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If the original Yooka-Laylee was a mostly solid homage to 3D action-platformers such as Banjo-Kazooie, then Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is a finely crafted love letter to side-scrolling 2D platformers like Donkey Kong Country. The colorful worlds, challenging platforming segments, and creative level designs are engaging from start to finish as you jump, roll, and spin your way towards defeating the evil Capital B and rescuing the pun-riddled world of bee-kind.
Experimenting with full 3D was fun, but The Impossible Lair shifts the perspective back to a more focused 2.5D-style, just like Nintendo’s own Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. The result is a spectacular and well-paced 12-hour adventure starring Yooka the chameleon and Laylee the bat. Each level requires quick reflexes using its snappy and responsive controls, along with a willingness to face a hefty dose of old-fashioned retro challenge. It’s certainly a tough, but fair, game. The story, meanwhile, is entirely forgettable outside of its function as an excuse to keep feeding you bee puns.
There’s an inspired and fresh approach to how you reach and defeat the final boss. The campaign actually begins with a doomed-to-fail attempt at The Impossible Lair, and even though you are technically able to try again at any time, you won’t stand much of a chance at first. It’s like some sort of twisted, sadistic version of your worst nightmare of a platforming level, absolutely littered with moving platforms and death traps. And not only is it far longer than any other level, it doesn’t have a single checkpoint. So, to make it survivable, you have to seek out the 48 collectable bees scattered around the other levels, each of which grants you one extra hit you can endure in the lair. That lets you effectively set your own level of difficulty, and really dares you to attempt that early perfect run. It even keeps track of your attempts and how close you’ve gotten — almost like it’s playfully mocking you.
One of Yooka-Laylee and The Impossible Lair’s other big innovations is how it’s expanded on the overworld until it’s basically its own separate game. This sprawling, top-down 3D adventure-puzzle game connects all of the platforming levels together, and you can easily spend more time uncovering secrets and new passageways here than you do in the levels themselves. That said, sometimes that’s due to how dense and creative the overworld is, but other times it’s because of the obtusely designed puzzles or unclear directions about where to go next.
Visually, The Impossible Lair is bursting with personality. Each and every level is layered with details in the foreground, the level itself, and the background to really give the sense of a living, breathing world. In the overworld, a level (referred to as a “Chapter”) might have its entrance in a storybook that’s literally rotating around a conveyor belt so, naturally, the level is in a factory full of conveyor belts. Reverse the belt in the overworld and the entire level reverses itself as well. One of my favorite levels is full of windmills, all about timing your jumps between spinning platforms and barreling through things without losing momentum. It takes a while to find much enemy variety since you’ll face the same handful of walking, jumping, and floating creatures, but things opens up eventually with some interesting variations – and especially with creative stage hazards and obstacles that are constantly changing things up. The music is also best in class, full of catchy tunes and sweeping melodies that fit each area to a tee.
Unlike with the previous Yooka-Laylee, which often suffered a bit from clunky and unforgiving retro design ideas such as the insufferable and monotonous backtracking and an over-reliance on a wide array of annoying collectibles., Playtonic has modernized and streamlined some key details this time around to blend its old-school difficulty with a touch of contemporary accessibility. For example, you don’t have to worry at all about collecting extra lives: you lose the in-game currency, quills, upon death instead, which means there’s no game over screen or progress lost but you can’t buy as many power-ups. Plus, if you get stuck on a tough spot you can skip ahead to the next checkpoint, but resorting to that means you’ll miss out on any collectibles hidden in that section – and those can be pretty important.
Although they’re entirely optional, the tonic upgrades are actually quite powerful and got me through some tough spots. The only way to unlock a tonic is by discovering it hidden somewhere across the overworld, often times buried or entirely out of sight, and then purchasing it with quills. They’ll do things like extend the amount of time Laylee flies around after getting hit before completely leaving or letting you keep coins you collect even after dying and respawning – or just something fun and entirely inconsequential like turning the entire level black and white.
Playtonic has really captured the heart and soul of the original Donkey Kong Country games in that stages reward you for not only precision-based platforming, but also for having an eye for hidden details. In addition to rescuing another bee for your “beetallion” (there are so many puns it’s nearly unbeelievable) the other main goal is to collect the five well-hidden T.W.I.T. coins in every level to unlock new stages. This does mean you’ll probably eventually have to go back and replay levels a few times to find enough of them, which can get repetitive.
I’ve never been a fan of gating progress and levels behind collectibles, but the levels here are all extremely dense and layered with hidden paths, so it’s fun to revisit them with an exploration-minded play style to scrounge for missed items. And the repetition of returning to beaten levels is further alleviated by remixed variations that completely change the layout or conditions. For example, one level gets frozen over. Decades of platformers have trained everybody to move from left to right as quickly and efficiently as possible, but the better solution in The Impossible Lair is often to slow down, backtrack, and explore.