Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair (Switch) Review
The original Yooka-Laylee was a love letter to late 90’s 3D platformers, and it certainly didn’t shy away from wearing its influences on its sleeve. It oozed nostalgia from every polygon thanks to the involvement of many Banjo-Kazooie core team members from the Rare heyday. Unfortunately, the 3D platforming gameplay never quite stood up to our rose-tinted memories of that era. Two years later the team is back with a classic 2.5D platformer reminiscent of Donkey Kong games both new and old. This time, for the most part, playing Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is as much fun as reminiscing on the glory days of platforming.
The game immediately throws you up against the nefarious Capital B inside the titular Impossible Lair, which you will quickly and inevitably fail. The big bad bee has captured good bees from across the land and hidden them throughout the world, and you’ll need to rescue as many of them as you can if you hope to return to conquer the Lair. The game is structured so that the Impossible Lair is available right from the get-go, but every bee you find will allow you to take one more hit once inside. Think of it as the equivalent of going to fight Calamity Gannon in Link’s underwear in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild right away. The Lair will sit on the map taunting you, daring to take it on, but you’ll need to amass an army to stand any chance.
Your search for an insect battalion takes place across a 3D top-down overworld, and it’s evident that the developers love for the Rare games of yesteryear is strong as ever. The world is vibrant and undeniably charming, with a classic mix of environments you would expect from the veterans behind Banjo-Kazooie. The classic grassy plains, sandy deserts, gloomy forests and dingy factories that you would expect are all here. They’re filled with an equally colourful cast of characters who’ve thankfully toned down the excessive grunting and groaning from the previous outing. It all looks splendid in docked or handheld play and runs at a smooth 60fps. A throwback to this era wouldn’t be complete without a suitably nostalgic soundtrack, and thankfully composers David Wise and Grant Kirkhope return with their iconic sound and compositions that are as delightful as ever.
Once you’re finished absorbing the sights and sounds, you’ll soon realise that the overworld is almost a game unto itself with puzzles to solve, secrets to find, objectives to complete and levels to unlock. Everything you do is in aid of either unlocking or aiding with completing the games 20 chapters and their alternate versions. You’ll always be able to do something in the overworld that will alter a chapter, ranging from flooding, turning on the electricity, filling it with hordes of enemies or switching on a giant fan that great huge gales of winds. Each of these mix-ups drastically alters not only the look and challenge of each level but also your method of traversal and even different areas. It’s a smart way of getting more out of the same core level design, but each feels so different from their counterpart that they may as well be 40 unique levels.
The levels themselves are a love letter to Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze, even if the world design lacks some of the visual variety of its inspiration. Yooka feels great to control, with a jump that feels appropriately lighter than DK. With Laylee on your back, you can twirl in mid-air to arrest and change momentum, but that’s basically the bat’s only contribution outside of providing an extra hit point. Take a hit, and Laylee will fly around erratically for a brief period in which you can grab her back. If you don’t manage to, she’ll fly away, but regular bells scattered through each level will bring her back. Rounding out your primary abilities is a roll attack which will prove your most essential tool for many of the tricky platforming sections.
The level design is mostly excellent with swift pacing and course lengths that finds the delicate balance between being over too quick and overstaying their welcome. Later levels can provide a substantial challenge, but it rarely ventures into frustrating territory. Checkpoints are frequent throughout, but you’re kindly given the option to skip to the next one if you fail too many times.
No platformer would be complete without a bevvy of things to collect. The most important of these is T.W.I.T. coins, which are required to unlock the cheekily named “paywalls” throughout the overworld. These can be deviously well hidden, which may bother those who prefer to power through each stage rather than search each nook and cranny as the hunt can bring the pace of the game down. Even with extensive searching on my first time through, there was a couple of times where I needed to replay levels to get more coins to progress the story. It’s not a massive issue, but I’d definitely prefer the coin requirements for the paywalls were a little lower.
The other main collectable is are an abundance of quills, along with several ghosts which drop plenty of quills after following different movement patterns. Nabbing as many of these as you can allows you to buy tonics, which are both the most unique aspect of the game and a cute little nod to the developers. Tonics are hidden throughout the overworld for you to purchase and equip to one of your three tonic slots. The majority of these are simply cosmetic effects such as big heads, a 4:3 aspect ratio, Gameboy graphics or even recreating the beloved silhouette look from Tropical Freeze. Most are only good for trying out the novelty for a level or two, but it helps to keep things fresh and exciting.
The more essential tonics can have significant impacts on gameplay. You can add googly eyes to enemies that makes them require two hits to take down, equip a quill magnet to draw nearby quills to you, make Laylee less frantic upon taking damage, or even increase or decrease the number of checkpoints. Your quill multiplier will go up and down depending on how tough you make life for yourself, so you can tweak the game to your liking at a cost.
Either once you’ve completed all the levels or think you have enough bees, you can go back to tackle the Impossible Lair. This name is not to be taken lightly – this level is as tough as nails. It has a sign on the front indicating the number of failed attempts and the percentage you’ve made it through. This isn’t designed to be beaten after a couple of tries. It’s a long, brutal slog with multiple boss battles, screens full of enemies and hazards, and no checkpoints. I went in with an army of 42 bees and still fell well short after plenty of attempts.
I’m all for a challenge, but the Lair feels deliberately designed to be unnecessarily punishing and borderline unfair. It regularly seems designed to make it borderline impossible to avoid taking hits regardless of your skill level, and your swarm of bee minions quickly dwindles away rapidly. Given that the game allows you to skip checkpoints in every other level, but this one offers none in addition to the cheap hazards, it creates an enormous difficulty spike for which the game doesn’t adequately prepare you. I respect that the Impossible Lair is in the title, and it’s a neat concept for an end-game challenge, but I think they pushed it just a tad too far.
If you can either appreciate a masochistic final challenge or are happy to simply not worry about it, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is an excellent platformer from a team of veterans showing they can still produce nostalgic experiences that stand up to the best of the modern era. There’s an undeniable charm present throughout thanks to the gorgeous art design and a stellar soundtrack, and the combination of an extensive 3D overworld and tight 2D platforming makes for a thoroughly enjoyable adventure reminiscent of the platforming golden age. It feels just like catching up with an old friend, but just be prepared for the friend to randomly punch you in the kidneys as you go to say goodbye.
+ Excellent platforming gameplay
+ Stellar visuals and music
+ The alternate versions of levels and plenty of tonics keeps things fresh
- The Impossible Lair feels unfairly difficult
- High number of coins required to progress can slow the pace of levels