Yeah, the joke’s about as shit as you’d expect.
Have you ever played a game and thought, ‘This game is okay, but what it really needs is a co-op mode where my companion plays a mostly pointless swarm of bees’?
Of course you haven’t.
The joy of co-operative gameplay comes from two people sharing a game experience. Instead, playing co-op in Yooka-Laylee consisted of me trying to navigate glitchy platforms as the camera swung around my head, while my partner played an entirely different game on his computer, occasionally pressing the X-button on command.
I have no idea what Yooka-Laylee was trying to achieve with its co-op mode. In fact, I don’t know what it was trying to achieve with most of its design choices. I’m not convinced it knows what it was going for either.
And it’s not the only confused 3d-platformer to be released in the last twelve months. Last year, the new Ratchet and Clank arrived, and was only marginally better.
When teaching introductory game design, I explain to my students that they need to clearly define their target audience. I use this analogy: You are standing in a bar, facing a dart board, and you are aiming for the bullseye. Sometimes it feels like Ratchet and Clank (2016) threw its dart and hit the outer edge of the board. In contrast, Yooka-Laylee threw its dart and hit the drywall a couple of metres away.
My review code for Yooka-Laylee was accompanied by a lovely letter that explained the game was designed to appeal to the people who grew up with classic 3d-platformers. In this letter, Playtonic Games assured us Yooka-Laylee would also be the perfect game to introduce the new generation to the joy of the 3d-platformer. I’m sure Ratchet and Clank (2016) had similar intentions.
But if you want to introduce the new generation to the joy of a genre, you have to make games that are joyous. There is no joy in platforming mechanics that are so glitchy that they frequently throw you to your death, or in gadgets and abilities that only work the way they’re supposed to half the time.
And here’s the thing: The 20-somethings who grew up marvelling at Jak and Daxter or Spyro (aka: me) are very different people to the kids who are already addicted to Minecraft. We don’t find the same puzzles challenging, we aren’t drawn in by the same stories, and we don’t laugh at the same jokes.
Okay, Ratchet and Clank (2016), we get it. You are very self-aware and you know that you are a game based on a movie based on a game. We noticed the joke you just made about holo-games and holo-films, and we also noticed the fifteen that came before it.
And yes, Yooka-Laylee, we know that you know you are a game, thanks to those little quips about tutorials, boss fights, and quality assurance. I’m not sure who you are aiming those WA jokes at (or any of your jokes, really), but those who know what you are talking about are probably developers expecting a higher calibre of fourth-wall breaking hilarity, and those who aren’t ‘in the know’ are just going to think you made a typo.
Can you please explain why you thought it was a good idea to replace milestone battles with unskippable pop quizzes about characters and locations in your game? I mean, I scored 100% on them (because of course I did—I’m a huge nerd) but…
Also, what’s up with Trowzer the snake? Is that supposed to be a subtle adult joke that flies over the heads of children, appealing to parents in that clever double-meaning way that Disney and Pixar do so well? I hate to break it to you, but your kids probably aren’t as innocent as you think, which just makes this a really weirdly inappropriate name for a snake.
Can you please explain why you thought it was a good idea to replace milestone battles with unskippable pop quizzes about characters and locations in your game?
On the surface, both Ratchet and Clank (2016) and Yooka-Laylee boast that they are all about freedom. ‘We have an awesome weapon upgrades system that lets you make choices!’ Ratchet and Clank says. Meanwhile, Yooka-Laylee is shouting, ‘You can explore our worlds at your own pace, however you like!’ But it’s all a ruse. The upgrade system in Ratchet and Clank is linear, with each weapon disallowing most upgrades, while the order that you complete activities in Yooka-Laylee is restricted by which abilities you’ve unlocked, which is in turn restricted by how many quills you collect.
Somehow, Ratchet and Clank (2016) and Yooka-Laylee also manage to make collectibles feel more useless than their predecessors. In Ratchet and Clank, you can gather holocards for the purpose of… finding more holocards? These cards can also unlock weapons in Challenge Mode (which is essentially New Game +), in case you want to see if the dialogue is less cringy the second time you hear it. At least there is voice acting in Ratchet and Clank, which is somewhat more tolerable than the repetitive squeaking that Yooka-Laylee uses instead.
When you aren’t collecting holocards in Ratchet and Clank, you’re invading the habitats of native animals and killing them so you can take their brains and give them to a scientist who wants to build an army and who is working for the antagonist. Wait, does anyone else see a problem with this? Just me? Okay.
The 3d-platformers that I played as a kid were not perfect games, but they were clever. Care was taken to ensure that they were thoughtful and balanced, and that they felt lively and full of surprises. Ratchet and Clank (2016) captures my memory of this liveliness and recreates it, filling the screen with more chaos than the PlayStation 2 titles could ever process, and adds new twists to old locations.
Meanwhile, Yooka-Laylee reuses its characters and worlds, and it becomes obvious quickly that all of the surprises are gone after the first couple of hours of gameplay. The Tribalstack Tropics are beautiful, and I found myself taking screenshots of the rainbows and waterfalls more than once, but after this world, the magic dries up, like the tears of Nimbo the Cloud.
It’s good to see characters like Ratchet, Clank, Yooka, and Laylee in this bar again after so long. But I think somebody needs to sit them down, pour them a drink, and give them a firm talking to (and teach them how to play darts).
I’m happy for it to be me.