Yooka-Laylee was really unlucky with its release. Not that it was a bad game, but it was intended as a rejuvenation of the 3D collectathon platformer in the style of Banjo-Kazooie, which understandably got everyone very excited. Despite some design issues, the game was pretty decent, but plagued with many issues atypical of 90s collectathons. To make things worse, A Hat in Time and Super Mario Odyssey released shortly after; both of which revolutionised the genre, leaving Yooka-Laylee feeling dated a mere six months after its release.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair decides to regroup and take a different approach: instead of creating a game in the style of the Banjo games, they opt instead to make one in the vein of Donkey Kong Country – another series the developers had a hand in. This time, instead of falling behind, Playtonic Games have stormed ahead of the competition.
The game kicks off with a bang: Capital B – your nemesis from the first game – is back, and he’s armed with a new toy: the Hivemind device. With it he can… brainwash the bees? Don’t get hung up on this ludicrous evil plan too much. It’s very 90s in that it makes absolutely no sense and only serves to provide context for the rest of the game. Anyway, Queen Phoebee needs your help to save the Royal Stingdom. The kicker is that Capital B is hiding out in his Impossible Lair: a brutally difficult hideout filled with tricky platforming and deadly traps.
Right from the start, you can head off into the Impossible Lair to take down Capital B and save the kingdom in record time. In reality, however, you will probably get your beehind kicked. Not to worry though, the Queen is happy to lend you a hand; free her beetalion and they will fight alongside you, allowing you to take extra hits before biting the bullet. It’s a great idea that gives you a sense of purpose in saving as many bees as possible, without the stress of having to get every single one. She isn’t the only one providing help along the way: most of the characters from the previous game make a return and will provide assistance, from the adorable Dr. Puzz to the shrewd business-snake Trowzer. Many are just simple cameos, but they have fun dialogue that makes them a joy to interact with.
GIVE BEES A CHANCE
Whilst you can take on the Impossible Lair any time you want, there’s never really much need for you to do so since there’s so much to do in the overworld. This ‘world map’ starts off extremely restricted, with only a single book to choose from, but things open up fast. Unlike the levels, the overworld is in isometric 3D and feels more like a level from the previous title in its style. Within the huge open world, there are many environmental puzzles and secrets for you to uncover; which can help open up new chapters for you to tackle, or give you tonics that can help spice up the main game. Movement feels akin to a 3D game, albeit the jumping feels slightly more restricted. Often you will find platforms that seem reachable, but aren’t. Regardless, you can waste hours here just messing around. It’s worlds apart from what you get in other 2D platformers and sets a new standard for the genre. It may even be the best part of the game!
The twenty chapters that you enter within the overworld all offer a range of platforming challenges to test your skills. You lack most of your abilities from the original game, but that focus allows them to make what is here pretty tight, You can slam, roll, roll-jump, twirl, and pick up items with your tongue … and that’s about it. It may be jarring at first, especially to those who have played the original, but you learn to appreciate its simplicity. The best 2D platformers tend to have only a handful of well-used mechanics, and this is no exception. Playtonic definitely made the right call.
Disappointingly, the locations within the chapters themselves can be a little generic. There isn’t a lot of variety here, with them mostly consisting of factories or towns, with the occasional other thing thrown in. It can be hard to tell the levels apart since most of them end up blending together. Thankfully the game offers a twist to every single chapter, and these provide the unique and memorable experiences. To access them, you need to trigger one of the environmental puzzles in the overworld. Activate the fan behind a chapter and suddenly the level becomes full of wind; spill treacle onto the chapter and the stuff is everywhere in the level, allowing you to climb up high walls and access new areas. These variants help transform the game into something far more unique, especially as most of these changes only appear once. There’s the occasional one that may repeat, notably the tedious underwater levels, but others can be really creative. A personal favourite of mine sees you traversing the level vertically after tipping the chapter on its side. Parts of the level fall down, enabling you to scale it to the top. The level is a absolute joy to play, but there are other themes that just as fun too. Whilst you may not remember the standard level in each chapter, you will definitely remember all of the remixed versions.
LET’S GET READY TO BUMBLE
Each chapter offers a reasonable degree of challenge throughout, as you would expect from a game inspired by Donkey Kong Country, but this difficulty is certainly mitigated as not to be too punishing. Whilst you can only get hit twice before dying, the first hit causes Laylee to fly away; catch her, and you can survive another hit. Think of it like the rings in a Sonic game, except far cuter. Even if you do lose her, there are plenty of bells scattered around that will summon her back to your side. Failing that, checkpoints – or checkmates, as they are referred to in the game – are plentiful, and you will always start with Laylee in tow. Levels may be long, but this helps makes it accessible for players of all skill levels. For those really struggling, the game will even offer to move you on to the next checkpoint if you die too many times. It’s entirely optional, much like the golden leaf in the Mario titles, but I am sure inexperienced players will welcome its inclusion.
The problem with all of these accessibility features is that they only serve to make the game worse in the long run. You see, even when you have found all 48 bees and feel like you are more than ready to tackle the Impossible Lair, you won’t be ready at all. Those tonics you’ve unlocked cannot be used in the final challenge (despite being the only place you’ll actually want to use them), and there are no real checkpoints as such. The game saves before each successive boss fight in the Lair, allowing you to resume with the same number of bees you had at that time. There are no bee refills and no Laylee bells, so you have to take a lot of care during these lengthy and challenging sections. The rest of the game is extremely accessible, and the frequent checkpoints and bells only reinforce a sense of complacency that encourages you to brute force hard parts of the game and not worry about any mistakes. This leniency runs counter to the mentality you have to have in order to beat the final part of the game.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the Impossible Lair section of the game is unfun. It actually contains some fantastically designed platforming – perhaps the best in the game – and some fun boss encounters with Capital B himself. The issue is that the game doesn’t teach you how play well. It’s a shame because I can see a lot of players giving up at this final hurdle rather than facing this long and arduous challenge. Many people have compared the idea of the Lair to that of the castle in Breath of the Wild; the difference being is that in the latter, it is brutally difficult until you get all the upgrades, at which point it’s a breeze. The Impossible Lair, on the other hand, always presents a huge difficulty spike, which is only made harder after playing the game and getting into the bad habits that the game encourages.
Here are a few tonics that you can find:
GOOGLY-EYESEvery enemy in the game will have an extra pair of googly eyes. Funny, but it also means that they can take an extra hit!
SOUNDS LIKE SECRETSHaving trouble finding secrets? This tonic will cause secrets to emit a sound when you’re near. Handy!
T.W.I.T COIN BANKERThe problem with the T.W.I.T coins is that you’ll lose them if you die before hitting a checkmate. With this tonic, all you need to do is touch them to store them in the bank!
FLOWER HOURNot very useful, but it causes enemies to leave flowers behind when they die. Cute!
GB COLOURSWant your screen to be in an almost unplayable green and black? Look no further than this tonic!
Of course there are many more tonics for you to find in the game. Some of them are there for fun, like the hilarious fourth tonic slot (trust me), but others are quite handy.
Just remember that you cant use them in the Impossible Lair!
It may sound like I’m being critical of the game, but I actually enjoyed it a lot. Whilst I’m not a huge fan of the recent Donkey Kong Country games, Impossible Lair was a delight to play. It has some beautiful visuals and a fantastic soundtrack by Grant Kirkhope. The level variants were mostly a lot of fun and really helped to spice up the rather generic looking base levels. The overworld too was surprisingly way more enjoyable than I had initially expected; so much so that I would welcome a third game made entirely in this style. All in all, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, like its predecessor, is really fun to play despite its flaws. I look forward to seeing what Playtonic cooks up next!