It’s easy to love Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair when you start. The platformer is bursting with bright, saturated hues at every turn, with a whimsical soundtrack that’s as catchy as it is cheery. It’s a delightful veneer that quickly gives way to an otherwise predictable and unremarkable platformer. Despite changing its formula from full 3D to 2.5D, Yooka-Laylee is still too firmly rooted in a bygone era for platformers.
This shortcoming is hard to see at first, especially with Impossible Lair’s intriguing setup. In theory, the Impossible Lair is an endgame challenge you can attempt in the opening moments of the game. It’s a gauntlet of spike traps and moving platforms, populated to the brim with enemies ready to chew you up and spit you back out. Each stage outside of the Lair is meant to help you with this. You’re rewarded with a bee when you complete a stage, each acting as an additional hit point when you attempt the Lair once more. Gathering as many bees as you can lets you push further in while affording you more mistakes. This entices you to check back in with the Impossible Lair from time to time, seeing how well your new health pool holds up and if that (combined with your improving platforming skills) are enough to best it.
In practice, though, you’re going to need pretty much every bee Yooka and Laylee can find, mostly due to how ridiculously difficult the Impossible Lair is compared to the rest of the game. It lives up to its name almost too closely, with no checkpoints throughout and long stretches of deadly chasms that will reset your progress significantly should you fall. It’s completely different from the rest of the game’s stages, which are well-paced with checkpoints and feature options to skip entire segments if you just can’t get them right. The shift from accessible, pleasant platforming to a poorly balanced test of skill isn’t an inviting one, and it sullies the otherwise interesting idea of having the Impossible Lair accessible at all times.
Outside of the Lair itself, this half-sequel, half-reinvention splits up into two distinctly different types of games. Individual stages are standard 2.5D platforming fare, tasking you with moving from start to finish, while a handful revolve around hunting down collectible items for completion. You navigate through spike traps, swinging ropes, rotating platforms, and dangerous cannons; everything feels familiar enough if you’ve played a platformer before. Enemies come in different varieties–some will hop in the air, others will charge at you on sight, and still others will simply move between ledges–but their designs aren’t visually exciting enough to be memorable.
As familiar as they are, it’s not long before stages start to feel like chores. Part of the problem is the merely serviceable platforming at its core. Yooka and his companion Laylee don’t feel bad to control per se, but there’s nothing exceptional about their move set either. Jumps feel a little floaty and it’s annoying that your only attack is mapped to the same button as your roll (any hint of directional movement initiates the latter, and there’s no way to change the control scheme), but outside of that there’s really nothing remarkably good or bad about making your way through stages. It just feels far too routine, which quickly becomes boring no matter how varied the stages get as you progress.
There are technically 20 distinct stages, but in practice it’s double that. Each stage can be manipulated in the hub world to alter both their makeup and challenge. For example, one level entrance on land can be submerged in water, flooding it and making new routes accessible via swimming. The changes are sometimes substantial, like introducing massive gusts of wind to help you float through the air or lasers that chase you through a route that was otherwise safe before. There are routes you’ll see on your first run through a stage that are clearly meant for your inevitable return visit under different circumstances, which is a nice touch to their overall design.
Outside of these stages, the game transforms into an isometric 3D platformer, which lets you navigate through a relatively large world as you hop between individual stages. This area is more than just a hub for the real platforming awaiting; it’s a self-contained stage unto itself, filled with its own puzzles, secret areas to uncover, and characters to interact with. Each part of the map is themed–there’s one with large sentient fans that block paths with gusts of wind and an arid desert with a winding pipe system encroaching on its sparse wilderness, for example–which keeps things fresh as you travel between them.
Solving puzzles in this hub world rewards you with some additional bees for the Impossible Lair, but also with quills and tonics. You collect thousands of quills throughout your time in the game, using them to unlock the abilities that tonics offer, which can be incredibly useful in some tricky stages. One will force Laylee to stick around longer after getting hit, giving you more time to recover her and regain both her abilities and an additional hit point. Others let you glide for longer after a jump or lets Laylee emit a sonar pulse to reveal nearby collectibles. Others are just cosmetic. You can drench the screen in a variety of filters using FX tonics, or marvel at what a modern platformer would look like in a 4:3 aspect ratio before switching it back. They’re good for a giggle or two, but not much beyond that.
Finding tonics is more fun than messing around with the abilities they offer. Secret paths are obscured slightly with the fixed camera angle, which makes picking apart your surroundings and uncovering them a treat. Others require some lightly skilled platforming to reach entrances to small caves (which themselves are sometimes locked away behind rocks you need to demolish or prickly shrubs you need to burn away) or the deciphering of clues from other characters to find keys to locked chests. It gives you more reasons to interact with the hub world behind just shepherding yourself from one stage to the next and lets you tackle them in your own time.
The Impossible Lair is definitely a better attempt at capturing the magic of platformers than Yooka-Laylee’s first crack at it, but it’s still not remarkable.
What isn’t as engrossing is the progression system that governs how you move between each part of the hub world. Gates, jokingly referred to as paywalls, are erected throughout the world, and each requires T.W.I.T coins to unlock. There are five T.W.I.T coins in each stage, hidden in shrewdly obscured rooms or located at the end of particularly challenging platforming routes, both of which are satisfying. Initially it’s pretty easy to get by using the few you find naturally through playing. But the high requirement for later gates means replaying stages you’ve already completed is unavoidable, which quickly introduces an unpleasant pattern of repetition. It’s a slog to have to slowly comb through levels you’ve finished to find one or two coins at a time just so that you can continue on the game’s main path.
Having to backtrack through stages to eventually reach and tackle the Impossible Lair would be more tolerable if the final encounter wasn’t such a steep difficulty spike, but in truth it’s likely you’ll tire of its routine platforming well before that disappointment sets in. The Impossible Lair is definitely a better attempt at capturing the magic of platformers than Yooka-Laylee’s first crack at it, but it’s still not remarkable. If you’re itching to return to a bygone era, then The Impossible Lair might scratch it. Just don’t expect much beyond that.