Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair: is it any good?
11th October 2019
It’s probably fair to say that both the critical and consumer responses to Playtonic Games’ initial Yooka-Laylee outing in 2017 weren’t entirely what the developers had hoped.
Intended as a spiritual successor to erstwhile Rare hits such as Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64, the 3D platforming revival sought to navigate the difficult territory of trying to stay true to the essence of an old genre while simultaneously modernising it – with mixed results.
While the finished game had its fans (and many appreciated what the developers had strived to achieve) it nevertheless wasn’t well-received across the board – and so it’s hardly surprising that Playtonic have modified their approach for the newly released sequel, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair.
Whereas the first Yooka-Laylee was essentially a Banjo-Kazooie reboot, Playtonic have this time set their sights on reimagining Donkey Kong Country – a fact that is constantly alluded to with in-game references (“Even a stubborn ape could roll-attack and then jump!” a character remarks early in the adventure, level three is titled ‘Wild Web Woods’ as a presumed reference to the notoriously difficult ‘Web Woods’ level in Donkey Kong Country 2, and so on).
3D platforming has been all but removed from the game in favour of 2D platforming, paired with a top-down-perspective 3D overworld that is so extensive and rich with things to do that it is less of a straightforward hub for accessing the 2D platforming levels and more of an adventure in its own right.
Unique features and gimmicks
The developers have conscientiously included a few unique selling points for Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair – the most obvious being the Impossible Lair itself.
In much the same way that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild allows the player to go directly from the starting area to the final boss if they’re feeling superhumanly skilful, Yooka-Laylee’s Impossible Lair is immediately and permanently accessible to the player – the only catch is that it’s very, very difficult.
It’s entirely possible to begin a new adventure, go directly to the final boss and beat the game in under 30 minutes (which, of course, some incredibly talented players have managed to do already, despite the game having been released only a few days ago as of the time of writing). However, the severe difficulty of this level means that the vast majority of players will likely fail almost immediately.
The everyday gamer of average skill is therefore encouraged to complete the many 2D platforming levels the game has to offer, with each completed level awarding the player an extra ‘hit’ of damage they can sustain in the Impossible Lair. It’s a neat concept and provides a very clear motivation for the player to complete as many levels as they can, tackling the adventure at their own pace.
Each platforming level comes in two flavours – the normal version of the course and also an alternate variant that can be accessed by solving puzzles and completing tasks in the overworld. Often these provide a novel spin on the established level, although sometimes the level is transformed so comprehensively in its alternate guise that the conceit seems to skate quite close to being an outright marketing gimmick (in some cases there doesn’t seem to be much reason for the two versions of the environment to not just be two different levels).
As with its predecessor, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair also comes with a selection of tonics (essentially gameplay modifiers that the player can find, purchase and equip at will). These provide some welcome variety and customisation for the player’s personal preferences, although the long list of available tonics seems to have more in the way of cosmetic filters than actual gameplay modifiers.
‘Game feel’ is an incredibly important aspect of any platforming game, and fortunately Yooka and Laylee are responsive and fun to control.
Whereas some modern platformers have ‘floaty’ or overly-animated movements (Retro Studios’ own attempts at reimagining the Donkey Kong Country games come to mind), Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair has tight and satisfying controls that allow the player to move with precision after only a modicum of practice.
As with any good platformer, the controls are easy to pick up yet hard to master. Many of the nuances of the control system are never explicitly told to the player and are figured out through accidental discovery – such as the realisation that hammering the roll button repeatedly allows you to roll further and faster, or that using Laylee’s mid-air spin affords you a tiny little bit of additional vertical lift that can mean the difference between being able to just touch a collectable item or not.
The platforming environments are stuffed chock-full of secrets, and you do actually need to find a fair number of them to progress through the overworld’s various tollgates and access new areas.
Positives and negatives
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is a great-looking game, and it sounds fantastic too. With an infectious soundtrack provided by old-school Rare veterans David Wise and Grant Kirkhope (as well as Playtonic newcomers Matt Griffin and Dan Murdoch), the music lends an extra layer of joy to the experience and does a great job of evoking the platformers of yesteryear (without ever resorting to retro chip sounds).
The game is also impressively well-optimised – even on the Switch, it maintains a healthy 60fps in almost all situations. The most noticeable technical eyebrow-raiser is that if you travel with enough speed there is some conspicuous pop-in of a few level elements, but it never affects gameplay.
Difficulty-wise, the game mostly sits comfortably in the Goldilocks zone of largely being doable without being too easy, often difficult but rarely frustrating. Thought has also been given to accessibility, as respawning from the same checkpoint too many times will cause the game to ask if you’d like to skip over the troublesome segment. However, for my tastes the death count threshold for these messages could have been a little higher, as being asked if you’d like to skip a segment after dying only a handful of times makes the game feel a bit over-eager to activate Baby Mode for you.
The first Yooka-Laylee title received a fair amount of criticism for its unfocused level design, but the courses in this sequel are cunningly laid out and are a joy to explore – bursting with colour and unique environmental effects.
However, the original Donkey Kong Country’s emphasis on flow has taken a small hit in this game. Many parts of the levels are designed in such a way that blasting through them at speed will inevitably cause you to miss hidden coins and bonus areas. While the Donkey Kong games also had this issue, none of the missed secrets were required for progression in the game (which they absolutely are in Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair). Thus, slow and methodical exploration is often encouraged.
Another recurring level design issue in this game is that many of the bonus areas are found in very obvious places, especially in the earlier courses. This can cause some ambiguity where the player isn’t sure which route is the main path and which is the ‘secret’ – and choosing incorrectly often locks them into the main route, as by the time they’ve realised they must be on the main path after all they’ve passed the point of no return.
Sometimes the level design also offers bonus challenges that can be attempted only once, essentially forcing the player to deliberately die so that they can resume from the last checkpoint for another go. This wouldn’t be such an issue if these bonus items weren’t necessary for progression, but without a certain number of coins and quills the player will find themselves stuck on the overworld – and so they ultimately feel incentivised to commit harakiri to get the doodad they missed. It’s not a glaring flaw, but I’m personally not a fan of this type of level design and feel that it may be to the detriment of the flow and pacing of the experience.
However, all of these minor issues can be easily overlooked. The game is mostly a wonderful and joyous experience – and also excellent value for money.
Available at £24.99 on the Switch online store in the UK, the game is very generously priced by comparison to other, similar 2D platformers (Yoshi’s Crafted World and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are both retailing for literally double the price at £49.99). It’s hard to find fault with Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair’s price point, especially given that it’s at least as good as those games if not better.
Overall, this game is easy to recommend as a vast improvement over its predecessor. With its colourful world, bouncy soundtrack and tight platforming – not to mention a compelling and enticing overworld – Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is an impressive return to form for the veteran developers at Playtonic Games.