Playtonic hearkens back to the days of Donkey Kong Country for Yooka-Laylee’s sequel.
In lieu of a straight-up 3D platformer sequel, Yooka-Laylee’s second game is instead inspired by another style that its staff of ex-Rare developers have familiarity with. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is a game that clearly draws inspiration from Donkey Kong Country’s series history while still carving out its own unique style, mostly thanks to developer Playtonic’s cheeky sense of humor and a stand-out soundtrack from Grant Kirkhope and David Wise. This charming 2D platformer isn’t without its faults, but thanks to gameplay variety and clever design, it’s a strong follow-up to Playtonic’s debut.
The majority of Impossible Lair’s gameplay is found across 20 side-scrolling levels that, at first glance, I was a little disappointed in as I started playing. Yooka and Laylee as a tag-team felt nice to control, but the design of the levels didn’t feel all that tight, relying too often on some of my least favorite elements of these somewhat collectathon platformers; you can screw yourself out of a collectable by breaking a crate or getting locked into going forward to the next portion of the level. In general, the flow of some levels just seems stilted. The pair’s roll attack is great for movement, but the structure of the levels really only make this consistently enjoyable for very early levels or higher-level play. A little bit into the adventure, Impossible Lair reveals its trick: each of the 20 levels has an alternate state that does a good job of papering over some of the issues I had with them the first time through. For example, a regular level could get flooded, making it predominantly a water level with the same layout. Another might have you being chased by a laser so that you have to run out of the level in reverse. There are a variety of alternate states, and they all generally introduce completely new gameplay twists and surprises, some great and some not-so-great. Here’s looking at you, level with sticky walls. Thankfully none of these altered ideas overstay their welcome and most are imaginative and inventive.
To switch between the different levels, you need to trigger them in the overworld map. The overworld is presented from an isometric viewpoint and provides some amusing breaks between the side-scrolling action. It holds secrets, numerous circuitous paths, and a wealth of charming characters. On one hand, this portion of the game doesn’t get in the way of romping your way from level to level, while on the other, a lot of time can be spent figuring out the variety of cute puzzles to trigger alternate states and unlock Tonic power-ups. In a way, some of the overworld exploration is reminiscent of the design of 3D platformers, just on a much smaller scale. These worlds are neatly put together, showing off that maybe this team is much more adept at 3D worlds as opposed to 2D ones.
However, in theory, you never have to see any of the overworld if you’re a savant at this game. The intro sets up series villain Capital B setting up shop in the titular lair. At any point in the game, you can try to tackle the Impossible Lair, which lives up to its name. Beating the levels and finding secrets can earn you 48 protective bees, which equate to giving you one more bit of health in the lair. Like Breath of the Wild, you can head right to the end at the beginning, but similar to that game, it’d be incredibly challenging. I was barely able to make a dent in it early on; you pretty much need a few dozen hits to weather the storm.
In addition to the added hits earned from beating levels, Tonics can also help your case. These power-ups can be found throughout the overworld and once purchased with in-game currency, you can build up a loadout that can give you a boost in levels, whether it’s added frames of invincibility when hit or making collectables easier to retain. Some of the Tonics also unlock goofy gameplay elements like a VHS filter or an upside-down mode. A few even just make the game more difficult, like Broken Joy-Con, which completely changes the button layout. This game in general does a good job of giving players a variety of customization options to make their experience easier or harder. For the most part, this is a challenging platformer, especially if you aim to go for all the collectables. But the difficulty can be scaled down somewhat through the use of Tonics. Even the concept of gathering bees for the Impossible Lair is a bit of customizable difficulty, feeling similar to some 3D platformer ideas where only a certain number of levels need to be completed before facing the final boss.
On Switch, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair runs very well, keeping up a steady 60 frames-per-second on the TV and in handheld. That does come with some caveats, though. The initial load is sizable, lasting more than a minute, which does lead to lessened load times once you’re in your save file, but even still, it generally takes 15 or more seconds to get into a level. I think the trade-off of a smooth and constant framerate outweighs the sometimes excessive loads, especially since the game looks great on the system, but it’s still a blemish on an overall great port.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is, at its worst, an enjoyable 2D platformer. Some of the level design is a tiny bit pedestrian, but the dynamic duo have a versatile moveset that helps make rolling around levels fun. Where this game shines is in the sum of its parts. The individual levels might not be outstanding, but combining those with alternate versions and a light and engrossing overworld make the whole package that is Playtonic’s second game a thrilling one. They might not have regained the crown from Retro Studios in the realm of Donkey Kong Country-like games, but they certainly retained the googly eyes.