E3 2016: How Yooka-Laylee Is a Modern-Day Banjo-Kazooie

The comparisons between Banjo-Kazooie and Yooka-Laylee, the upcoming open-world platformer by Playtonic Games, are obvious and blunt. That's not really a surprise given that Playtonic Games is comprised of ex-Rare developers from Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64. Yooka-Laylee might as well be a love letter to both of those two classic N64 games, or really, a love letter to themselves. By that measure, Yooka-Laylee isn't plagiarism insomuch as it is a nostalgic lookback at when the developers felt that they were at their own creative best.

But nostalgia can only take a game's design so far. Sure, as I watched a hands-off demo of the game at E3 2016, it's sentimental to see the chameleon-and-bat duo move, flutter, spin-punch, and ground-pound around like their bear-and-breegull predecessor, let alone the pun-filled dialogue, the joyful soundtrack by Grant Kirkhope, the garbled voices of both Yooka and Laylee in cut-scenes, the 2D sprites for collectibles, and the overall hub-world design. At this point, I would be surprised if the game doesn't have a game show-like board sequence near the end of the game. Oh, wait, there is!

That said, Playtonic Games needs to modernize and build on top of what is an 18-year-old game at this point, and where Yooka-Laylee does this the most in its freeform, transformative characters and environments. By collecting golden quills peppered about each stage, Yooka and Laylee can purchase new abilities from Trowzer the snake in any particular order the player chooses. Some of these new abilities can unlock previously inaccessible areas, like a sonic blast that Laylee can fire at a sleeping totem that, when woken, materializes a platform that grants access to an entirely different section of the level.

This level-expansion idea also applies on a much larger scale. Near the end of one particular level called Tribalstack Tropics, a cloud named Nimbo who is depressed because his wife left him for a typhoon (oh, that humor) wants you to give him a pick-me-up. By swallowing a nearby Splash Berry, Yooka's projectiles are given water properties that he can shoot at Nimbo, refilling the lake beneath him and reinvigorating the entire level with a river. Taken one step further, Yooka can also swallow a Frost Berry, giving his projectile ice properties that can have Nimbo instead freeze the lake and river. Or Yooka can reset the level by hitting Nimbo with a fire projectile by swallowing a Flame Berry.

Depending on whether the river is flowing, dry, or frozen over, the paths that Yooka-Laylee can take through the rest of the level change dramatically. Even challenges can be affected; for example, a pink cloud named Nimble tests the duo to a race around the island, but when the river starts flowing or is frozen over, Nimble alters the course of the race with more difficult routes (with better rewards for winning, I imagine). And of course, the state of the river itself will open alternate paths previously blocked for Yooka-Laylee to explore.

If that weren't enough, every level can be additionally expanded by feeding it pages, which serve as the equivalent of Banjo-Kazooie's puzzle pieces throughout the game. In the hub world, you can choose to spend a handful of pages to bolster a world with more content (literally filling the world's book with more pages). When you re-enter that world, a cutscene showing off all of the new areas will play, enticing you to spend more time discovering the nookies and crannies of the expanded environment. And keeping in line with the freeform nature of the game's design, you can choose to expand these new worlds in any order you choose.

Yooka, apart from the berries that change his projectile's elemental properties, can undergo different body changes as well. In some cases, he can turn invisible or, in a nod to Super Mario 64, can become heavy and weighted like metal. To proceed to the next part of a level, you'll sometimes need to think about which specific body and projectile transformation is needed at any given moment.

Beyond that, you can further alter the game by turning on various gameplay effects through tonics. Through a character named Vendi, you can gain access to a menu of in-game modifiers like big heads, longer breath underwater, slightly faster speed, 64-bit graphics, etc. You can only turn on one tonic at a time (this may change, though), and you need to unlock these tonics by completing various objectives first, but they provide even more ways to transform and replay the game. That said, you can choose not to use any tonics through the entire game, which may give you a special reward or achievement for doing so.

Yooka-Laylee's goal of being the spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 is very close to being realized. Playtonic Games hopes to finish the game for Q1 2017 for PC, PS4, and Xbox One, while Kickstarter backers who have donated enough to reach the Toybox tier will receive a special test level in late July this year.