Publisher: Team 17
Platforms: XBO, PS4, NS, PC
Version Played: PC
Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie are some of my favourite Rare games. I remember playing BK on N64 and dreaming of a DKC style 2D platformer starring the bird and bear duo. That never happened, though. And it's not going to happen with the current Rare either. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair comes pretty close, though.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is 40 levels of old-school 2D platforming action, plus the Impossible Lair itself, which is like 4 levels in one. It's actually 20 levels, but each one has 2 very different versions, so it's 40 levels. For comparison, the first DKC game on SNES had 40 levels too. YLATIL doesn't have any boss battles besides Capital B, who you only fight in the Impossible Lair, but its levels are much bigger than DKC's. There's a lot to do in the overworld in between levels too. This isn't as big as the first Yooka-Laylee, but it's still a pretty big game.
The Impossible Lair is both the first level and the last. You can actually play it at any point in the game. The thing is that, while it's not actually impossible, it's incredibly hard. There's enemies constantly coming after you, pretty much every hazard and obstacle in the game is in it, and there's no power ups or Tonics allowed. It's the kind of level you have to play dozens of times to memorize. It's like something out of Ghosts'N Goblins. It's way harder than anything else in the game. Getting through it with your default 2 hit point Yooka and Laylee is extremely difficult. But thankfully, you can get 48 hit points by beating every level in the game and rescuing all the bees. You rescue a bee at the end of every level and they each let you take 1 more hit in the Impossible Lair. It's still super hard with all 48 bees, though.
The Impossible Lair is split up into 4 sections and you fight Capital B at the beginning of each one. These 4 splits in the Impossible Lair are the only checkpoints, but your progress is saved even if you leave the level. And by progress, I mean the amount of bees you make it to the next section with. For example, if you make it to the 2nd part with 38 bees, you can continue from there with 38 bees after dying or leaving the level. You can also retry previous parts of the level to try and beat them with more bees without losing your progress in later parts of the level. So if you made it to the 4th part with only 1 bee, you can replay the 2nd or 3rd part to try and get there with more if you want. It's a really cool concept. I just don't really like the level itself.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair takes some inspiration from Donkey Kong Country Returns and Tropical Freeze, but it plays a lot more like DKC on SNES. Yooka is the character you actually play as. Yooka runs, jumps, swims, swings, and rolls, just like Donkey Kong. You can even roll off platforms and jump in midair like in DKC. He can also do a tail swipe attack while standing still, a long jump after a butt stomp, and grab things with his tongue, carry them around, and throw them. Laylee is more like DK's friends in Returns and Tropical Freeze. She's more like a power up than a second character. When Yooka has Laylee with him, he can butt stomp and do a helicopter glide while in the air, like Dixie Kong. When Yooka takes damage, Laylee scurries around and you have to touch her to get her back, kind of like Baby Mario in Yoshi's Island but without the crying. Yooka-Laylee is just an egg throwing mechanic away from the Banjo-Kazooie 2D platformer I envisioned years ago.
Of course, good controls can only take a 2D platformer so far. It needs good level design to really stand out. YLATIL doesn't really try anything I haven't seen before, but I think its levels are a lot of fun. There's only one level that I didn't like, and that's the Impossible Lair. The rest of the game is very well done and lots of fun. The levels are big, but they never feel like they drag on and can be finished in a few minutes. There's rope swinging, swimming, buzzsaws, spikes, falling platforms, you know, the classics. There's also keys for opening locked doors, secret bonus rooms, and 5 gold coins hidden in every level, so there's some exploration too. The only kind of level you won't find here is minecart levels. Frankly, I don't miss them. We got more than enough of those in the first Yooka-Laylee. The game does ramp up the difficulty as you progress through the game, but you get infinite lives and plenty of checkpoints, so I never got frustrated with the game. Outside of the Impossible Lair that is.
There's much more to the overworld in this game than the maps in DKC and Mario games. The overworld in YLATIL is more like a level in the original Yooka-Laylee. There's NPCs, puzzles, a little bit of platforming, and even enemies. You can't die on the overworld, though, you just lose some gold quills if you get hit. Solving puzzles in the overworld opens paths to new levels and unlocks the second version of every level, so you always want to explore, talk to NPCs, and just mess around with anything that looks like it might do something.
The thing I don't like too much about the overworld is the TWIT Coin gates. Trouzer the Snake has walls which block your path around the world and you have to pay him coins to open them for you. It's a paywall joke. The coin fees are high enough that I had to spend a few hours of my playthrough just replaying levels to collect more coins. Thankfully, the levels are fun, so it wasn't too bad, but it does feel like they're trying to slow you down so you don't beat the game too quickly.
There's also a bunch of Tonics hidden around the overworld. Tonics are like the Halo Skulls of Yooka-Laylee. They modify your abilities, make playing the game easier or harder, or just put a photo filter on the game. Beneficial Tonics reduce the amount of gold quills you get at the end of a level and Tonics that make the game harder boost the amount of quills you get. You can equip 3 tonics at a time, so I used one that makes Laylee's glide longer, one that gives you more invincibility after getting hit, and another that makes Laylee fly around less after you take damage. These tonics made the game easier, but also gave me a 0.4 gold quill multiplier.
Music in YLATIL ranges from goofy and downright annoying jingles to beautiful relaxing melodies and hard rock jams. It's all over the place. That's probably because 4 composers worked on it. David Wise, Grant Kirkhope, Matt Griffin, and Dan Murdoch all composed songs for this game. Some songs are great and some had me turning the volume down.
I think this game looks really nice. The models are pretty low poly and the textures are not super detailed, but everything is so small and you're running around so fast, you don't really notice while playing. The lighting is also really well done, so it kind of covers up any imperfections. The game just has that kind of colorful Rare box art CG kind of look to it and I love it. It also has an uncapped framerate on PC, if you care about that sort of thing, which I do.
Even with the few annoyances, I love this game. I might even like it more than DKC Tropical Freeze. It's just so much closer to SNES DKC than Retro's games. I also like this game much better than the first Yooka-Laylee because it's more concerned with actually making a good game than with making jokes about N64 Rare collectathons, and I appreciate that.
Developer: Acid Nerve
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platforms: PC, NS, XBSX, PS4, PS5
Version Played: PC
"Souls-like" is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days. It's a tag on Steam. That makes it official gaming jargon. I've heard people call Death's Door a Souls-like, but I've never played much Dark Souls, so I couldn't tell you if it is or not. I have played a lot of Zelda, though, and I can tell you that Death's Door is a lot like Zelda. I don’t think the game is trying to hide it either. I mean, one of the main combat mechanics is the magic spell reflection from the Agahnim fight in LttP.
Death's Door is an action adventure game in which you explore an interconnected world, get items which help you solve puzzles and overcome obstacles, and battle through dungeons with bosses that drop a thing you need at the end. That's the Zelda formula alright. There is an order in which you're supposed to tackle each dungeon, since you need specific items to progress, but you're free to go wherever you can get to at any point in the game.
The Hyrule Field of Death's Door is a big cemetery that connects everything in the game. In it you'll find hidden items, lots of enemies, a couple of NPCs, and paths leading to every major area in the game. Every one of those areas has its own dungeon and some sequence of puzzles and battles you have to go through before entering that dungeon. Every area in the world, including the dungeons, is connected to a Limbo style dimension, called the Hall of Doors, through portal doors. The Hall of Doors is, of course, full of portal doors, so you can quickly travel anywhere through the Hall of Doors. These doors also serve as convenient checkpoints throughout the game.
Puzzles and items in Death's Door are straight up Zelda. I can't look at any of them without being reminded of their Zelda equivalent. You get a bow and arrows, a fire spell, bombs, and a hookshot. Puzzles have you shooting switches, blowing up walls, burning spiderwebs to clear paths, and grappling across chasms, just like in Zelda games. There's also environment pieces you can use as makeshift items before getting them, just like in Zelda. For example, you can shoot arrows through torches to light other torches before you get the fire spell and break explosive vases to break walls before getting the bombs. Not that copying from Zelda is a bad thing. The puzzles in Death's Door are a lot of fun, even if they're not very original.
I think one of the biggest differences between Death's Door and Zelda is the way you open paths through the world. The general flow of the game is a bit more linear. There isn't as much backtracking in Death's Door because everything is designed around opening shortcuts to skip past the long way around you took the first time. So when you die, you just run right back to where you were instead of having to run through the whole dungeon again. This usually involves dropping down a ladder from higher ground or opening a door from the other side. It's a lot like Astalon and Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order. I've also heard Dark Souls works like that, but I can’t confirm that.
Dungeon design is also, for the most part, more straightforward than in a Zelda game. Dungeons are usually split up into 4 sections you have to go through in order to open a door to the boss. Each section usually only leads you in one direction too. It's not like every room has 4 exits. There also isn't a lot going up and down between the floors of a dungeon, like in some Zelda games.
Combat in Death's Door is all about timing, pattern recognition, and animation priority. When using the default sword, you get a 3 hit sword slash combo with a small cooldown after the final swing, so you can't just mash the attack button. You also have a more powerful swipe slash you do by holding down and releasing the R trigger, and an overhead slash you can do when coming out of a roll. Your roll has some invincibility frames and is faster than running, so it's very useful for evading attacks. I thought the combat was one of the best parts of the game. There's a lot of it too. I just thought it was a lot of fun learning how to fight all the enemies with just these few simple tools. The bosses were especially fun to fight because they really force you to think about your timing and positioning.
You can upgrade your Crow by buying upgrades with the souls you collect from enemies, kinda like in Devil May Cry, but you can't buy any moves or anything. The stats you can upgrade are strength, dexterity, haste, and magic. Strength and magic increase attack power with either melee or ranged attacks, dexterity increases attack speed, and haste increases movement speed. I actually never upgraded magic at all, but maxed out the other 3 by the end of the game. I just never found the ranged weapons to be very good for battling since they require you to hold LT to stop and aim, and that sounds like an easy way to get killed in this game.
This is just a little indie game with simple graphics and an isometric perspective, but it sure looks nice. A lot of that has to do with the art style and hand-painted textures. I wouldn't call the style of the game Burtonesque, but it's kind of leaning in that direction. It's very dark and gothic, but cartoony at the same time. The angles and proportions of things, like gravestones and trees, are a bit distorted, but not extremely so, like in The Nightmare Before Christmas or something. I love the look of all the fountains, gargoyles, wrought iron gates, and that sort of thing. It's not all that gothic or Victorian era kind of style, though. There's a good amount of variety in the environments too.
The music really helps everything come together. Every song goes perfectly with each area. Soft piano music for the Hall of Doors, seafaring harmonica music in the rocky sea shore area, and some very gloomy classical sounds in the Lost Cemetery. I think it's very well done and adds a lot to the mood and atmosphere of the game.
Since this game does have the Souls-like tag on it, I guess I should comment on the difficulty. It's really not that hard. Don't let the tag scare you. I beat the game with the same amount of health and magic you start the game with. Yeah, this game also has the equivalent of Zelda's heart pieces, and I didn't get the 4 I needed to get more health until after beating the game. All I upgraded was my stats. I'm kind of salty they didn't give me an achievement for that. I felt like the difficulty was just right. The game is challenging enough to make you think about strategy, but not so hard that you're forced to grind for souls or go looking for heart containers.
It’s not often that I come across a Zelda-like action adventure game that really grabs me. Death's Door is a very good one, though. It has great combat, good dungeon and world designs, and beautiful graphics and music. I love the theme of the reaper crows too. I just wish the game had a map! I hope there's a Death's Door 2 in the works.
Developer: Team Ladybug
Platforms: PC, PS4, XBO, NS
Price: $20, $25 on Switch because Switch Tax LOL
Version Played: PC
Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth is a Metroidvania based on the long-running Record of Lodoss War series of novels, RPGs, manga, and anime. I've seen a few episodes of the 90s anime, but I have no connection to the series besides that. It looks like an anime take on high fantasy swords and sorcery stuff. More like Fire Emblem than Final Fantasy, though. I don't even know if a Metroidvania is the best fit for a Lodoss War game, but this turned out alright.
I'm sure the first thing most people will notice about Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth is its graphics. This game is gorgeous. Deedlit's sprite alone has a ton of stuff going on. Her hair is flowing, her cape is fluttering, she has shadows trailing her, and she has a little familiar following her around. It's almost a little too busy sometimes. All the sprites are incredibly detailed, very well animated, and even though it's yet another high fantasy anime game, the environments have their own unique flavor. I wish there was a little more variety, though. I guess good pixel art just takes a lot of time to make. That's probably why we don't see pixel art this nice very often. The game runs really well on PC too. I never saw it drop below 60FPS.
The soundtrack is also really good. It's mostly orchestral classically-inspired stuff. It’s very epic and grand and reminds me of PS1 era RPGs. There is no voice acting and none of the enemies make much noise, though. That’s kind of disappointing. This series is best known for the anime after all. It’s also strange to kill a giant buzzard without it making some kind of squawking noises.
The gameplay and structure of the game are tried and true Metroidvania. This game is exactly what it looks like. You battle your way through monster-filled halls and stairwells to get to the next save point, explore, fight bosses, hit switches, and acquire new abilities which help you reach new areas. There's nothing new or unique about that. What sets this game apart from the pack is the way magic and the bow are used to fight enemies and solve puzzles.
I've seen bows and guns in lots of 2D games, but they're usually just weapons. While you can certainly use the bow as a weapon here, it's really more like an ability or key item. You mainly use it to solve puzzles. Most of them have you ricocheting arrows off metal plates to hit targets. Aiming works kind of like aiming eggs in Yoshi's Island. You hold down the bow button and a line showing the trajectory of the arrow pops up. You can hit gears on pulleys to open doors and move platforms around, cut ropes, and hit sand bags to make them swing and break stuff. It's pretty cool, and it's something different from the kind of puzzles you usually see in Metroidvanias.
Magic isn't just for shooting fireballs out of your hands here. It’s also used to get past obstacles. There's 2 types of magic, water and fire. You can switch between the 2 with the press of a button. If you're using fire, you can absorb fire magic attacks, so you can pass through fire magic barriers, walk through lava, stand in dragon breath, and all sorts of stuff. Water works the same way, but there really aren't many water obstacles. Your equipped element is also infused into all your melee attacks, arrows, and abilities, so you can also use fire magic to blow things up.
All enemies have resistances and weaknesses to both elements, so you’ll want to constantly switch between them to maximize your damage. It’s a really cool system that’s more than a little reminiscent of Ikaruga, but feels unique in a Metroidvania. It’s especially fun during boss battles where enemies do both types of attacks. Although, it feels like the game sometimes asks too much of the player when bosses do both types of attacks at the same time or in quick succession. I know I did more potion chugging than skillful switching during a few of them.
The more traditional traversal abilities really aren’t anything special. You have a slide, double jump, underwater breathing, the usual. The only thing that’s kind of different is the glide, which is tied to the water element magic. The glide lets you float in the air and even fly up a little in certain places. They made sure to not let you fly high enough to make it onto platforms that are too high for you to jump on, so it’s really only useful for floating over long stretches of spikes or long gaps between platforms.
Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth looks great, has a nice soundtrack, and tries new things with its gameplay, but it feels like there’s something missing. I don't think it's just that I don't know much about Record of Lodoss War. It just isn’t a very long or deep game compared to other popular high fantasy Metroidvanias. The only types of equipment in the game are bows and melee weapons, there aren’t a lot of abilities, the XP and leveling feel like they could have been left out and no one would notice, and the map is not even half as big as the games it's trying to emulate. Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth is fun while it lasts, but it's too shallow to be the next masterpiece Metroidvania.