When ex-Rare employees banded together to form Playtonic games, nostalgic fans opened up their hearts and wallets to help them produce Yooka-Laylee, a spiritual successor to games like Banjo-Kazooie and other games of its ilk that spent hours snugly resting in the cartridge slot of many an Nintendo 64. As opposed to giving their new intellectual property the Banjo-Tooie treatment for their sophomore outing, gifting players more of what they were willing to help crowd fund, they instead chose to look for inspiration from another beloved Rare title: Donkey Kong Country. The result is Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, a game that superbly blends tight, 2-D platforming action with a Legend of Zelda-esque overworld that only really stumbles at the titular Impossible Lair.
The evil Capital B has taken the Beettalion of the royal Stingdom to use them for his own nefarious purposes. It’s up to the duo of Yooka and Laylee to recover the soldiers of the Beettalion, as it’s only with their help that they can hope to reach Capital B at the end of the perilous Impossible Lair. The story for Yooka-Laylee’s second outing has a lot of bee puns, like, a lot of them, but just like in the days of Donkey Kong Country, story doesn’t really matter in a game like this. That being said, it does give adequate context for the reason you’re going through the fifteen hour or more long campaign.
What The Impossible Lair lacks in a gripping narrative it more than makes up for with charm. Both Yooka and Laylee are cute, likable protagonists and inhabit a world rich with color and odd characters like sentient shopping carts with googly eyes. The aesthetic make this game look like something that’s meant for the younger crowd, but there are some jokes that will make the older crowd laugh too. A character from the first game, Trowzer, a snake with pants, has thought up a genius way to make money, putting various paywalls all throughout the Impossible Lair, clearly riffing on the mobile game industry for example.
Levels are themed in what you would come to expect of a game of this type, so expect spike traps you have to get around, underwater mazes to swim through and slippery ice stages to slide across. There’s a lot of visual diversity on hand here, but levels also use a lot of the same assets so they tend to blend together in your mind after not too long. The stages built for The Impossible Lair are lovingly put together no doubt, but each individual one doesn’t stand out quite like the games this one is keen to borrow from. You’ll still have a lot of fun running through each stage, especially if you’re the type of player who can’t get enough of hugging every wall and taking leaps of faith looking for secrets and alternate exits.
Where it’s most noticeable that this game isn’t for younger players is in its difficulty. The Impossible Lair is very much a homage to Rare’s Donkey Kong Country trilogy and the two games developed by Retro, and not because it has a barrel analogue. Making your way through the levels that make up The Impossible Lair demands precision platforming, and you will die a lot, but certainly not because of the controls. Just like Rare’s 2-D side-scrolling classics of yesterday, Yooka-Laylee feels wonderful to control and thus dying normally comes at the hand of user error.
Playtonic thought of a lot of ways to keep players from getting too frustrated though, and there are plenty of checks and balances to make sure they don’t get abused. There are frequent checkpoints to be found within levels, and if you find yourself stuck at a particularly challenging sequence, you’ll be given the option to skip over it and move to the next checkpoint with no penalty. You can also equip tonics, three in total starting out, that provide perks like keeping Laylee close to you when you get hit such that you can regroup before they fly away, leaving Yooka without certain abilities and a second hit.
You shouldn’t rely too much on tonics though, as certain ones come with a price. The coin or banana equivalent here are feathers, which you use as currency to buy tonics and help with quests in the overworld. Specific tonics will reduce the number of feathers you keep upon completing a stage, so you have to be mindful of this. Not all tonics reduce your feather count, as some just make for fun bonuses to play around with, like giving your characters big heads or making the game look like a Game Boy title.
Where you find tonics and new stages are in the overworld, and it’s easily one of The Impossible Lair’s best features that help keep it from being just another tight-controlling platformer while also giving the game its own identity. As opposed to linking its stages through a series of linear pathways, The Impossible Lair gives you an overworld to explore in search of new levels, tonics, and other quests to complete like finding the parts of a fan so they can blow again. Played from an overhead perspective, the overworld part of The Impossible Lair feels like a mixture of something like the classic 8 and 16-bit The Legend of Zelda games and Mumbo’s Mountain from the original Banjo-Kazooie.
At first it might some like an unnecessary distraction, but exploring the overworld can become quite addictive as you find yourself poking around every corner, looking to add to your collection of tonics or just simply seeing what’s around the corner. The overworld also adds a new dimensions to the 2-D worlds you have to complete as actions you do within the overworld give each level a second, often more challenging, route to go through. Flipping a switch might route water onto a stage’s entrance, changing it from a platforming challenge to a water stage. It’s a clever way for Playtonic to give the player more game and it never comes off as cheap.
Playtonic gives players a lot of game between the 2-D action parts and the adventure heavy overworld, but what’s interesting is that technically speaking, you can skip the entire game as the last stage, The Impossible Lair, is open from the start. Only the most dedicated will ever be able to conquer this feat though as it’s a brutally tough challenge. Your quest to recover the Beettalion army is to ultimately give you more chances to survive this grueling challenge. Each bee you collect will absorb a hit or bring you back to safety until your collection is exhausted.
In theory, this is a great idea as it links the whole adventure to the end goal, but even with collecting nearly every bee in the game, you’re going to spew some colorful language even trying to make it halfway into this gauntlet. There’s no checkpoints to speak of, and once you die, it’s back to the start. This stands in stark contrast to how the rest of the game helps the player along with generous checkpoints and sections you can skip over. If anything, The Impossible Lair feels like something that should be a bonus upon completing the game and not actual conclusion.
What makes suffering through some of the tough stages in The Impossible Lair is its great soundtrack, composed by legends like David Wise and Grant Kirkhope. About the only complaint you can say with the musical score is that there isn’t really one theme that stands out, but that could also be due to the quality of the overall score being so high. As you come from expect from composers like Wise and Kirkhope, there’s a wonderful mixture of instruments and terrific transitions when you find yourself diving into aquatic areas.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is a brilliant direction for the young series, effortlessly mixing classic, 2-D platforming with an adventure style overworld without one negatively affecting the other. Even if you missed Yooka and Laylee’s debut, or had no interest in it, consider giving this game a look as it offers something that no other game of this type has done before. Should the Yooka-Laylee franchise continue, here’s hoping it expands upon what Playtonic accomplished in The Impossible Lair while hopefully reworking how the ending is handled.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is available now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC. This review is based on a PS4 copy of the game provided by the publisher. Purchases are available here.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair
- Great level design.
- Brilliant mixture of 2-D action and 3-D exploration
- The soundtrack from Grant Kirkhope and David Wise.
- Helpful tools that allow players of all skills levels to enjoy the game.
- The Impossible Lair is a good idea, just not executed as well as it could be.
- The building blocks for the stages make them blend together somewhat.