Yooka-Laylee isn't out for a good few months yet – Spring 2017 is the current vague release date, but we all know how these things can move. But at every expo event I've seen it previewed at in 2016, most notably at E3 and, now, Cologne's annual Gamescom get-together, it's always struck me as one of the few titles on show that I just can't wait to play more of. And that feeling has only intensified now that I've actually played a pre-alpha build of the game, in the company of two of the guys building it.
An unashamed love letter to N64-era 3D platformers – its makers at UK-based Playtonic Games count amongst their staff ex-Rare designers, who worked on Banjo-Kazooie – Yooka-Laylee is a game out of time, which is perhaps why it excites me. Not because of its obvious nostalgia appeal, because that's sure to be lost on players born in the 1990s, or later. But because there's simply not that many studios out there making games like this, right now. It's always a thrill to see a team taking risks, producing something that isn't obviously fitting a profitable pigeonhole.
"We established the company to make a game like this, because we had so much fun making these kind of games in the past, as well as playing them," technical art director Mark Stevenson tells me as I'm stomping, spinning and rolling the titular pair – Yooka is a (male) chameleon, Laylee a (female) bat – around the massive, roam-where-you-like opening world of Tribalstack Tropics. Stevenson was a lead artist on Rare's Donkey Kong Country games, so he knows a thing or two about colourful cartoon characters, and Yooka-Laylee is certainly full of them, from cooking pot-predicament skeletons to top-hat-wearing goblin sorts and a Del Boy-like trader by the name of Trowser, who happens to be a snake. "I'm not sure that 'Trowser Snake' won't get lost in translation, in other territories," remarks composer David Wise, with a chuckle.
"We're aiming for interesting characters, with humorous dialogue," says Stevenson, as I knock out a mob of angry, blue-skinned critters thirsty for my blood. "It's just entertainment. The story we're telling isn't too deep. Some mysterious business has opened up near where Yooka and Laylee are living, and all of the literature in the world is being sucked into it. So they set off on an adventure to fix that."
It's all very reminiscent of when a video game's story fitted onto the back of the box, most likely with that same description appearing in several languages. A synopsis in a paragraph, and nothing more needed. And I like that. I don't want all games to be like this, obviously, where the narrative is elementary and the emphasis is purely on having fun, exploring worlds and seeing what new quests appear emergently; but it's so freeing to just jump into Yooka-Laylee with no lengthy cutscene preamble, and no giant directional arrow pointing you towards some distant objective. That may well come, but in the build I spend half an hour with, I'm simply left to run around the place as I see fit. And there's so much room to wander in, too.
'Yooka-Laylee', Gamescom 2016 trailer
I climb a nearby mountain, using berries – pulled in with Yooka's tongue and then spat out as projectiles – to hit switches to pause crazily spinning platforms, and carefully ascend. At the very top, Tribalstack Tropics stretches into the distance with inviting vastness. "Everything that you can see, you can go there," says Stevenson, and I feel my fingers tingle and my heart lift just a half-inch. Even all the way up there? Up that other (massive, like, cloud-reaching) mountain? "Of course."
This is but one world in the game, and it's enormous – but, crucially, it's so far from empty, too. There's a lot to do: new characters to bump into and accept quests from (I encounter a piggy knight who needs me to locate his missing troops), "Ghost Writers" to activate for bonuses, plenty of in-game currency to pick up (quills, not coins – and if you're sensing a bookish theme, good), and ways to alter the layout of the level. A dry riverbed won't stay that way if you can figure out how to flood it, and through that freshly created waterway you can explore a new part of this vibrantly verdant land. Every level will have layers, each one peeled away by a newly acquired ability – unlocked in a player-determined order – and the two leads can physically transform, too: into a plant in Tribalstack, and a snow plough in a later glacier-set stage.
"We want to reward curiosity," says Stevenson. "Everyone likes to play games in different ways. Some people like to race to the end, others like to find everything, so we're making this so that players can enjoy the game however they want to. So, you can buy new moves for Yooka and Laylee in any order, and you need certain moves to do certain challenges. However, we've tried to not make it a 'collect-a-thon', and make it so that everything you pick up has a real purpose."
Yooka-Laylee's fantastically successful Kickstarter of 2015 – it made a million pounds in less than 24 hours, and over double that in the end – puts Playtonic in the position of not worrying too much about financing the game's development. They're at an advantage that a lot of indie teams never will be – not quite a case of money being no object, but certainly feeling comfortable with what they have to work with, knowing that they need not cut corners. Which also means that they're not about to rush-release the end product – enough people have put their own money into this for its developers to want to reward that commitment, fully.
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"The game is going really well, and we're on target for release," says Stevenson. "It's obviously got a nostalgic feel to it, and will appeal to fans of Banjo, and those kind of games of the N64 era, but I'd like to hope that we can reach people who never played those games. I don't think anyone else is really making games like this anymore. I don't know how many bigger companies would make a game like this one, but I'd like to see more like it.
"We decided to take some extra time on it, after we originally announced that it'd be out in October 2016, to make sure it's as polished as it can be. We've had a lot of support, and amazing funding, so we want to deliver the game that our supporters deserve. It's going great."
Find out more on Yooka-Laylee at the Playtonic Games website.