Video game review – Yooka-Yaylee (Playtonic Games, 2017)

Version reviewed: Xbox One

Yooka-Laylee has finally arrived on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, bringing to an end one of the most successful video game crowd-sourced campaigns of all time. Launched on Kickstarter on 1st May 2015, it reached its initial target of £175,000 within 38 minutes and its stretchiest of stretch goals (£1,000,000) in 21 hours. Clearly this indicated a thirst from the fans of the studio, Playtonic Games, which had behind it four of the key players from Rare’s heyday in the mid 1990s:  Chris Sutherland, Steve Mayles, Steven Hurst, and Grant Kirkhope. 

If you’re unsure, Rare was the video gaming powerhouse that came to prominence in the 1990s with games such as Goldeneye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark and Donkey Kong Country. Both Banjo-Kazooie and its sequel Banjo-Tooie were laced with a charm and humour typical of Britain, with sign-posted gags coupled with animation that stood out at the time as exemplary. The games were also a lot of fun to play through, with the right amount of collecting and story development to keep even the most easily distracted 10-year-old interested. 

So it’s understandable that the gaming community was so enthusiastic about getting a spiritual sequel to Banjo-Kazooie.

When I started up Yooka-Laylee, the memories of Banjo-Kazooie came flooding back. As these memories engulfed my mind I couldn’t help but wonder whether time hadn’t been quite as kind to the original games as my romanticised view of them. 

The opening sequence is extremely pedestrian, with the criminal mastermind called General B. at his headquarters called Hivory Towers. There is no big wow factor, just a bit of a conversation that introduces the characters. He has created an evil device that has stolen a magical book from our heroes. This book has golden pages and within a short while we are told we must retrieve all of the pages (named “pagies”) to restore balance in the universe. Or something like that. It’s a McGuffin typical of 1990s platformers – go to several worlds and collect everything to complete the game. 

The look and feel of the game is brilliantly nostalgic for an era that doesn’t often get treated as being retro, although sadly it definitely is now. It harkens back to the Nintendo 64 era, so it’s 3D but not as beautifully rendered as more recent titles.

This is both a good and bad thing.

I don’t know whether it was intentional, but the camera issues that blighted video games for years has come back to bite us again. It’s highly frustrating and was the cause of several issues in the opening world when all I was doing was simply jumping between platforms. It’s poor design that this can cause failure and unfortunately my patience isn’t quite the same as two decades ago – I genuinely don’t have hours and hours to sink into video games per week so wasting 30 minutes jumping up some platforms just isn’t something I enjoy.

The soundtrack, however, is on the positive side of nostalgia and one that brilliantly fits with the retro design of the game. David Wise, Grant Kirkhope and Steve Burke are behind it, and these were frequently involved with Rare’s most famous soundtracks. I’m annoyed I didn’t opt for the soundtrack option when I originally backed it, but I’m sure there will be a way to rectify this soon! 

Rextro can go swivel

As the game progresses, so does the difficulty. This generally means that the collectibles aren’t sat in such obvious positions on the level, hidden in holes and requiring more skill to unlock. By the final world, the frustration at poor controls and cameras comes back and you’re left wishing you’d never started the mini-golf challenge in the first place.

A key part of the game is the Rextro Arcade challenges, which take 8-bit-inspired gaming and set mini challenges to beat the game and then the high score. These largely provide a lot of fun to proceedings until the bugs take over and you’re left short of a high score through no fault of your own.

The end result on initial play through is one that almost hits the spot but makes me wish they’d had a longer player testing period. This often gets pushed back if programming overruns, and there will doubtless been a lot of back and forth between the coding and testing departments. I just wonder whether everyone’s view became muddied before the final release of the game.

Video game review – Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE (Atlus / Nintendo, 2016)

I approached Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE with an air of caution. I’m not someone who can recite hours of dialogue from the eighth season of Pokémon, nor can I name a single member of the group AKB48. But in terms of Japanese entertainment, I am certainly a dabbler. I like Studio Ghibli, read some manga, watch the odd anime series (Attack on Titan is a favourite), play video games that have good reviews.

With this in mind, I can confidently say that on a scale of 1 to 10 of how Japanese this game is, it’s over 9000. 

It’s part of the Fire Emblem series, hence the clumsily-included “#FE” in the title (though it could also stand for “Fortuna Entertainment”), though it apparently blends in elements of Shin Megami Tensei. I can’t comment on either of these, having never played anything from either series.

The jist of the story here is that the characters are all aspiring to become Japanese musicians and idols by being in tune with their Performa (a mystical force that allows people the pursue their dreams by being confident at performing). They can summon Mirages, which are creatures that help them perform or attack enemies. The action takes place in geeky Tokyo locations such as Shibuya and Harajuku. 

So, set in Tokyo. J-RPG. J-Pop. Geek culture. Mystical creatures. Journey of discovery for a group of relatable teenagers.

So far, so Japanese.

The thing that really saves Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is that underneath the facade – which will probably sell the game to the intended audience anyway – there is an excellent game to be discovered.

The Fire Emblem battle mechanics are pretty rewarding for those willing to get to grips with them. The battles get progressively difficult as your characters beef up, but they can become easy if you think about what you’re doing and use the right skills to tackle the right enemies. The key is using “sessions”, which involve stringing together powerful combo attacks to exploit your enemies’ weaknesses.

The story focusses on a young boy named Itsuki Aoi who becomes involved with the Fortuna Entertainment company, initially against his will. His classmate Tsubasa lacks his talent but makes up for it with enthusiasm to become an idol. Elsewhere there’s an aspiring actor named Touma, a famous idol named Kiria, successful actress Eleonara, celebrity chef Mamori. Essentially, a vast array of other characters, both real and mystical. We are treated to an overwhelming number of cut sequences that introduce us to them. 

The relationships between them are critical to the ongoing enjoyment, with a phone-based messaging service alerting us to their progressing storylines and the odd side-quest, bulking out the game from a simple JRPG to something a little more relatable. It’s almost like being in an interactive soap at times.

There are some negative points. The NPCs are almost always rendered as a silhouette rather than fully drawn, giving the real world areas a feeling of emptiness. This serves to undermine the effect of the Idolasphere, which is The Upside Down of Tokyo Mirage Sessions – we are forced to go in to this alternate dimension to rescue captured people from the demons and monsters that lurk there.

Some of the puzzles are needlessly convoluted. The worst moment is inside a building early in the game, where a selection of three mannequins can be chosen from to determine the configuration of a giant French maid torso to help you reach the correct floor inside a possessed department stall. It took a long time to complete not through difficulty but simply due to the time the animation took to play out when each configuration was input. It felt like a lazy attempt to increase the length of the game but really just derailed the pace for about 40 minutes.

Other than that, this is a robust game that will have given a great deal of enjoyment to those who picked it up in a time where the Wii U was drying up and no new games were being released. Destined to be a forgotten gem.

Video game review – Rise of the Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics / Square Enix, 2015)

When Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix rebooted the Tomb Raider franchise in 2013, they pulled off a massive achievement. They’d redefined one of the most famous video characters of all time – an iconic one at that – by giving her a believable origin story that threw away the tacky sex-symbol rubbish synonymous with everything in the mid-90s when Lara Croft was initially popular. Instead we had a real heroin, not defined by her appearance but by her archeological and investigative prowess. The game was vast, the environment believable, and the whole thing was a hoot to play through.

In 2015, they returned with a second instalment that continues the story. It follows Lara on her journey to Siberia and the legendary mythical city of Kitezh. Her father had been researching it prior to going missing and presumed dead, and the city’s may or may not have powers that grant immortality. However, she is racing to discover the secrets against the organisation Trinity, who intend to use the powers for their own personal gain.

Considering the 2013 release was so successful and enjoyable, it is amazing to see that Rise of the Tomb Raider improves in every department. It is very much a continuation of the same game, looking and feeling like it’s of the same environment. However, the world itself is gigantic in comparison to its predecessor, with much more to explore and a suitably larger playing time to go with it.

I played through the game on the hardest possible difficulty level – Survivor. I’d consider myself somewhere between casual and experienced when it comes to 3rd-person action adventures, so this presented a reasonable challenge but it was by no means impossible. There were a few instances where I got frustrated and had to take some time out to plan a better strategy, including the final many-waved boss fight. But with some perseverance I managed to get through with a sense of accomplishment.

There are plenty of side quests, collectables, points of interest and relics to find. These essentially serve to slow down your progression and extend the total playing time beyond natural completion. Honestly, they don’t add a lot to the experience, but if you want to do the minimum then you should at least seek out the optional challenge tombs. They’re taxing and give skills that are extremely useful in your progression through the game.

I also completed two of the DLC quests – the rewarding Baba Yaga story being far more entertaining than the unfathomably dull Blood Lines.

If you’ve played the “first” game, then this should be top of your list of purchases. It’s cut price now and available on almost every platform.

You won’t be disappointed.