Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair
Our full review of Playtonic Games’ stunning second outing
Disclaimer: I am featured in the credits of this game under the category “Beetalion Runners-Up.” Additionally, Playtonic Games provided us with an advance copy of the game on Nintendo Switch. Neither of these factors influenced our overall thoughts about the game, or even our decision to commit to a full review. As always, we carefully consider each game on its own merits.
After the largely mixed reception of Yooka-Laylee, Playtonic Games’ first title, anticipation for the buddy-duo’s follow-up, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, has been somewhat muted. While Yooka-Laylee represented the triumphant return of the 3D collectathon after over a decade of the genre’s neglect, Impossible Lair is a 2D platformer. We like 2D platformers here, but there’s been no shortage in the genre as of late. Not only are older games built by this very team still around (Donkey Kong Country), there are plenty of other genre darlings like Super Mario and Rayman, as well as indie heavyweights such as Shovel Knight, Celeste, and Super Meat Boy. It is not in spite of this amount of competition but because of it that I am excited to say that Impossible Lair stands its ground as an exemplary platformer with comfortable controls, sharp level design, delightful music and art, and a very clever unique gameplay conceit that ties it all together.
After Yooka and Laylee defeated the villainous Capital B at the end of the first game, they trapped him within the contents of a grand tome, a magical world contained within a book. As it turns out, that action had consequences. When left to his own devices, Captial B underwent the transformation from business mogul to totalitarian dictator and devised plans to take over the world he landed in, the Royal Stingdom. At the behest of Queen Pheobee, Yooka and Laylee must travel into the grand tome, defeat Capital B, and secure the safety of the Royal Stingdom. It’s a pretty simple story, but there is one catch.
Unless you are a godlike player, able to react deftly to obstacles you’ve never seen before with perfect precision and improbable speed, you will lose the fight against Capital B. He simply takes too many hits and you die in only two. After your all-but-inevitable loss, Queen Pheobee pulls you out of the tome and enacts her plan bee. She rips out the individual chapters of the grand tome, isolating them so that their challenges might become more manageable. At the end of each chapter is a bee that Yooka and Laylee can collect to give themselves one more hit point against Capital B at the end of the game. With the chapters removed and Yooka and Laylee primed for adventure, they’re off.
The Impossible Lair
The most interesting feature of the game, unique from any other 2D platformer I’ve played, is the titular Impossible Lair. The Impossible Lair is the home of the boss fight with Capital B, but he is not the only threat. The Lair is also full of enemies, spikes, buzzsaws, bottomless pits, precarious platforming challenges, and other obstacles designed to make Yooka die as fast as possible. Because of this difficulty, it makes sense that the Impossible Lair is the final level of the game, but it’s also the first level of the game. Depending on when you want to attempt it again, it may also be the fifth, seventh, or twelfth level of the game. Evocative of Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule Castle, the Impossible Lair is always waiting for the player to feel brave enough to take it on. It is the only mandatory level needed to beat in order to see the credits. The only thing any accomplishment made during the rest of the game does is outfit Yooka and Laylee with more hit points so that the player may feel more comfortable with the trial.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is a difficult game and the Impossible Lair itself is a very difficult level, but collecting enough of the 48 Beetalion Guards spread across the world map will give you up to 48 extra hits you can take before having to start over and, for me, that proved to be just enough. Capital B left me with exactly one bee by the time I finished the gauntlet. I was still a few Beetalion Guards shy from a perfect set, however, so there are options for more completion-oriented players to make themselves more capable if they need the extra buffer.
I’m excited, though, for opposite extreme: Twitch streams and GDQ marathon runs where speedrunners will attempt to make it through the entirety of the Impossible Lair without playing a single other level first. The fastest way through the game is, of course, straight-ahead. Although difficult, the Impossible Lair is in no way actually “Impossible.” If you feel that you don’t need any bees to boost your constitution, go for it. It would take a good amount of time that I don’t have in order to practice the game enough to achieve that level of play, but it is achievable and the first person who can prove that they did it will undoubtedly get a good number of views on Youtube.
Secrets and the Overworld
While the Impossible Lair is an interesting challenge, the game shines most when exploring every nook and cranny on offer. The vast majority of players will likely be like me, adventuring across the overworld, playing each level, solving puzzles, and finding secrets; and there are so many secrets. Each level has five numbered coins to collect and the method used to collect them is never completely obvious. Sometimes they are hidden behind false walls, sometimes they require bouncing off an enemy for extra height, and sometimes they require bringing an item from one section of a level to another without dropping it. Replaying each level to collect every coin could potentially lead to frustration repeating the same challenges again and again, but there are methods of making this experience easier (or at the very least more enjoyable). Those methods are the Play Tonics.
Returning from the first game, Play Tonics are augmentations you can put on Yooka and Laylee to make the game easier, harder, or even just weirder. In Impossible Lair, they run the gamut from making Yooka’s run speed faster, to making checkpoints appear less frequently, to decreasing the resolution and color palette of the screen to match that of an original Game Boy. A particularly handy couple of Tonics you may come across makes secrets like the aforementioned coins ring with a jingling sound when you approach them and allows you to use a sonic blast to see through false walls. This combination makes secret hunting a breeze. On the other hand, the player may find it more personally beneficial to just turn Yooka blue and view the entire game through a VHS filter and be done with it. With 62 Play Tonics to find in the game and four more available as a pre-order bonus (which is admittedly pretty lame) there is a theoretical total of 274,560 different Tonic combinations (actually, slightly fewer because some Tonics do not stack, but it’s close).
All of these Tonics can be found hidden across the overworld, which is its own beast. Rather than a level select menu or a branching map screen, Impossible Lair’s levels are accessed through a large, interconnected, top-down overworld. Though not a fully 3D platformer like the first Yooka-Laylee game, the overworld offers its own brand of three-dimensional secret collecting. Littered throughout Yooka and Laylee’s domain are many characters you may recognize from the first title and a few new faces as well. By solving their problems, paying them off, or sometimes outright antagonizing them, new pathways and hidden Tonics can be found. More importantly, however, the overworld is the key to Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair’s most unique selling point: state changes.
There are twenty non-Impossible Lair levels in the game, but by manipulating elements in the overworld, there can actually be forty. Each level is represented on the overworld by a book, a chapter of the grand tome containing the Impossible Lair. By rerouting water to flow into one such book or by turning on a nearby fan, players can unlock an alternate version of the same level. In the water example, the effect is that the level changes from a straight-forward ground level to an underwater obstacle course. My favorite state change involves Yooka and Laylee entering a level from the opposite side on the overworld and having to run from the end of the level back to the beginning while being chased by a menacing laser monster. I may be reaching, but this specific example might be a reference to Rare’s 2005 Game Boy Advance game, Sabrewulf, where every level has this structure.
Some state changes, like the laser monster example, take the majority of their geography and aesthetics from the original state of the level, but most of the state changes play like completely new levels. Some are almost unrecognizable compared to the original. It almost feels that Playtonic are underselling themselves by saying that there are 20 levels and each one has a state change when it would feel equally correct to say that there are just 40 levels.
Level Design and Controls
Speaking of the levels, they are rad. One of the weakest aspects of the first Yooka-Laylee was its 3D level design, so the fact that the follow-up has such fantastic 2D level design is a welcome surprise. Each is built with thoughtful consideration of the affordances given to player in the form of Yooka’s control kit. He can run, jump, swing his tail in front of himself to attack, roll, and that’s about it. When he has Laylee (who flies away when hit, acting as a rudimentary two-hit health bar), they can also twirl in the air to briefly slow their fall. The clever bit emerges from the interactions of all of those abilities with each other and the level design.
Likely taking a bit of inspiration from their earlier work on Donkey Kong Country, Playtonic have designed Yooka’s roll so that it can always be jumped out of, regardless of whether or not he’s actually on the ground. This small idiosyncrasy in the player’s kit allows for a multitude of traversal options, all of which need to mastered to collect every secret, but only a few of which need to be mastered in order to beat the game.
Jumping out of the roll lets Yooka maintain the horozontal momentum from the roll while airborne. Doing this and then using Laylee’s twirl ability prolongs the amount of time you can preserve the momentum by keeping Yooka airborne longer. Doing this combination, but off the side of a cliff, allows Yooka to clear large distances equal to about three or four times the length of his standard jump. Laylee’s twirl ability can also be used to correct your trajectory at the last second. Even with this never-expanded small set of tools, Yooka’s platforming options are far from limited and the levels capitalize on these options heavily.
When I was going through levels the first time, I was methodical, combing them top to bottom for any sign of secrets. When returning to collect a few more Quills (currency) or to try out new Tonics, I wanted to see how fast I could go and how many opportunities I could find to make use of Yooka’s toolset. In both cases, the levels always work well. This is more than I could say about at least 80% of the other 2D platformers out there. Not utilizing the player’s abilities in varied, interesting ways is a common pitfall of weaker platformers and it’s one that Impossible Lair avoids completely.
There are a few hiccups in Impossible Lair. The loading times are obscenely long, especially when booting up the game for the first time after the application was closed.* There are many times when the (inconsistent, but often phenomenal) soundtrack stutters briefly when the game is paused and needs to find its place again.* There are times when puzzle-solving in the overworld is a lot less exciting than playing the levels themselves, unless you are replaying the levels only to get enough Quills to unlock the next tonic, in which case that is the less exciting option. Aside from these small things, however, Impossible Lair is a remarkable step-up from the first Yooka-Laylee title and is a great indication that the studio is only becoming more and more comfortable with their independent status. If you are a fan of moderate-to-difficult 2D platformers with great sound and art, sharp level design, fun (if simple) narratives, and well-refined flowing gameplay, I highly recommend checking this one out.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair launches on October 8th on all major platforms.
*We were given a Nintendo Switch copy of the game and cannot determine if these issues were console exclusive or not. Being that they are similar to problems we’ve seen in Switch ports of other games, it is possible, but we cannot say for certain.