Preview: Yooka-Laylee successfully channels the heart of Banjo-Kazooie

Making spiritual successors is risky business. For starters, you have to please fans of whatever the original source material is, but do so without the branding and name recognition of the original. That’s tough to do on merit alone. Then you’ve also got the issue of starting a new I.P., which is already inherently difficult, and you’re setting yourself up for stiff competition right from the get-go. In the end, it doesn’t always work out. Mighty No. 9 is a testament to that fact.

But now, enter Yooka-Laylee from Playtonic Games. It’s being created by many of the same people that worked on the Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong franchises at Rare, inspiration that is clear in both the name of the game and how it plays. Even though it was funded on Kickstarter, just like Mighty No. 9, it appears to be building towards a much different fate by putting it’s $2.6M to good use.

The last time we saw Yooka-Laylee was at E3 this year, but we didn’t get to go hands-on with it at that time. Luckily, at Day of the Devs in San Francisco last month, we finally got a chance to grab a PS4 controller and came away very impressed.

Return of the 3D Platformer

The 3D platformer as a whole is experiencing a bit of a resurgence as of late. Ratchet & Clank from earlier this year is one of the best titles in the entire franchise and served as a wonderful reboot of the series, and we’ve seen a steady string of new entries on the indie side of things to keep the hope alive. What makes these games so special is the sense of adventure and personality of its characters, combined with an addictive gameplay loop that’s both familiar and fresh at the same time.

As a natural evolution of the sidescrolling platformer games that dominated the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, Super Mario 64 ushered in a new age of 3D gaming and brought with it an evolution of the platformer genre. While they seem simple on the surface – run and jump and explore – they usually contain plenty of depth to keep people coming back for long periods of time.

Yooka-Laylee stars the titular green chameleon, Yooka, who has a calm and measured personality, along with his companion, Laylee, the purple bat that’s a bit feistier. In this manner, even the dynamics of the two main characters share much with the Banjos Kazooies that came before them.

More Than Just Running and Jumping

Luckily, it’s more than just a shameless rip-off of past work. Since Yooka is a chameleon and not a bear like Banjo, he has a very different skillset. For starters, his tongue can extend to eat objects and reach far away items. One example of this in the demo I played involved eating a fire flower, similar to that in Mario, which resulted in me spitting fire from my mouth like a flamethrower.

He can also roll up into a ball for increased speed to travel greater distances, a valuable ability since the levels appear to be large and spread out. It’s unclear quite how many hubs and areas there will be to explore, but in the 15-minutes I spent with the game I only saw a small section of the world that I was running and jumping through.

Using Laylee on my back, I can also let her flap her wings to glide through the air and give me a boost if something is just a bit too far away. All of the mechanics felt familiar to me, someone that grew up devouring games like Mario, Banjo-Kazooie, Jak & Daxter, Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, and the countless other iconic series that were birthed from the 3D platforming genre. The most important part of any platforming game is undoubtedly the controls, and the team at Playtonic have managed to strike that perfect balance between not too stiff but not too floaty as well. It felt just right to me.

My favorite part of the short demo I played was a brief section that involved fluttering through the air from platform-to-platform, carefully timing my jumps. Precision, skill, and timing were required, all of which can only be learned. A big part of what makes these games so wonderful isn’t what you can unlock as you progress and become more powerful, but how your own skill level improves as you come to grips with the controls and mechanics of the adventure. Landing those careful jumps in the air, hundreds of feet above the bright, colorful, exaggerated hillsides, gave me an exhilarating sense of freedom that’s mostly absent from modern gaming.

A World of Personality

Yooka-Laylee is a bright spot on the radar; it’s something to look forward to that reminds me of a bygone era. But going beyond that nostalgia, it captures the heart of what makes charming and inventive 3D platforming games so special. They’re adventures about becoming a hero through your own earned greatness, a reward that this little green chameleon and purple bat look poised to take.

It’s still too early to tell for sure if Yooka-Laylee will serve as a return to form for an entire genre that’s been dormant for far too long, or if it will settle into its role as a plucky underdog in a sea of ultra-realistic shooters. Regardless, I’m excited to see where the adventure goes and just how many silly puns are packed into this bright and colorful journey.

Yooka-Laylee is currently slated for an early 2017 release on the PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Wii U.