey, or clouded in fog. It's a neat way to extend the game that doesn't feel like filler. You'll want to play these extra levels, too, because the more bees you rescue, the better chance you stand in the final battle. You're free to tackle the titular Impossible Lair at any time, but you're unlikely to succeed without the full protection of the Beettalion.
Another area Playtonic has improved upon is performance. This game runs at a rock solid 60 frames no matter what, and this silky smooth frame rate complements the clean, colourful visual style. As you'd expect, the soundtrack remains a strong point, with several tunes sticking in the memory.
A clear improvement on the original, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is a pleasant surprise. It struggles to balance difficulty, but the end result is a robust and compelling platformer. It feels much more cohesive than its older brother and, free from the need to play to nostalgia, gives the characters and the world a better identity. It isn't perfect, but it's certainly a step in the right direction for Playtonic Games.