I was quite fond of Team 17's booth at gamescom. Everyone there was really friendly and enthusiastic, there were a good deal of colourful and fun-looking games on display, and most importantly, they gave me the first proper cup of tea I'd had since arriving in Germany. Cologne is a beautiful city and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, but the Germans are not big tea drinkers. Whilst they try to accommodate for foreign visitors, quite frankly, drinking Earl Grey at three in the afternoon is just madness. So Team 17, one of the last remaining British game publishers, came to the rescue with a proper cup of the nut brown joy I'd been missing out on. Yes, it's very old-fashioned, but so am I, and so, handily enough, is Yooka-Laylee.
If you're not already familiar with the idea, Yooka-Laylee is the debut game from Playtonic, a studio based in Staffordshire, made up largely of games-industry veterans. A great deal of the team were members of Rare before Microsoft purchased the developer in 2002. Rare Replay aside, Microsoft haven't been doing a lot with many of the old IPs of Rare, and so, eager to create games like they had done back in the day, a group of former employees including Chris Sutherland, Steve Mayle, Mark Stevenson and Gavin Price decided to form their own studio in 2014. The game became one of the most funded games on Kickstarter and has been in development since the studio founded two years ago.
The first thing that I noticed in the level of Yooka-Laylee that I got to play at the event was that this really is Banjo-Kazooie in all but name. The characters and world are different, but the look and feel of the game is just like it was back in 1998 on the Nintendo 64. It's bright and bold with lots of vibrant colours and stunning looking scenery. In cut scenes, they talk in a gibberish manner similar to that we saw in the Banjo games, and the quirky humour of those games is evoked. It's like those products you see in budget German supermarkets: It's close enough that you know exactly what you're going to get, but not close enough that anyone could successfully sue.
The game is an absolute delight to play. It has that instant pick up and play appeal that a good mascot platformer should have. There are collectibles as is always the case, but there is a much more grand purpose than in other platform games. Along the way, you will collect “pagies”, which are book pages that allow you to expand your world. This is done in a very non-linear fashion; you can expand the level you’re currently playing, or spend your pagies on unlocking a different level. This non-linear way of playing was explored in the days of the N64, but the technology just wasn’t there to put it into this sort of scale.
This technological advancement extends further than just the game structure too. The level I played was absolutely massive, and it extends just as far into the sky as it does into the distance. At the higher points, I was seeing a beautiful vista of fully explorable terrain, much more than was ever possible in the days of Nintendo’s 64-bit offering. It’s a stunning looking world too, full of lush trees, twittering birds and tonnes of objects with googly eyes, as you’d expect from a game that takes so much inspiration from Banjo-Kazooie.
The title is set to come to pretty much every current platform, so a PC, Wii U, Xbox One and PS4 version are all in development. It stars the titular duo who are a bat and a chameleon. You are generally in control of chameleon Yooka, with Laylee flying slightly above your head. The abilities of each character will come into play as you go through the game, with expected abilities like sonar and colour changing being complemented by less well known aspects of the animals. For example, before gamescom, I wasn’t aware that chameleons could survive underwater by farting giant bubbles for themselves to float in.
It’s quite a cerebral affair, with a number of puzzles requiring a few attempts before I cracked them. It’s not on a level with The Times crossword or 3D chess, but as platformers go, there’s some interesting puzzles that I saw. I won’t go into too much detail to avoid spoilers, but I will say that exploring everything in this vast world will go a long way to making your life easier.
The platforming of course, is there in abundance, but with none of those horrible jumps requiring pixel-perfect precision that were so common in the early days of 3D platformers. Much like returning mascot platformer Ratchet and Clank, this is a game that borrows all the best elements of the games before it, without bringing back any of the less desirable elements. It’s a platformer for the new generation and the old generation alike and as one of the old generation, I can’t wait for Q1 next year so I can play more of this.