First off, the bad news: Yooka-Laylee will no longer launch this year. Instead of an October release, British developer Playtonic has rescheduled its love letter to classic Rare platformers for arrival in Q1 2017 – in other words, sometime between the beginning of January and the end of March.
The delay was only finalised in the last fortnight or so, Playtonic explained to Eurogamer at a preview event last week. The extra development time comes from a desire to buff the game further, I was told, but the October date could still have been hit. It’s a shame, but after waiting a decade for a proper old-school Rare-style platformer, a few months longer can’t hurt.
Onto the good news, then. Yooka-Laylee looks fantastic. Playtonic released a bunch of screenshots last week which showed how finished the game already looks. It’s just as pretty in motion.
It’s been a long time since we last saw the game – and this wait has been intentional. Rather than tease the team’s progress, Playtonic is jetting off to E3 this year with a demo far removed from 2015’s colourful but basic first build.
I first met Playtonic last spring at the studio’s Leicestershire office. Back then, the whole team was packed into a room not much larger than a garage and Yooka-Laylee was just up and running. Its characters already had charm, but their world lacked flair. Little had visually changed the next time I saw the game, a few months later at E3. I sat cross-legged on a spare bit of carpet around the back of someone else’s booth to see Yooka and Laylee running around on a battered laptop.
Since then, it’s all been very quiet. Behind the scenes, however, Playtonic has hired around a dozen extra faces (the majority of which are also ex-Rare) and its game has really started to take shape. That shape is now unmistakable: Yooka-Laylee is a classic Rare-style platformer through and through, from a googly-eyed enemy which can inhabit other objects such as boxes or crates, giving them googly eyes too, to its cheeky in-game salesman Trowzer – a trouser-wearing snake.
As you’d expect, there are collectibles aplenty. Pagies can be used to unlock new worlds or add fresh areas into ones you’ve already visited. Ghostwriters unlock special activities. Tonics act like moderators to alter your gameplay or add aesthetic options. Angular dinosaur Rextro Sixtyfourus will unlock retro arcade mini-games. See a butterfly in a level? Wrapping your lizardy tongue around one will refill your special move gauge. And then there are berry power-ups which give Yooka either fire, ice or water powers.
Let’s delve into those a little more. Unlocking new areas in levels can add a whole extra chunk of platforming space. Within that space will be new challenges, new characters with tasks and yet more Pagies to reach. Not only does it keep you coming back to even the game’s earliest areas, but it allows for these spaces to level up as you do. While we’re on the subject, berries not only allow you to defeat enemies of certain types or complete puzzles which need an elemental answer. They can also change the environment, almost as much as a level expansion.
Here’s an example. Climb to the top of an expanded area in the game’s first world and you’ll meet a giant cloud character, Nimbus. With a water berry you can fill him with liquid until he passes water (snigger) down onto the level below – filling a canyon and unlocking a new underwater section. Travel back to the top and fill him with frost and he’ll cause the new water section to freeze, unlocking an on-ice race.
I also got a look at Hivory Towers, the base of bad guy Capital B whose lair is a corporate dungeon. Its pipes stretch out into Yooka and Laylee’s sunny home. For Playtonic – an indie developer formed from Rare ex-pats who toiled away under the management of Microsoft – an evil corporation as an antagonist may make a lot of sense. When I suggest the connection, Playtonic themselves absolutely reject the notion of any deliberate similarity – despite the neon pipes filling the area with a very Xbox green hue.
Everything I’ve seen points to a game Rare fans will adore. It is delightfully of its time – full of over-sized text, talking signs and googly-eyes on everything – and shiny enough that it still looks up to date. Those signed up for this will get exactly that – even if it will now be a little longer until Yooka-Laylee’s final release.
“I worked at Rare for 20 years,” Playtonic’s technical art director Mark Stevenson says, “and I would love for, in 20 years, people to say the same of Playtonic that they say of Rare. “We release games when they’re polished and done.”