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Thursday, August 6, 2020

More 3D Platformer Design: Yooka-Laylee & A Return to A Hat in Time

It’s been a while since my last article on 3D Platformers, one where I looked at the level design of Gears for Breakfast’s wonderful A Hat in Time. Since then, they’ve released two new worlds as downloadable content, “The Arctic Cruise” and “Nyakuza Metro”, and finally been ported to the Switch. I recently decided to replay the game, including the new content, and at more or less the same time, I finally got around to trying Playtonic Games’ Yooka-Laylee (which, for those not in the know, first got note for being a spiritual successor to the Banjo-Kazooie series from the Nintendo 64, made by many alumni from those titles). Playing them back to back gave me a lot of thoughts on both, and 3D platformers on the whole, so it seemed like a good time to revisit my last article.

So let’s start with where I left off last time: as I mentioned at the end of the last piece, there was nothing saying the styles the base levels of A Hat in Time used were the only options available to 3-D Platformer design. And sure enough, the two new levels go off in their own directions. First, if you played Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Sunshine, you might remember levels like Big Boo’s Haunt and Sirena Beach, where the level is dominated by a building filled with rooms divided across multiple floors, almost like a real-world place (except, you know, with fewer elevators to change floors, and more five foot ledges to jump up, and other acceptable breaks with real-world logic). In a lot of ways, it’s almost like the digital version of a dollhouse.

A lot of the time, these dollhouse levels require you to keep a mental floorplan of the location and its various locked doors, one-way passages, short cuts, landmarks, and so on. And The Arctic Cruise falls well within this tradition. And it makes sense; a cruise ship feels right in line thematically with a grand haunted mansion or (especially) a resort hotel.

In any case, the level does a good job of walking you through this way of thinking about the world. The first mission of the world has you traversing the ship, looking for parts of the time piece scattered across the far corners of the map, albeit at your own pace. You can take your time looking for all of the various halls and tunnels that connect the different segments of the ship; and you should do that! Because that knowledge comes in handy for the second mission, when you need to run quickly from one section to another doing errands. Knowing shortcuts and being able to reroute on the fly are crucial skills to completing the task.

Nyakuza Metro, the second DLC level added, takes some aspects of the dollhouse design, but also combines it with the sandbox-type design, like what was seen back in the third world (Subcon Forest). We get a sprawling world of crisscrossing subway tunnels and the stores, stands and people inhabiting them, but with the free-roaming, choose-your-own mission style seen back in the fourth world (Alpine Skyline).

Honestly, this might be my favorite map in the game. I can’t say enough nice things about it. The Metro is just a well-fleshed-out, fantasy world to get lost in. Reading the maps has the adventure of exploring a new city, taking in the sites and reorienting yourself, priding yourself as you mentally connect the different parts that you’ve been to. And they even offer stronger navigating assistance for players who can’t quite get a mental handle on things. Overall, it feels like an exciting new approach to designing a 3D platofmer level, and I feel like you could build an entire other game out of this sort of world designing.


Around the same time as I was replaying A Hat in Time, I decided to also try Yooka-Laylee (because, apparently like with my articles, I get through one thing much quicker when it feels like I’m simultaneously using it to procrastinate on another thing?). In any case, playing the two side-by-side felt instructive, in a lot of ways.

I had held off playing Yooka-Laylee for a long time, in part because of some mixed reception at the time of release. Developer Playtonic Games is comprised of longtime-Rare alumni, and had a major hand in crafting some influential entries in the early days of the genre, including Donkey Kong 64 and Yooka’s spiritual predecessor, the Banjo-Kazooie series. But there was a real sort of “you can’t go home” vibe to some of the early word.

And like, I get it, to some extent. You’re never going to feel exactly the way you did playing something new and exciting at the age of six or seven or whatever. With that in mind, Yooka-Laylee was more or less fine, to me. I might feel a little off in my assessment, since I never played the Banjo series as religiously growing up as the 3D Mario entries, so my memories are a little less exact. But I always remember those games as being a little shaggier than their contemporaries, and that holds through here.

There are a bunch of minor criticisms you could harp on. The worlds aren’t as varied as A Hat in Time; they basically all feel like the Sandbox style I used to describe Subcon Forest the last time around (which makes sense if you remember that I specifically named-dropped the Banjo-Kazooie series as a point of reference in that description; to my recollection, those games leaned heavily on this style as well). It’s not a bad thing, but the lack of variety did mean that I found it a little more difficult to play for long sessions, the way I did for AHiT.

And if open-ended running around 3D environments, exploring for collectibles isn’t you jam, this probably won’t be your thing. It’s a single-minded approach that is in some ways admirable, but also means that if you aren’t on the same frequency as the developers, it might not click with you, whereas A Hat in Time has more points for a player to connect.

In fact, on the whole, I think that type of overall variety and focus actually kept AHiT a little more focused than Yooka-Laylee, somewhat counterintuitively. There’s an intentionality in play for the design of the former; everything, from “Why are we building the level this way?” to “What are we asking the player to do?” feels strongly curated; if a place wasn’t memorable, or interesting enough to traverse, or filled with enough significant things to do, it was either paired down or edited until it was those things. There are (post-DLC) 56 Time Pieces (the main collectable, for those who never played the game) in A Hat in Time, and I could probably tell you every one of them by memory. This may not seem notable, but my memory is often Swiss Cheese, so it speaks to how every level is in some way notable.

Yooka-Laylee, in contrast, takes much more of a shotgun, throw-it-in approach to designing worlds. These are big, open worlds, and Playtonic threw in as many tasks to fill those worlds and abilities to traverse them as they could come up with. With 145 Pagies (the main collectable), there are nearly triple the number of things to grab. Rather than that sharply directed intentionality, there’s a feeling that the guiding questions in Yooka were more “how many things can we fit into this large world we’ve built?”

Some of them are things that are in every level, some of things that are in some but not all levels (although there’s not always a rhyme or reason why), some are things that are only in one level but not really connected to the main theme of the world, and some fit right in. It’s a weird mix, and thankfully you don’t need to do everything (100 is enough to get you to the final boss). But that’s also the case in A Hat in Time, yet I still willingly went back and collected everything anyway because it was such a joy. There were missions in Yooka-Laylee, meanwhile, that I saw and immediately went “Eh, let’s find something else to do” after seeing them in earlier worlds and getting frustrated. There were also some really fun ones too, it just wasn’t nearly as universal as the experience in Hat.

And it was the same in other elements. Like I said earlier, Yooka-Laylee also gives you a bunch of options for movement and attacks, with two to three new ones to unlock in each world plus the ones you start with and a few others you pick up in the hub world. That’s a lot of options, and some of them feel… a little redundant.

Sometimes, it’s cool, and gives you multiple ways to attack an obstacle. That’s always fun. Other times, it feels like they couldn’t quite figure out how exactly to differentiate the more similar ones, so you get overly-specific gates. For example, maybe a panel will only break for a specific attack, even though a previous one has worked for other breakable tiles and there’s no clear reason the two tiles are different. maybe it even looks similar, Or a hill that’s apparently too steep to climb, but your “steep hill climbing” ability that you’ve been using up until that point doesn’t work, so you need to find another way to surmount it. It doesn’t ruin the game, but it can be a little jarring.

I have other gripes, too, although they’re either less general or less of an issue. The third level, Moodymarsh Maze, is irritating, with green on green that can be rough visually and inconsistent pathmarking that can sometimes send you deep into toxic areas by accident. A few of the enemies (including the final boss, at times) don’t really feel like they give good feedback on getting hit. Stuff like this, which doesn’t ruin the game or anything, but which does stand out when compared to another game that gets every aspect, even down to the smaller things, so right. And it’s also a little confusing how it slipped by such major, veteran developers.

I almost feel bad pointing all this out, since on the whole, I would say I enjoyed the game, and getting into the “what doesn’t work” feels like focusing on the negative. But I think trying to learn from others’ mistakes can be helpful, so it’s better to explain here. If you enjoy 3D platformers, I think Yooka-Laylee is definitely worth trying, and as a fan of the genre, I kind of regret putting it off for so long. But if you also haven’t played A Hat in Time and its two DLC levels… maybe start there.

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