ANAHEIM, California—Upcoming Video Game Yooka-Laylee is set to bring the 3D platformer genre back in a big way next year, but can it live up to the high expectations? The game’s team of ex-Rare developers charmed fans last year to cough up £2.1 million in crowdfunded money, mainly on the promise of Banjo-Kazooie. Are we around a real “Banjo-Threeie” here?
That’s a tough question to answer after a mere 20 minute demo, which I got to test at the PlayStation Experience event this weekend. For now, my dive into the game’s opening level has revealed a mix of humor, charm, raw production values, and damn good gameplay.
Laylee, calm my troubled mind
Yooka-LayleeThe opening world, called Tribalstack Tropics, plays like a huge helping of the N64 platformer’s comfort food, with the added juice of modern 3D hardware, of course. After jumping, running and spinning over some well-known platforming challenges, I reached the mountain top of the sunny, green level and then I was told to jump all the way down. And I jumped, holding down the game’s hover jump button to long slide and fall far. Running on a PlayStation 4, the game kept draw distances high throughout this entire series, and I was thrilled with the sense of scale. (Shortly after that, I discovered I could run into a warping door to get back to the top and jump all over again. Whee!)
Yooka-Laylee renders content through the Unity Engine and the development team has used it to build great character designs and animations. Yooka and Laylee, the titular pair of lizard and bat, look cute and lively as they jump, fly, bounce and pound the ground. Their best move, with Laylee running on a rolling, spinning Yooka, looks as fun as it feels to drive. Jumpy characters with bulging eyes greet and attack our heroes all the way, and they look like direct descendants of the Banjo-Kazooie design school. That’s a lot of praise.
Frame rates fluctuated at most of the jaw-dropping moments, though, and a mix of crashes and bugs forced two system reboots during my short demo. In addition, fuzzy textures hinder the appearance. Any fan of 3D super mario games will immediately notice inferior use of effects and clever texture on so many bold, primary color surfaces. And more than a few effects, like the snowballs and fire blasts that your bat helper Laylee can shoot, animate strangely and without heavy impact, as if copied and pasted from Unity’s standard libraries.
Playtonic insists that many of the issues I’ve seen are a result of the build being “four months old.” But even if most of these somehow don’t get resolved in the final, retail game, the laughable fun of the demo should still inspire confidence for anyone who pledged to Kickstarter so long ago.
For starters, the opening level doesn’t lack lively interstitial writing from quest givers and other useless characters, which range from cheeky rhymes to deliberately bad puns (like addressing a woman with octopus arms by saying she has “tentacle problems”). These ex-Rare designers have ramped up their famous use of ambiguity since leaving the company, but the results still do a good job of disguising their sexual and scatological undertones should kids be playing (or watching you play the controller used).
Most importantly, the first level feels like it was carefully crafted to be smooth and effortless. Each direction you run or jump, you discover a fun, clearly legible path to traverse. Branched paths, hidden pickups, cleverly placed floating platforms and crazy surprises – like transforming into a flower so you can romanticize a flower on the other side of the map – dot every step of the level.
I got away from my 20 minutes of Yooka-Laylee more excited than I ever felt during my time playing the last one Banjo-Kazooie game, the uneven Nuts bolts spin off. Those are admittedly low expectations to make clear, but the demo was a good first step to really believe that Yooka-Laylee will be a better nostalgic cash-in than other recent Kickstarter projects. The folks at Playtonic say they expect a firm release date announcement in “a few weeks,” which they hope will be somewhere in the “early 2017” range.