The original Yooka-Laylee was a throwback to a beloved genre that had mysteriously disappeared: the 3D platformers that dominated the Nintendo 64. More directly, it was an homage to Banjo-Kazooie, which many team members at developer Playtonic Games worked on. As far as I’m concerned, though, it failed to capture the magic it tried to replicate. This sequel is instead based on Donkey Kong Country, the SNES-era Rare classic, well-liked for its secrets, varied gameplay, and clever level design.
A new 2D mascot platformer in 2019 is not exciting in the same way a 3D mascot platformer was in 2017, of course. The 2D platformer never really went away. And 2D indies have, if anything, only become more prolific in the last two years. But going further back for inspiration was the right call. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is less ambitious than its predecessor, but a much better game for it.
Impossible Lair is divided into two neat parts: the 2D platforming levels that you play to collect the numerous currencies that let you progress, and a top-down 3D overworld. The latter is more to just explore and fully unlock over time. Your goal, ultimately, is to complete as many levels as you can to unlock your “beetalion”: an army of bees who will protect you in the final challenge.
The game has similarities to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild — in that you can tackle the final challenge at any point. Your chances of victory are just much better if you take some time to explore the world and raise your strength. Each bee you collect from each level allows you to take one extra hit in the titular Impossible Lair. Which is, as you might expect, extremely difficult (even though some speedrunners will inevitably finish the game in under 10 minutes within a week).
The levels will be familiar to anyone who has played… hell, just about any good 2D platformer. Name a genre cliché and you’ll see it here: slippery ice areas, ropes to swing across, cannons that fire you around, spiky vines to jump between, platforms that break beneath the characters, and so on. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel; it’s just trying to roll it downhill without tipping over. But damn, if it doesn’t succeed.
While it might seem odd to praise a game for being unambitious, Impossible Lair does a great job of emulating Donkey Kong Country. That’s no small feat, considering how beloved that game is. It’s not just the structure, but also the characters’ moveset, especially your forward-roll-into-jump combo. It’s a little floatier than Donkey Kong, meaning you sometimes go careening right to your death after what feels like a safe landing. However, it’s also very satisfying and vital to playing well. Yooka and Laylee’s abilities have been stripped back a bit compared to their last outing to put more emphasis on the simple satisfaction of a perfectly timed and spaced jump.
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None of the levels are going to enter the pantheon as standout classics, but there aren’t any real duds, either, or levels to make you tear your hair out (until the finale anyway). Nor do any feel slapped together. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is consistent, managing to make each level feel unique, while also never doing anything too truly new. It’s video game comfort food, right down to letting you skip ahead a checkpoint if you die too many times on any one section of a level.
If you die a lot, it’s usually because you have your eyes on a collectible that’s proving difficult to nab. Alongside the numerous quills (the game’s tantalizing regular currency) scattered around, each level contains five gold coins. Finding them requires looking out for suspicious walls, getting extra height on your jumps off enemies, making sure stacked boxes aren’t meant to be used as ladders before you smash through them, and just generally being vigilant. These coins aren’t just for bragging rights, either. You need them to unlock “paywalls” in the overworld. (Aside from this, by the way, Impossible Lair is lighter on the video game trope jokes than the first game was.) Unlocking every paywall means taking the coins seriously, without needing to endlessly replay levels. In fact, I only played one level twice in my quest to unlock them all.
Again, if you’ve played a solid 2D platformer before, none of this will surprise you. There are no innovative tricks attached to getting these coins, and while the game occasionally gets clever (I was very fond of one level that took a less linear approach than most) there’s nothing here you could call subversive or innovative. Instead, the game is a good example of why so many of these tropes have endured.
Just the Tonic
The overworld is where the game feels most fresh. As you venture through it, you need to solve puzzles, look for hidden pathways, and wrap your head around the world’s increasingly labyrinthine structure. There’s something immensely satisfying in making new discoveries in the overworld — finally discovering the bomb plant that you need to use to blow up that cracked wall you spotted four hours earlier, for instance.
In fact, this is a better approximation of an enjoyable platformer hub world than what the original Yooka-Laylee had; figuring out how everything fits together is very satisfying. One of the game’s smartest (presumably money-saving) ideas is that most levels have a second version you can play through to unlock more coins and quills and bees. Except some key detail will have changed. Water will become frozen; enemies will be more vicious; gusts of wind now permeate. Finding out how to access these altered levels is often an involved process that ends up altering the overworld itself in some way. That’s a smart way to make you feel like you earned your extra levels. There’s a strong sense of purpose to all the fiddling around you do in the game, and curiosity is rewarded more often than not.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair might be simplified compared to the original, but it’s also a definite course correction. Early in the game, the bee queen asks Yooka and Laylee how their adventure has been going so far. The pair confidently responds “Better than the last one, thanks.” It’s an obvious gag, yes, but it’s well-earned.