The cat - or should that be chameleon - is out of the bag. Fledgling UK studio Playtonic Games has lifted the lid on the stars of its début title - Yooka and Laylee - and has sent Rare-loving Nintendo fans into a frenzy of anticipation by confirming that the game will be coming to the Wii U eShop.
We were lucky enough to play an early build of the title formerly known as Project Ukulele when we visited Playtonic's offices recently, and we're happy to report that the old Rare magic is very much alive and well at the company. Below you'll find Damien and Thomas' impressions - based on a hands-on session with a build of Yooka-Laylee which amazingly is just three months old - so please do have a read and share your own impressions (and excitement) by posting a comment.
The first thing that struck me about Yooka-Laylee is how much it feels like a classic Rare title - hardly surprising when you consider all of Playtonic's development staff are ex-Rare employees with countless legendary titles to their name. Although this is a very early version of the game, the visuals already scream trademark Rare; bold primary colours, expressive characters, perfect controls and a sense of scale which makes you just want to run around and explore every single nook and cranny.
The dual-character set-up draws obvious comparisons with the seminal N64 gem Banjo-Kazooie - a game which many of Playtonic's team worked on - and it's clear that this is very much an intentional move. However, as the team freely admits, much more could and should have been made of the relationship between Banjo and Kazooie, and it would seem that Yooka-Laylee will truly push the potential of this arrangement rather than retread old ground. A whole host of special abilities will be shared between the two characters, and from the information the team shared with us, the sky really is the limit. In the early build we played, Laylee's wings allow Yooka to hover in the air and cross large spaces, while Yooka's roll move can be used to take out enemies. It's easy to see how these moves can be augmented by additional techniques as the game progresses.
We got to play two locations - a jungle level and an indoor cave section, the latter of which serves as a hub world. Both look amazing even at this early stage, and they're only going to grow in detail and complexity as development progresses. The characters are also utterly charming; the leads boast a wide range of expressive animations, while the troll-like enemies look absolutely hilarious as they bound towards you, mouths gaping wide. Playtonic artist Steve Mayles clearly hasn't lost any of his magic touch; these are characters with character. Complimenting the action is a toe-tapping soundtrack courtesy of old hands David Wise, Grant Kirkhope and Steve Burke - all former Rare staffers, and all capable of producing amazing tunes. Oh, and we're reliably informed that the vocals are provided by Playtonic staffers rather than professional voice actors - that's another Rare tradition that the studio is keeping alive.
Playtonic has worked wonders in the months since it announced itself to the world, and what makes its progress even more remarkable is that it has been achieved before the recently-revealed Kickstarter funding campaign was even in place. Clearly the years spent at one of the world's leading game studios has helped; Playtonic's team speak affectionately about the good old days at Rare, and it's obvious that the same dedicated work ethic and productive development environment have been carried over from their days at Twycross, where they collectively churned out smash hit after smash hit under the watchful eyes of the Stamper brothers. From the brief but tantalizing glimpse we were blessed with of Yooka-Laylee, it's abundantly clear that the magic is still present - it's just shifted to another part of the English Midlands.
When we showed up at the Playtonic offices I thought we'd see concept art and some standalone character animations, so was taken aback when a build was fired up with a handsome 3D world. Immediately smooth on the eye, it really is looking impressive for such a young project.
It's certainly a pretty game, and though it uses Unity it doesn't look like a Unity title, as it has more originality in its favour than that. It's a credit to how far the engine has come, but also boasts quality because of the pedigree of the team - these are experienced developers that have worked at the peak of the industry, and it already shows in the visuals and feel of Yooka-Laylee.
The biggest initial complement I can pay is that Yooka-Laylee is immediately intuitive and easy to play. Silky smooth animation with only occasional dips - this is a very early build, lest we forget - and a camera that's showing plenty of promise, this avoids the pitfalls that so many pretenders in the 3D platforming space fall into. Our playable duo move slickly, have a nice weight to their jump and faithfully do just what you expect when spin attacking, rolling or simply hopping between platforms. There's a solid foundation here that belies the humble size of the team, but quality is often preferable to quantity.
It's the small touches that stick in my mind, though, from Yooka's gentle tilt of the neck when running at an angle to Laylee's gleeful, slightly maniacal expressions while flapping or simply observing the landscape. There's even a bit of modern Donkey Kong in there, to my eye, with the bat running on our hero's back during the roll, bringing to mind the equivalent move in Retro Studio's more recent DK offerings.
There are Indies and there are "indies", the latter being an admirable but inexperienced group that serve up low-quality experiences while learning on the job. Playtonic is clearly in the former category, and based on what it has produced so far could have a huge hit on its hands. It's a Nintendo 64 style adventure on modern technology, which has my inner-child absolutely giddy.