Few moments in gaming say attitude like a chameleon urinating on a cloud’s face while his bat buddy eggs him on. Though the cloud did ask for it, to be fair. He’s too tense to take a leak (due to the fact his wife’s just left him) and he needs “stimulation.” Yep – that’s Rare, alright. But rarer still is what happens next. As your special stream of Splashberry prompts Nimbo the cloud to in turn let loose his own “shower,” the verdant expanse of Shipwreck Creek transforms. Rivers and sparkling pools glisten into existence – along with entirely new sections and challenges. And Yooka-Laylee’s world isn’t done metamorphosing. One Frostberry to cloud-face later, and snow freezes the rivers. Hello there, hidden on-ice racing missions.
Keeping up with all this? Try whole new, even more demanding sections of the world floating up when triggered by one of Yooka and Laylee’s purchasable special abilities. “And this is just one of the expandable worlds, at its most simple,” promises editorial director Andy Robinson. “There’s way more interesting stuff.” Sure, this Banjo-Kazooie-inspired 3D platformer is “defiantly old-school” – but on another level. And another level. And another.
Considering the traditional linearity of classic Rare games, Yooka-Laylee’s an explosion. Why? Playtonic’s Kickstarter lit a fire underneath Rare fans everywhere, becoming the highest crowdfunded UK videogame in history. “When we started out,” director and Rare veteran Chris Sutherland reveals, “We thought, ‘Oh, it’ll be a small number of people, it’s mainly for us and we just need to fund it.’ Now we’re very much aware of at least 80,000 people who are going to be very, very cross if we don’t get this right.”
Robinson chimes in: “It’s inevitable that fans will have certain expectations because of who a lot of the key members of the team are, and what they’ve worked on [such as the Banjo-Kazooie games and Conker’s Bad Fur Day]. We do feel a duty – a lot of people will have backed us because they were expecting a spiritual successor. But we also want to do something new.”
One year and £2 million later, we’re looking at a current-gen, candy-coloured overachiever. Hopping down from their charmingly DIY shipwreck home (the Bat Ship Crazy) and onto the lush turf of Shipwreck Creek are chilled-out chameleon Yooka and sassy shoulder-accessory/bat Laylee.
One moment to drink in all of the unprecedented exploration possibilities before them – thick jungle here, a crumbling temple that way, a village beyond that, a monument towering up, up, up into the clouds – and we’re rolling. Yooka’s special move – Reptile Roll – has little Laylee’s legs going like the clappers. She wheels along on her pal like a hyperactive circus performer, squeaking all the way. But it’s not just Pixar-drawn-pink-puppies adorable. The move’s extra speed enables the pair to zip up tricky inclines.
It’s onto a set of floating platforms to have Yooka pirouette-attack some impish baddies into non-existence and collect some quills. So far, so collect- a-thon. But as with everything in Yooka-Laylee, Playtonic’s approach to the old-school goes much further.
There’ll be a combo system, Sutherland and Robinson assure us, that buffs attacks after three or more enemy kills. And collectibles? Not just a thrill for completionists, they mean so much more now. Trading in quills to the enterprising Trowzer the snake (think about it... Yep, there you go) purchases Laylee’s Sonar Shot move. Suddenly, some Easter Island-esque statues nearby start to look real shifty-like. Bouncing squeaky echoes at them causes their eyes to light up, and platforms leading to brand new, more complex areas of the world to appear. Islands surrounded by precarious-looking minecart tracks sail up from the ether. In the distance, there’s a rumble as a fresh monument rises. We’re off again.
As Yooka and Laylee navigate the series of intimidating platforms, stopping and starting their rotations by shooting berries from nearby ammo bushes at hidden activation panels, Sutherland speaks. “Things have moved on since [Banjo-Kazooie],” he explains. “There tends to be more need for player choice nowadays – something we’ve tried to build in here and make it feel less linear. Do you want to just open up new worlds all the time, or focus on one world and get everything completed?”
Quite the question. We gaze longingly at the yet-to- be-explored-and-expanded villages, temples and jungles on the outskirts of Shipwreck Creek. But we’ve nabbed a few collectible Pagies from completing challenges and – much like Banjo Kazooie’s Jiggies – they’re the key to accessing other worlds. We discover that even Yooka-Laylee’s hub area Hivory Towers, made by Conker’s ￼Bad Fur Day designer Dave Rose, has hidden depths. “He’s king of Easter eggs,” says Sutherland, “and so you’ll find loads of things. You’re looking at the map and you’re thinking, ‘Ooh, there’s a little hole here... Ooh, you can go down!’”
There’s no time to get our Alice In Wonderland on now, however, as the glorious gloss of Glitterglaze Glacier beckons. We teleport our plucky pair into the world. What a change from the sunny, springy atmosphere of Yooka and Laylee’s home. Vast caverns of ice (beset with beehives, of all things) twinkle all around in time to the contemplative chimes of an exquisite theme. “I think that’s one of the best tunes [Banjo-Kazooie composer Grant Kirkhope] has ever done,” muses Robinson. “If you listen to the Kickstarter version, it was very happy and da-da-da, more Banjo- Kazooie. But the environment’s so sombre and beautiful that we changed it. That’s an example of us going off and doing our own thing. It’s a tune that perhaps wouldn’t have been in those older games, but it’s amazing.”
A total surprise for a bouncy platformer, indeed. A mysterious place. Almost wistful. Might we stretch a tentative linguistic feeler toward poignant? No, we mightn’t, because a pair of disembodied googly eyes has just come careening across the ice towards Yooka and Laylee at tear-inducingly funny velocity, a look of pure murder burning in its... er, entire being. Brilliantly, this enemy hops onto nearby inanimate objects in the environment (crates, for example), using them to smack seven kinds of snot out of our heroes.
There are brains somewhere in there, too: every type of Yooka and Laylee’s new opposition has shiny new current-gen smarts. They work together, swarming, splitting up, charging and strafing. Quite the skill-set for incorporeal peepers. Any weaknesses? Well, when you’re pretty much just a giant pair of eyes, you can’t see an invisible chameleon sneak past you. It’s a move worth its featherweight in quills.
And before our much less multi- talented eyes, the world keeps unfolding. The music morphs into a new lilt as chameleon and bat zoom down an ice-slide, frosty ceilings giving way to reveal a ginormous ravine and the rising spires of a statuesque fairytale castle. The interior is entirely explorable, we’re told – if we’re not too busy diving into the frigid underwater areas or visiting the distant igloo village.
Again, we’re spoilt for choice before we’ve even triggered the layer upon layer of new in-world areas. Interrupting our slack-jawed stupor, Sutherland reminds us that Yooka-Laylee’s scale and depth is all down to the Rare fans: “If it wasn’t for the Kickstarter, there would be a game, but it would be a much, much smaller game. Much more compact.”
Sutherland hopes Yooka-Laylee’s ever-expanding worlds will expand its player base further – to keen-eyed gamers lacking the rose-tinted specs. “We tried to make something that is modern and appealing to people who are playing games today, not just people who go, ‘I remember the old days when games were really difficult,’” he says. Robinson agrees: “We’re in a beautiful renaissance for development now, where there’s lot of different sizes of games and studios and you can make games for lots of audiences. Hopefully, the expandable worlds are a means to appeal to everyone – there’s a lot of challenge in there for the people who do want to collect everything and expand all the worlds, but it also allows us to make worlds that appeal to a newer audience.”
Playtonic is looking to please a lot of people, then. Rare fans might worry that the typical endless collectibles in such huge worlds could begin to feel hollow – that Yooka-Laylee’s efforts to be broad enough to cater to the variety of today’s gamers may dilute that unique Rare charm. But zooming in from the big picture of constantly blossoming worlds, its gorgeous details come into pin-sharp focus. Devil-on- the-shoulder Laylee gently lifting a fallen Yooka to his feet by one upstretched hand, for example. Or the retro-inspired font made bespoke for the game. Or the machine called Vendi, which sells you ability buffs after you complete optional objectives – but also offers a fun modifier to let Yooka grab each quill with his tongue.
It’s clear the Playtonic team is crafting its Rare-vival on an unbelievably ambitious scale, but that it’s wonderfully obsessive about preserving that old-school charisma. The most important element to think about when creating an incredible 3D platformer for PS4? Not the high-definition sheen of reptilian skin. Not the vast environments, or the option to transform them again and again to prompt new puzzles and secrets. “Personality,” Robinson answers.
Well, if Reptile Rolls, sentient Googly Eyes and kinky, incontinent clouds are anything to go by, our favourite Lombax might want to invest in an umbrella before the planned early 2017 release. Retro charm offensive Yooka-Laylee is bringing the thunder.
This article originally appeared in Official PlayStation Magazine. For more great PlayStation coverage, you can subscribe here.