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Review: Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair

It’s no secret to everybody that platformers are pretty spectacularly simply totally neat stuff. Come on, Mario Jumpman Mario, you can’t control him and not think, “Wow, this is at least peak gaming, if not entertainment.” And yet, contrary to popular belief and that weird sibling’s impression, Mario is not the only jumpman in the gaming landscape. There’s Sonic, Bubsy, Donkey Kong, Kirby, Megaman, Madeline, Badeline, and of course, Knuckles. All are great sprites with jumping animations in their own right, but one stands out above all others for not standing out for the past 20 years--Banjo… and Kazooie. Being stars of my favorite game that I haven’t played (Note: Since writing this, I have actually played Banjo-Kazooie. It’s a joy!), I’ve always had a soft spot for the jolly duo, and the team that put them onto the N64 back in 1998, a year that I definitely remember. Many have been exposed to the history of Rare by now, so I’ll spare the details. Regardless of their current status, I have quite a bit of nostalgia for their early works and the talented artists who created them. And thus, I have always been intrigued by Playtonic, a group composed almost entirely of previous Rare members. Even if their premier effort, Yooka-Laylee, launched with mediocre critical reception, I saw some magic within the designs of Banjo and Kazooie’s spiritual successors and the efforts on display by the fresh Indie company. Fast forward to now, a world post-Yooka-Laylee launch, and Playtonic has given us another new reason to listen to Grant Kirkhope’s masterful music.

Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is a sequel to the original Yooka-Laylee, but rather than continuing the open-world 3D collectathon genre present in the first, The Impossible Lair takes on the style of Donkey Kong Country with 2D level-based platforming and rightfully so, as many members of the team at Playtonic worked on the original DKC games on the SNES, making Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair a faithful homage to the style without feeling like a blatant ripoff. But how well does the game stand on its own as a modern platformer with its own ideas? Exceptionally well. The Impossible Lair is a phenomenal game that blends Rare charm with the best of Donkey Kong Country, Yoshi’s Island, and even 2D Zelda into a platformer that is absolutely worth any player’s time.

Gameplay

Yooka and Laylee’s moveset largely pulls from Donkey Kong. The destructive roll is the primary focus, with an air-spin, ground pound, and a Yoshi-like tongue supporting it, and they feel absolutely great. Initially, my first hour hands-on with the game wasn’t amazing; the controls felt stiff, and it wasn’t immediately obvious that the air spin wasn’t an attack move. But when it clicked, it really clicked, and the power within their simplicity expanded as I learned how everything worked together with more advanced techniques that made me feel like I genuinely discovered them myself. A great game’s core allows the player to advance abilities at their own pace, and The Impossible Lair excels at this, even within its generally basic ideas.

A night scene with Yooka on a rope.

Playtonic Games

Ropes. You can't emulate DKC without ropes!

Yooka’s roll is such a powerfully simple alteration from DK’s because it throws away platforming preconceptions by giving more focus on horizontal movement than vertical. Each time a level encourages Yooka to spend just a bit more time rolling sideways in the air, with more speed, it feels empowering to discover how far he can take it to traverse obstacles that didn't seem reachable before.

Laylee the fruit bat is the stand in for Diddy Kong, hanging out on Yooka's head for most of the game, allowing a hit of damage to be taken before death. However, Laylee differs from Diddy by flying around in the air after being hit, similar to Baby Mario from Yoshi's Island, and being able to be rescued to get back to full power. I love that they brought back such an awesome risk vs. reward mechanic and even kept out the horrific screaming.

Solid fundamental gameplay can only take a platformer so far, so how are the levels? The answer is simple (like the gameplay, ha!), they are great, like Tropical Freeze-level great. What makes The Impossible Lair so interesting, however, is the Impossible Lair itself, a massively difficult finale level that also acts as the introduction. Before anything else, you are thrown right into it, the final challenge, until you inevitably fail within the first few jumps. The game then takes you out of the level into the overworld hub and introduces the structure; each level is a storybook chapter that you unlock through solving puzzles on a 2D Zelda-styled overworld. And surprisingly, this portion of the game is almost as fleshed out as the platforming itself. Puzzles are mostly interesting, and the world design is even more gripping than Zelda I. Having a uniquely interesting overworld as a means to the chapters makes Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair feel different, and keeps up the pace up as the gameplay style is constantly switching.

water splashing on the screen

Playtonic Games

Some visual details are incredibly nice

Similarly to DKC, the platforming is a bit harder than average. This is not a baby game. That being said, it certainly respects your time, and never presents an unfair challenge. If this worries you, fear not, because there is a system in place that will help you through difficult areas without any consequence. With this, anyone can enjoy the game in their own way, similar to Celeste’s assist mode. However, it should be mentioned that the Impossible Lair, as in, only the final level itself, is desperately unforgiving, even when all of the Beettalion is on your side. It is an immensely satisfying challenge to overcome, and is finely made, but the challenge will prevent some people from finishing the game. With that being said, I do not think this subtracts from the game at all, as the Impossible Lair serves its purpose splendidly, and not finishing it subtracts nothing from the rest of the very accessible game.

An additional gimmick to make this whole “new game” thing feel like a new game is a system of modifying levels in the hub world to alter the chapter almost entirely. Not too dissimilar from Celeste’s B-Sides, each alternate chapter takes the basic idea of the stage and remixes it to varying degrees. While I expected this to be a system to prolong playtime by slightly moving a platform or two, I was pleasantly surprised to find each chapter alternative to be completely unique, be it modified by freezing all the water, pouring a machine of monsters in, or flipping it on its side. Every level was captivating in design and ideas, never feeling repetitive or derivative.

green overworld

Playtonic Games

The overworld is simple--straight to the point

Finally, the backbone-but-not-really of every platformer, the collectibles. The main currency is quills, similar to the bananas from DKC, which are littered throughout. T.W.I.T. Coins are the big collectible with five hidden in each stage, usable to progress past “paywalls” set by Trowser. Last, but certainly the most important, the Royal Beettalion. The reward and incentive for completing each chapter is freeing a single Bee, part of the Beettalion army. These cute little guys are of the utmost importance, acting as hit points when challenging the Impossible Lair again. For every bee saved, Yooka and Laylee can take an extra hit, making the lair slightly easier. This is a genius system, as it gives serious incentive to playing each chapter, because the full Beettalion is going to be necessary for most players to take the impossible out of Impossible Lair.

I almost forgot to mention the Tonics, an optional collectible that bring various modifiers to the gameplay. The vast majority of them are visual filters. These can be anything from a film grain look, black and white, to conversion to GameBoy graphics. I don’t like the filter Tonics, because they just subtract from the presentation. However, there are a few that offer perks or changes to the gameplay, with quill modifiers based on how much easier or harder the game becomes. These are fun, but I hardly used them and don’t think they add too much to the overall experience.

Presentation

Similar to the original Yooka-Laylee, the artstyle of The Impossible Lair is soft, cartoony, and joyful. You can see the screenshots; it completely nails the look. Many levels absolutely glow, with beautiful lighting, environments, and detailing. I absolutely adore the colors and the audacity of developers creating a cartoon-styled game without leaning into anime. It looks great, runs well, and feeds the eyes, what more do you want?

Yooka in canons

Playtonic Games

The Donkey Kong inspiration isn't exactly subtle

Now for the part that many commence the eye rolling when I reveal that I have little to say--except with a twist! The twist is that I actually do have something to say: I love the music in this game! Simply put, the music instantly captured me. I have a surprising amount of nostalgia for Rare’s music created by David Wise, Grant Kirkhope, and others. Viva Piñata was the game that introduced me to farming sims, Donkey Kong Country still impresses to this day, and the dumbfoundingly good Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was a recent showcase of the talent. The music tracks by Wise, Kirkhope, and the in-house composers at Playtonic within The Impossible Lair are pure bliss, capturing the magic of DKC and Banjo-Kazooie with undeniably charming melodies. Each chapter even features altered tracks for the level variations which can be sped up, turned relaxing, or completely remixed. It’s a phenomenal soundtrack, and nothing less.

Another aspect of the presentation that lifts the game into the magical tier is the writing, and with that, the charm. It maintains the Banjo-styled, fourth-wall-breaking, British-crusted humor that Yooka-Laylee emulated. Yooka and Laylee genuinely capture the original feel of Banjo-Kazooie, and the team did an, say it with me, amazing job with the writing. So many lines had jokes that made me chuckle, be it for puns, silliness, or just well-cooked humor. It even throws in some self-deprecating shade towards Playtonic’s first game, showing how Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is a work of passion to write a deserving love letter to the early days of platforming. And with that, it simply cannot be understated how much of a leap in quality the team made from their 2017 release to now.

Story

I don’t really need to include this section for this particular game, because based on what I’ve already told you, you could accurately guess the story to a tee. It’s simple, mostly revolving around the Impossible Lair. Capital B, Despicable Me’s villain in an insect costume, is back and captured all the bees from the Royal Beettalion, which you rescue throughout the adventure to bring back to the Impossible Lair. Come on, it’s a platformer story, what more do you want? It gives context to the gameplay and adds an acceptable amount of stakes to the journey.

vibrant green platforming level

Playtonic Games

It's not a platformer without an early green level

Verdict

I didn’t expect much out of Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair. Playtonic had not yet proved themselves as a successor to Rare, and on top of that, the game almost came out of nowhere from reveal to release. Regardless, I am overjoyed to say that I adored their latest game, so much so that I’d say The Impossible Lair is a competent “spiritual Donkey Kong Country 4”. If you are a fan of DKC, Banjo-Kazooie, or even Yooka-Laylee for some reason, this is an absolute must-play. It’s available on every current platform, so next time you’re in the mood for joy, pick it up.

[Editor's Note: The author has opted not to add a numerical score rating for this game. Let us know what you think the game should be rated in the comments.]

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