The original Yooka-Laylee was a game I had looked forward to only to give up on it after its first level. Meanwhile, its sequel is a game I practically paid no attention to and ended up falling in love with once I started playing. Why didn’t anyone tell me, specifically, that Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is essentially a new Donkey Kong Country with a 3D overworld filled with Zelda-like puzzles and secrets that all ends in a lengthy and difficult dungeon that’s reminiscent of a harder Super Mario Maker level?
The Impossible Lair takes place directly after the original, but from what I can tell, aside from a few fourth wall breaking references, you aren’t missing out on much by not having played it. You play as a Chameleon named Yooka and their bat friend Laylee on a quest to stop an evil capitalist bee and help a queen get back her kidnapped bee soldiers. Not exactly a deep or hard to follow plot, which is probably for the better since the writing here is never as fun or memorable as the rhymes you’d find in Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie games.
But you’re not here for the story, you’re here for a tight platformer that looks, plays, and sounds like a modernized Donkey Kong Country thanks to Playtonic Games being made up of former Rare employees, and the soundtrack being composed by Grant Kirkhope and David Wise, who you may know from Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Country soundtracks, respectively.
You start in a 3D overworld that looks and plays like a combination of a top-down Zelda and Super Mario 3D World and is easily one of the best overworld experiences I’ve had in a game. So many games have overworlds that simply serve as a way to guide players from level to level, whereas here the entire overworld is filled to the brim with puzzles, and secrets to find along the way. I’d even go as far as to say that the overworld is equally enjoyable as the 2D levels that make up the meat of the game, which is high praise since I’d say this is the best ‘Donkey Kong Country game’ in two decades.
Controls are tight and responsive, which is a must in a game where you can roll quickly side to side, and even in the air a bit before doing a mid-air jump and brief twirl to reach an enemy’s head to bounce off to get to an off-screen hidden coin. It’s a treat. My one complaint is that if you get hit by an enemy then Laylee flies sporadically around the screen and then away if you don’t grab her in time, which then removes from moves from your arsenal unless you find a bell to call her back. Bells are scattered throughout the levels, as are numerous checkpoints meaning accidentally falling down a hole doesn’t mean restarting the level. Oddly, checkpoints don’t automatically give you Laylee back, which means anytime I’d find one without her I’d activate it and immediately kill myself since respawning at checkpoints gives you her back and there’s no negative to dying since there isn’t a lives system here. This means instead of getting an extra life once you collect 100 quills (this game’s version of Donkey Kong’s bananas), you save them up and spend them to unlock cages in the overworld or to buy tonics that can make things easier, harder, or apply graphical filters. It gives purpose to collecting, as do the five hidden coins in each level which are used to unlock more levels in the overworld.
There are technically 41 levels in the game, though half of them are alternative versions of each of the main levels. On paper that sounds like it would be bad or repetitive, but the alternative versions of levels are almost all vastly different to the point it doesn’t even feel like the same level. For example, there’s one level where the alternative version has walls covered in honey, allowing Yooka to wall jump up all the walls but also stick to the ground, or another where the wind is blowing making platforms connected to windmills move and other platforms sway back and forth. While those may sound like simple changes, I assure you that each level feels mechanically different enough to completely change the way each level is played, and are usually a bit harder, in what is already a difficult game. For those that aren’t as skilled, you’ll eventually be offered a way to skip harder sections of levels if you keep failing, but if you find the normal levels difficult, you’re gonna have a bad time with the end game Impossible Lair.
Each level completed frees one of the queen’s bees (some are hidden in the overworld for those of you doing the math), which in turn grants one more hit/fall damage in the lengthy Impossible Lair, that serves as the game’s endgame that you can challenge at any time. This lair expects you to have mastered the mechanics found throughout the game, and then some. It is as refreshing as it is difficult, and feels a lot like going from a normal Super Mario Bros. level to a hard yet zany Super Mario Maker level in the way it feels familiar but like a mad genius made it to torture you in ways you never expected to enjoy. I tried to make it through the Impossible Lair a few times at 10 bees, then 30 bees, and only eventually made it all the way through with 42 bees on my tenth attempt, which was less than I thought it would take. That isn’t to say it’s easy, I just got lucky. My heart was pounding by the end and I walked away feeling satisfied and accomplished. The Impossible Lair is the perfect grand finale to one of the best platformers of this generation.
If you’re a fan of the Donkey Kong Country games or 2D platformers in general, Yookay-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is a modern and fresh must-play. It’s bright, it’s colourful, it has some of the best work from its composers, the level design is great, there’s a ton of variety, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome at around 15 or so hours to 100% complete. A standing ovation for the developers at Playtonic Games, you’ve done well.