Playtonic Games has created something so very Rare; a sumptuous, carnivalesque world to escape in.
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There's only one chance to make a first impression, so the adage goes, and Yooka-Laylee's opening level shows how to do it right. Tribalstack Tropics is a lush and vivid island that greets you with a hug as warm as Green Hill Zone and World 1-1. You just want to stay there.
This, the first of Yooka-Layle's five levels, is a vast bowl of grass and stone and earth about four times the size of Mario 64's Bob-omb Battlefield. It nevertheless manages to be just as snug, packed full with challenges and sights to enjoy at your convenience.
Its open-world structure, with tasks and collectables dotted around the island, encourages you to explore as though you were at a theme park. Over here we have a grid with hieroglyphics that you must butt-stomp in a particular sequence, over there is an Aztec-style stone forum, assembled from huge rock slabs and massive granite pillars, which is occupied by a trouser-snake (that’s a snake which sports some tight shorts) armed with an '80s cell phone. Along the island's perimeter is a dry riverbed that, later, a pink cloud will challenge you to race along. On another section lies a Donkey Kong-styled mine cart track, snaking up and down like an ultrasound signal, across an array of giant totem heads that spew fire at you.
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Yooka-Laylee has already achieved something so few in its genre can; It makes you smile.
Most impressive of all is the colossal plinth of rock and mud overlooking the island. It's about as big as the Empire State Building, and spiralling up its face and around its back is a makeshift footpath of rocks and wooden bridges, which I suppose would take at least five minutes to ascend if unchallenged. It's quite a sight to behold at a distance, a vast floating platform with sheets of ivy spilling out as though it's leaking grass. The view from its summit is even more impressive; the entirety of the island, so huge and varied and busy with life that you expect the frame-rate to crawl (it doesn't).
I was not prepared for the impression Yooka-Laylee made on me. The narrative of its development contained red-flag phrases such as "Kickstarter funded" and "spiritual successor," which too often have been synonymous with false dawns, perceptible budget constraints, and generally underwhelming quality. However, Yooka-Laylee has already achieved something so few in its genre can; It makes you smile.
Such a feat is down to the character of its world and the charm of its inhabitants. Your titular heroes Yooka (a chilled-out chameleon) and Laylee (a squash-faced bat that pants like an excited pug) converse with each world's motley crew of characters, throwing down what can only be described as an outrageous number of puns and dad-jokes (you will hate that you love them all).
Yooka and Laylee's home is a marooned pirate ship that has been gutted and turned into a playground. Its ale barrels and bounty crates have been coloured bright green and purple, while the skeleton of what was once its hull has been varnished with blots and stripes of cheerful red paint. I can't help but note the unplanned symbolism here; modern 3D platformers outside of Nintendo tend to be cynical NFC-figurine collect-a-thons, plundering parents by tantalising children to buy $15 plastic toys that unlock a new level with, I don't know, a slide. UK indie studio Playtonic doesn't want to hassle; it is making a platform game with a handful of huge levels, no online features, no add-ons. It just wants to paint the town red before we all die.
While the defanged pirate ship was a lovely touch, I was more taken by something I noticed in the hub world; a giant tube that sucks up a seemingly endless vortex of books. It's the most expensive lava lamp of all time and I couldn't take my eyes off it.
The literature whirlpool also ties in with the story; Yooka and Laylee chill on Shipwreck Creek until they discover a magical book that, much to their dismay, is stolen and shredded. The culprit is the dastardly tycoon Capital B, a business baron with a devious scheme to build a machine that can absorb all of the world's books. So the discordant duo set out to collect some one hundred "Pagies" scattered throughout each world, which when united will reassemble their book.
That's your motivation to explore every corner of Yooka-Laylee, adding a welcome element of discovery and adventure. Each of its locations are blocked by pay-walls (Pagie-walls?) that require you to be in possession of a certain number of Pagies to be granted entry. It's a tried and true system dating back to Mario 64, but with a spin; each world comes in two stages. Tribalstack Tropics, for example, can be unlocked with a single Pagie, but return to its doors later with 20 in tow, and the world will expand outwards quite significantly, opening up more platforms and puzzles to ponder.
Playtonic says that during the early stages of Yooka-Laylee's development, the dilemma was that both simple and complex worlds had appealed to the dev team for different reasons. Basic levels are easier to absorb, complicated ones offer greater challenge and exploration. Its two-step evolution is its elegant solution.
That is one of many of Yooka-Laylee's ideas that I found so encouraging. The PR angle that Playtonic keeps feeding is that so many of its team worked at Rare during that scintillating N64 era. Oh look, it's Grant Kirkhope (Banjo Kazooie composer) working with Steve Mayles (Banjo Kazooie's art director) working with Gavin Price (Banjo Kazooie designer). To be frank, I wasn't particularly excited by the assembly of these revered names when Playtonic first introduced itself. I did not consider the band getting back together as an indication that old glories would return. Fernando Torres lost his touch. Tim Burton ran out of good ideas. Metallica lost its bite. Adam Sandler said yes to everything and Peter Molyneux stopped taking interviews.
Turns out I was wrong about Playtonic. Yooka-Laylee is an auditory delight with a sumptuous, carnivalesque world to escape in. When watching it unfold I wasn't thinking about how its 80,000 Kickstarter backers would be dutifully repaid, I was deliberating whether this game carries the same mass-market appeal as Mario. It just might.
The final test, and the most crucial, is how it plays. That question hangs in the air because I wasn't given a chance to hold the pad. That might raise concerns, but I was nevertheless enthralled by what I saw and heard. Tribalstack Tropics took me back to the lush and welcoming opening worlds of the 3D platformer genre during its peak years. It's certainly been a while, but there's no place like home.
Yooka-Laylee is set to ship on PS4, Xbox One, Wii U and PC in Q1 2017.