While it may not be as apparent or as direct as say the art-style, the music, perhaps even the all-round aesthetic that bonds all of its many assets together — ideally into one stringent and coherent whole — level design is by far one of the absolute necessities for any game to get right. You may not know it, but subconsciously you’re constantly keeping tabs of how everything you’ve seen and/or been to adds up in a physical or perhaps geometric whole, form-wise. No one likes to enter/traverse/exit the same plot or square space with exactly the same allotting of in-game assets or would-be furniture. Whether it’s meant to simulate the real, the surreal, the hyper-real, even something so abstract and far removed from any illusion to nature (of any hyperbolic realm), designing the actual level — from its basic shaping to the way players will unknowingly flow through its many channels and routes — does often feel like the easiest part to start, but often the most difficult area in a game to get right, let alone finish with genuine confidence pouring out.
Back in the days of the N64 and the original PlayStation, with developers devoid of the luxury of present day technology — and simulations of real-life settings were no more than rigid polygons and mapped textures — it was even more critical to pull off. Yes we may have got our fair share of polygons and cuboids, but for every stark reminder of gaming’s limits twenty-or-so years ago, there was always that one game that managed to push past the 64-bit limitation. Counter the potential ugliness with, if not some spectacle of high-def fidelity, a World, environment or solitary level that demonstrated a fond but well-sought attempt to pull players in. To attract them with an art-style, aesthetic or all-round delivery of presentation — keeping one fixed in position with how what we saw, combined with what we played, fed into the inevitable exploration of the virtual surroundings.
Yooka-Laylee is a game that is clearly looking back to move forward. Back to a time when level design was paramount to get right. The nouvelle cuisine to today’s choice of multi-course open-Worlds or buffet-style procedurally-generated endeavors. And while there are plenty of other key, critical areas that only cement Playtonic’s evident return to a former decade-old string of thinking (for better or perhaps for worse), it’s the design of the game’s five main book Worlds that can perhaps best sum up the game’s at-times on-point, at others bafflingly vacant jostle between drawing from the N64 days…and simply replicating it.
It’s not even a gradual or otherwise progressively-built presence the studio undertakes too, which is perhaps the biggest confusion players will likely draw. This isn’t a simple case of the Worlds getting bigger or harder or somehow more profound — be it within or outside the constraint of its [basic] story-telling. It’s an odd and undue sine-wave of addition, subtraction, substitution and general indecisiveness on whether latter progression constitutes anything other than the player simply nearing the game’s credits screen. Or in fact, could (and should, I must admit) follow the classic Mario formula of asking more of the player. At least in a game like Banjo-Kazooie or Spyro the Dragon (to keep this within the realm of 3D platformers), you could visualise the curve in difficulty or gradual, if slight, increase in physical scale the further you made your way through.
While some of that game’s most notoriously frustrating, notoriously challenging levels — like Rusty Bucket Bay — could indeed be regarded as the smallest physically (nothing more than a cut-off square; a perimeter of ground with a giant boat in the middle with splintered-off entry/exit points), you could argue that these kinds of later offerings indulged us in a more sophisticated and elegantly-arranged structure. Even if an environment doesn’t carry through some kind of charismatic, pouting of the lips at falling (again!) to one’s death in the engine room…or not managing to get the Jiggy behind the boat’s rotors…or unfortunately having the shark appear in that one corner with the Jinjo stuck on a buoy, games like Super Mario 64 still managed to invoke a sense of tonal/possibly narrative intrigue with its often small, often straight-forward Worlds. Wet-Dry World, as previously mentioned, but Hazy Maze Cave too (possibly my favourite of that game’s fifteen main Worlds) with its branching paths, subterranean setting and variety of puzzle-solving.
Yooka-Laylee doesn’t carry as much of that game-spanning interest though; its highest marks coming mostly in its early proceedings, emerging only in tiny pockets thereafter. While its chosen themes later on do, fortunately, go against the grain of Mario-style climaxes (no fire World here), while the premises may entice — a grand casino and an odd astral plane of ocean, these Worlds falter because, possibly, Playtonic forget about the way these levels are elaborately structured and revealed to the player. And this is likely a fault of taking perhaps too many an inspiration from the N64 days. Back when a World’s basic geometry and often spacious surroundings were a result of the hardware’s capabilities rather than some deliberate artistic decision. As a result, Capital Cashino — outside of its nestled platforming sections and occasionally fun challenges to conquer — feels gargantuan for the mere sake of it. The first, basic layer in a World that should look denser judging from its size, but isn’t. A whole load of “stuff”, intended to create the illusion of size, but in no way pulling off such an obvious deceit.
But Galleon Galaxy is at even greater fault for not even having the will to deceive. Not even attempting to draw its player towards the mystery of its setting — perhaps coaxing us into some ridiculously pointless (if fun) stipulation on “the lore” like the worst kind of bottom-of-the-barrel scraping Souls fanboy. Wet-Dry World might have been one of the most basic Worlds in Super Mario 64 in terms of complexity (or lack thereof), but its visual backdrop — not to mention the “hidden” under-city that comprises its second square plot — sent the brain of my former nine-year-old self running wild with self-propelled head-canon and fan-theories alike. Yooka-Laylee‘s Gallon Galaxy does none of that; its tiny plots of ground and splintered-off areas showing little of that same deliberation so clearly demonstrated in earlier offerings. Its entire structure manifesting like some blank slate now riddled with randomly-thrown darts so as to determine the location of each of its challenges. Forgetting then to encapsulate that sense of wonder — resulting in an environment not just deprived of activity, but simply coming off rushed and hastily strewn together. Hell I think, in terms of mostly water-centred levels, I found more curiosity and immersion in something like Dire Dire Docks than I did Galleon Galaxy.
Yet for every groan or sigh I muster for these kinds of lackluster attempts, I find that disdain balanced out by an equally-prevalent jolt of interest (even joy) at making one’s way around the game’s alternate designs. Environments well worth the time to discover. Whether its Moodymaze Marsh, slap-bang in the middle of the game’s overall progress, or even at the beginning — the simple pleasures of scaling Tribalstack Tropics’ expanded verticality; returning later on when one gains the ability to fly and simply taking in the view. At the very least, Playtonic do at least take both axises into consideration at select moments with Worlds that can offer both horizontally-aligned discovery as well as vertically-arranged challenge that may or may not award the player in some materialistic way. True, the dotting of floating platforms and carefully-disguised polygons, you could say, limits how much a level can convince us of its fleshed-out stature, yet I think 3D platformers can get away with this. And when I say “get away with” I mean in the sense that the challenge in reaching these areas possibly mitigates the lack of any one grand, adjoined structure.
The platformer is of course a niche market and an equally-niche favourite in the video game community. Best reflected, perhaps, in how divisive it’s proven to critics — some loving the game, some (like me) liking the game as an all-round product, but making sure to point out its obvious momentary flaws…and some generally not liking it at all. Yooka-Laylee certainly wants to capture the imagination of those who grew up enjoying these same 3D adventures (at the expense of those who didn’t) two decades previous and in certain corners, the game definitely delivers on that. But when taking level design, specifically, into consideration, it’s clear Playtonic have not only factored in the benefits of 90’s thinking, but I would argue have unfortunately mistaken such things as hardware limitation and basic geometry for some defining aesthetic that so too needed to be replicated. Fun and frustrating the game’s later puzzles/challenges may be, when this is essentially all that is holding a World together, due to its empty and deprived design, that’s certainly an issue that shouldn’t go unnoticed.
For someone who enjoys taking a closer look at such matters like level design in any video game, Yooka-Laylee is by far one of the more “interesting” dissections to undertake. I’ll give it to Playtonic for reminding me what it was like to play a 3D platformer for the first time…but as it’s been made evident, least in this day and age, that mentality doesn’t quite fly as briskly or as blissfully in this the year 2017. For a full break-down on how Yooka-Laylee fairs, check out our official review of the game here.