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.

Upcoming Crowdfunded Films Preview Part One: Beyond Clueless

There are a three crowd-funded films I’m pretty excited about: Beyond Clueless from Charlie Lyne; Elstree 1976 from Jon Spira; and The Angry Video Game Nerd Movie from James Rolfe. All three are extremely talented people who opted to crowd-fund their projects, and succeeded way ahead of their target dates.

Crowd-funding is a double-edged sword. In an ideal scenario, you get the money you need to complete your project and ensure you have an audience of backers who are all on board from the start, getting e-mails on a regular basis updating them with all the latest progress as it happens. It also gives you a bit of impetus to finish it on time as you have 100s or 1000s of people to keep happy.

The negative side of crowd funding is that you can end up highly embarrassed if you fail to get enough backers and your project falls flat on its face. There have been some big-name stars who’ve fallen foul of this for a variety of reasons, usually because they set their target too high (see Bjork’s failed Biophilia app campaign) or they didn’t come up with enough interesting rewards at appropriately-pitched prices.

These boys have got it right so I thought I’d write about them and give them the attention they deserve. I’ll start with Beyond Clueless, with the other two covered over the next week.

Beyond Clueless still 4

I’ve been a backer of this campaign for almost two years now and thus feel wholeheartedly part of the journey that all backers have gone on with writer and director Charlie Lyne, who makes a living as a columnist to The Guardian and as the editor of film blog Ultra Culture. With regular updates to all the backers and exclusive videos and artwork sent out to us all (and preview screenings), this was a crowd-funding campaign that has been executed perfectly by Lyne and maintained my interest throughout, and this in turn has evidently generated a lot of buzz around the project.

The film is essentially a review and dissection of the teen movie genre narrated by Fairuza Balk (American History X, Almost Famous). The press release states “Beyond Clueless is a dizzying journey into the mind, body and soul of the teen movie, as seen through the eyes of over 200 modern teen classics”. I’m a big fan of many of the films covered, including Mean Girls, Clueless, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club (to name but a few). The film promises to draw comparisons by interlinking scenes of different films and commenting on the themes and critically analysing all the films it covers – no easy achievement considering the breadth of the subject. Judging by the backer updates, Lyne is clearly very passionate about the subject matter and so everything will be dealt with the utmost respect.

The soundtrack is provided by the excellent Summer Camp and I’ve been listening to bits of it already and it’s absolutely perfect for this film. Plenty of it is available online and it’s well worth a listen. This is complimented by the highly stylised illustrations surrounding the film, provided by Hattie Stewart. She has done wonders to create a brand for the film and help nurture the buzz, and this can’t be underestimated.

Having read some reviews, there has been some criticism of Balk’s narrative and also of the cutting techniques used by Lyne to produce the final edit. This all remains to be seen when the film arrives locally – I’ll be at the QUAD screening in Derby when tickets and times are released. On a side note, there is a mini tour going on to promote the film and if you get chance to drop in to one of these screenings there’s quite a lot on offer, including Q+A sessions with Lyne and live soundtrack accompaniment from the aforementioned Summer Camp. They start on 13th January and go pretty much until the general release later in the month.

When it is finally released across the UK, I hope it gets the audience the team behind it deserve.

Beyond Clueless is on a promotional tour, with dates across the UK leading up to a wider release on 29th January 2015. All dates for the tour are on the official website.