While the first game left a lot to be desired, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair makes up for it with fresh ideas and solid platforming.
There’s a rule of thumb with movies that the “sequel won’t be as good as the original,” but I never believed that applied to video games. For developers, I’d have to imagine that there is something more tangible to work off of, more space to iterate and to improve on technical niggles, assuming they have the time and resources to do so. With that, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair not only looks like a better sequel (or rather, a standalone follow-up) than the original Yooka-Laylee but a total reinvention that I find intriguing.
To be fair to the folks at Team 17 and Playtonic Games, I ended up never having hands-on time with the original game—the lukewarm reception and word of mouth led me to strike it from my list of games I had wanted. During E3 2019, I got to play Impossible Lair myself behind closed doors, and everything about that demo resonated far more with me than anything I ever saw from the first game.
Unlike the first Yooka-Laylee, platforming will be from a 2D side-scrolling perspective rather than the Nintendo 64-esque 3D platforming of the original. While the previous title had overt Donkey Kong 64 and especially Banjo-Kazooie influences, developers reassured that Impossible Lair isn’t really a Donkey Kong Country homage, but rather something more modern with its own voice.
To be honest, it wouldn’t be a bad comparison for Playtonic Games and Team 17 to make—the modern DKC games from Retro Studios are a great jumping-off point for modernizing that type of platformer, and I’d positively compare the momentum and speed-driven running and jumping platforming gameplay to the excellent Returns and Tropical Freeze. And like those DKC games, there’s a certain theme with the villains and the world—DKC had crocs, Tikis, and penguins, and Yooka-Laylee has bees.
Capital B is back and built quite the impossible lair, which is the center of this unusually non-linear platform. Think of the lair as Hyrule castle in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, where you can storm it at any time; you probably just won’t get very far. Like in Breath of the Wild, there’s an incentive to prepare, and what this Yooka-Laylee game has to offer is more fascinating than I was expecting.
Going with the bee theme, the end of each level will have Yooka and Laylee save part of a royal bee-talion. These bees will aid you once you finally decide to take on the Impossible Lair, with the bees taking additional hits for you. Continuing the Breath of the Wild comparison, these bees are basically your heart containers and Divine Beast powers, creating an incentive to explore as much of the overworld as possible.
This isn’t exactly an open-world game, but the overworld is far more robust than the term “overworld” would imply. We’re used to overworlds in platformers just being a level select screen a la DKC or Super Mario, but there’s, well, actually gameplay within the overworld that will open up new avenues to play in. Eschewing the side-scrolling for the time being, the overworld will be playable from a top-down 3D perspective.
There isn’t anything as intense and twitchy as the 2.5 platforming in the overworld but still expect some navigation, challenges, and puzzles. Climb, move boxes, outsmart enemies, and overcome environmental obstacles to get through the overworld; doing so will actually have an effect on the proper platforming levels. Upon completing certain puzzles, platforming levels will actually have state changes—adding hazards, like flooding a level with water being one simple example of many.
The developers touted expertise of 2D platforming within the studio, and I really believed it showed in the demo. Yooka and Laylee’s toolset includes a roll and a spin that will give the pair a tiny boost in the air, all being moves that feel like they came straight out of some of the better character-based 2D platformers in recent memory. Get hit and you lose Laylee, and you’ll have to catch her or ring a bell to call her back. Eventually, I felt that speed and momentum that the devs were talking about.
It certainly helped that the game, again running on Unity, looks quite nice graphically, with smooth textures and bright colors. Even with the 2D camera perspective, the game made good use of the background and foreground, with the town level I played in feeling quite tangible and habitable. And again, there was an avoidance of comparisons to Donkey Kong Country Returns and Tropical Freeze—don’t expect to actually jump to the background or have perspective changes, but you can expect some other uses of perspective, like hidden enemies in platforming levels.
Plus, you have those new and original Grant Kirkhope and David Wise (the former being quite busy these days) tunes playing, in case those Rare platformer feelings weren’t already being invoked. In terms of the nitty-gritty, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair won’t be as much of a collect-a-thon this time around, but still expect five collectibles in each level, with quills used as currency.
The keyword here seems to be “streamlined.” Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair feels like the developers pick and chose the best elements of the first title, omitted anything extraneous, and mixed it all into a new, original experience. Too much gibberish dialogue and attempts at humor in the first game? This new one has more concise dialogue sequences. Didn’t enjoy those extra minigames last time around? While there will be challenge levels, the game won’t so much include minigames this time.
What felt so successful about what I played was the careful balance of nostalgia and modernization—it invoked those same positive emotions as those Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Rare titles, without carrying too much of the outdated baggage from that era. While it plays very differently, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair still manages to look more like the game everyone wanted in the first place.
And despite the denials of direct Donkey Kong Country comparisons, there are straight-up barrel cannons in this game—can’t avoid all of those comparisons, the developers jokingly admitted.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair will release on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch later this year.