Yooka-Laylee has finally arrived and reviews have come in somewhat mixed. Metacritic’s average hovers in the low 70’s while various websites take a love-it or hate it approach. For a game pitched at a very specific niche and riding momentum on the back of nostalgia, this can’t really come as a surprise to anyone. But does this middle of the road reaction from critics ultimately mean anything?
There were a flurry of high-profile Kickstarter projects a few years back that found themselves in the spotlight. We all know Shovel Knight went on to become a standout title in its own right, but the fate of these other games has been more varied. Perhaps more notably, Mighty No. 9 was critically panned and largely disliked by those who backed it for being a failure. It put more pressure on Yooka-Laylee, which had the unenviable task of trying to raise the quality of Kickstarter’s alumni while still keeping to its stated promises.
It seems unfair to throw Yooka-Laylee into this position, yet after a number of high-profile misfires from Kickstarter backed games, it became inevitable. Polytonic’s re-imagining of Rare’s classic platformers became a beacon of hope, maybe this game will be the one that finally knocks it out the park. Alas, while super fans of the Banjo series and Rare games will be happy; the rest of the gaming world seems to be largely indifferent to the title.
It’s not surprising really. The game was targeted at a specific niche – that of the late-1990’s platformer. Much like Mighty No. 9, the game was a love letter to a genre that had long since passed out the mainstream, limiting its appeal from the first step. Yooka-Laylee was the product of a nostalgia trip, a promise to recapture the highs (and lows) of a time period many gamers wish to fondly revisit. Heck, one look at Playtonic’s website over the past year and you’d lose count of the number of times “Rare” or “Ex-Rare” employee pops up. This game never hid what it was – so it’s hard to be critical when it plays its cards so brazenly.
Part of the problem is that most of the people who want the game will pay upfront for it through Kickstarter. It’s their backing that makes the game’s development possible, no matter what state it arrives in. In the case of Yooka-Laylee, I suspect many of these early backers will be over the moon about the final game, most of the critical reception to the game points to a game that fly’s a little too close to the Banjo series (and its flaws). This critical reception won’t phase these gamers, they got the game they want ultimately.
The more interesting response comes from the wider gaming industry. Kickstater has a weird effect on critical discourse, as it makes critical reaction all the more harder to apply in a normal manner. Traditionally reviews are used by gamers as a way of determining if a game is worth their investment but with Kickstarter, that investment has already occurred for the hardcore fans. The main bulk of those who’d buy the game will already be getting it – so the critical response if aimed at those who have yet to be convinced into the concept.
To modern gamers buzzing on Call of Duty multiplayer sessions and Overwatch, the idea of returning to a cutesy throwback to late-1990’s platformers will always be a hard sell. Of course Playtonic and Team 17 will have wanted Yooka-Laylee to catch on in a bigger way and achieve higher scores – but for the first outing in Playtonic’s upcoming roster of games – it’s not the end of the world. Rare didn’t achieve greatness overnight and this is a new franchise. It takes time to ground it in.
Unlike recent AAA-outings with monstrously high budgets, Yooka-Laylee has time to grow into something bigger. While new IP’s like The Division, No Man’s Sky and Battleborn were pitched too high in their marketing – forced into the AAA-space when they really didn’t have the backing to make it work – Playtonic’s franchise can develop and expand. It has a bright future and the critique offered up will serve more as a pointer for improvement than a franchise killer.
At the end of the discussion, I feel the mild response to Yooka-Laylee was predictable. It’s a game that was pitched, developed and released on a huge wave of nostalgia. To those who didn’t buy in (like myself), it’s a mild curiosity that could turn into something great down the road. It’s hard to accept in a world of AAA-gaming and high budgets, but the first step is usually the hardest. I feel that it’s the reactions of those who backed the game that ultimately matters more, since this game was largely created for them.
Maybe in time, Playtonic can deliver a game everyone can enjoy.