Yooka and Laylee first graced our screens back in 2017, being brought to us by Playtonic, a studio comprised of a lot of former Rare developers. That's why it was no surprise to see this as a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie, except the spinoff - Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair - is taking things in a slightly different direction, trading in the 3D platforming focus for something even more retro.
That's because this new adventure is a 2D platforming experience for the most part, rather than what we saw in the original game. Well, that's only half true, because when you're not in the various levels (chapters) of the game you're moving around a top-down overworld that also has its own unique challenges and secrets to find.
It's a very different affair from the first game, but everything about the style is still very much the same. You still have characters that communicate solely through different pitches of the same noise, there's still an abundance of vibrant colours, and even a lot of the cast characters are the same. In a sense it feels like Majora's Mask did to Ocarina of Time - a different take on an established world.
The premise is that Capital B is back causing trouble again, and he has set up a fiendishly difficult Impossible Lair level for you to try and overcome, packed to the brim with dangers and enemies. It's possible to play this from the beginning, but realistically you're not going to be able to take this on without the assistance of Queen Phoebee and her Royal Beetallion (yes, really), with the latter providing you with armour that's good for one hit in the Impossible Lair.
So your task is then to go through the various chapters and collect these members of the Royal Beetallion, who then give you a higher chance of survival in the lair. It's a good thread to keep you going through, but we weren't too fond of the last level being just a series of ridiculous challenges you just have to pad yourself against so you can take more hits. It felt like we were just gathering enough health to balance out the obscene level of difficulty, rather than actually overcoming a satisfying obstacle.
You encounter these chapters in the overworld, and these are levels to complete, each of which has a Royal Beetallion soldier at the end. You can rush through them (Playtonic told us at E3 that they're built with speedrunners in mind), but you'll need to take your time and explore in order to get the five coins hidden within as well, as these are needed to pay Trowzer the Snake in order to open gates in the world, like Moneybags the Bear in Spyro.
These levels are 2D in essence, but they're more like 2.5D in the sense that you can move into doors in the background and the visual style is still very much 3D. Make no mistake though, you're only moving in two dimensions, utilising a basic control scheme that reminded us a little of Sonic mixed with Mario. You can roll, jump on the heads of enemies, hold objects in your mouth, and occasionally use elements of the environment, like ziplines.
There's a good mix in there, and it's easy to learn but hard to master. With rolls and the extra jumps you can use at the end of them, there's a real sense of momentum as well, perfect for speedrunners but also causing some issues if you rush into an area packed with enemies. You're allowed one hit too, at which point Laylee flies off and stays in the area for a little while. Catch her and she'll provide that buffer of one hit yet again, but if she flies away you're then only one blow from death.
The overworld is much more reliant on puzzles, working out how to get around obstacles, moving elements into place, and making use of the various bushes and their berries to alter the environments. Red berries can set bushes on fire, for example, while blue berries can help other bushes grow, and soon the overworld will be opening and unfolding as you discover all the different mysteries within.
By changing elements in the overworld, like letting water flow over a chapter or dripping honey onto it, you also unlock alternate versions of the level as well, complete with another set of coins and a new Beetallion bee. These are just like the concept of expanded levels in the first game, except these can be switched back and forth and fundamentally change how each level works, like making the walls sticky, flipping it vertically, or making it extremely windy.
This effectively doubles the amount of levels in the game, and you'll be playing for a solid 10 hours or more to get a reasonable amount of bees to keep you alive. Of course more hours can be added on for completionists, as there are extras to discover, like Pagies that change the world, hidden areas, and signposts that point you in the direction of hidden Tonics (for the cost of Quills, the currency you accumulate in and around the levels).
Tonics alter the game in various entertaining ways. Some of which make things easier, although they come with a penalty, reducing your quill total when applied, but some are more like cheat codes of old, giving you different visual styles, effects like big heads, and more. They're neat little additions, and again something to collect if you're eager to get everything there is.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is definitely fun for all the family, but it's brutally hard at times, especially if you want to get all of the extra quills and coins in the levels. That's without mentioning the Impossible Lair itself too, which is the icing on the cake. We were relieved that there wasn't too much backtracking to get extra coins in levels too, and the pace of unlocking new areas of the overworld was satisfying and rewarding.
We played on the Nintendo Switch as well, and it's the perfect game for playing on the go in this format. That said, loading times were excessive, especially when booting up the game at the start of a session, and we could've done without that.
This is a worthy continuation of Yooka and Laylee's journey though, one that doesn't feel like a spinoff either. It feels like a fully-fledged 2D game to go alongside the 3D platforming original, with the same level of personality and variety-packed in there. Perhaps steer clear of the Impossible Lair itself for a while though, as that's perhaps the weakest element of this otherwise lovely game.
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