A lot has happened since we last had the good fortune to visit Playtonic Games. The previous time we popped by the studio's offices outside the rural English town of Burton-on-Trent (acclaimed actor Paddy Considine was born and still lives there, fact fans), the team was still in single-digits and occupied a tiny, room. Now, a few years (and one game release) later, and Playtonic has moved to much larger premises on the same industrial park; a sign that the company has grown dramatically since the early days of the Yooka-Laylee Kickstarter.
"We've taken another step away from being this really small, niche studio to being a studio which can have grander ambitions and take its time a bit more," says Gavin Price, Playtonic's Managing Director and studio Creative Lead. It's a statement of pride – Playtonic has certainly grown in size and stature, and its team is packed to bursting point with a combination of ex-Rare staffers and talented people from other companies.
However, it could also be seen as an admission that Yooka-Laylee, as beloved as it was and still is, wasn't the product of a studio working at its full capacity. The game was, lest we forget, produced by tiny team compared to the one currently seen occupying Playtonic's new and rather spacious offices, and it's perhaps not fair to take it as the definitive example of what the company can offer; that product is likely to be Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, Playtonic's next game and one which demonstrates a team at the very height of its creative powers.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair sees the evil Capital B – thought to have been banished inside a mysterious book at the end of the last game – rising up to cause more mischief. Unlike the first title, this isn't a 3D platformer in the style of Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie; instead, it's a hybrid which skillfully mixes Donkey Kong Country-style 2.5D platforming with an expansive Zelda-like overworld, the latter of which also serves as the 'hub' from which you enter the aforementioned side-scrolling stages.
The visuals are absolutely stunning – we're talking Nintendo-levels of quality here
The aim is to conquer Capital B's titular Impossible Lair, and as Lane reveals, this can actually be taken on from the beginning of the game. However, doing so is brutally difficult and you'll want to instead explore the 2D levels to unlock 'Bee Shields' which allow you to withstand more punishment in the Impossible Lair (think TV's The Crystal Maze, but instead of crystals buying you time, they're buying you stamina).
While many fans may be disappointed that Playtonic has decided to take a step back from the kind of full-3D adventure many of the team was famous for at Rare, there's a definite feeling that Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair feels more polished and playable than its forerunner. The visuals are absolutely stunning – we're talking Nintendo-levels of quality here – and the controls are tight and responsive. Price tells us that the shift to 2D wasn't as easy as some might assume, as everything needs to be tighter and more accurate as a result; there's no margin for error here, he insists.
However, as good as the platforming levels are, it could be the massive overworld which steals the show. While it's tempting to compare it to the map in Super Mario 3D World, it's far more interactive; you can pick up objects, talk with NPCs and solve puzzles to unlock new routes. Perhaps the most tantalising feature is the ability for events in the overworld to directly impact the layouts of the 2D stages; for example, if you unblock a river in one part of the map, it will flow into one of the 2D stages and change the way it looks. If you're old enough to recall the Block Palaces in Super Mario World on the SNES, this is a similar mechanic – but far bolder.
Had we shipped simultaneously on Switch with the first Yooka-Laylee game, the ratio between the platforms would have been even more in favour of the Switch
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is shaping up to be quite the game, but for Switch owners, the fact they had to wait for the previous title might cause some concern. Price is quick to point out that it won't happen again. "There's been tons of effort, under the hood, put in to make sure that, day one, the Switch version – and all the versions – launch simultaneously and there's parity across them all," he says.
Despite shipping much later than the PS4 and Xbox editions, it turns out that the Switch version of the original Yooka-Laylee did very well for Playtonic and publisher Team17. "We're so pleased with how we were received on Switch," Price says. "I think, had we shipped simultaneously on Switch with the first Yooka-Laylee game, the ratio between the platforms would have been even more in favour of the Switch." It's clear from his explanation that the first Yooka-Laylee shipping later on Switch wasn't something Playtonic could control itself; a lot of "external factors" were to blame, although Price is too much of a gentleman to go into more detail.
The bottom line is that Playtonic knows it has a receptive audience on Nintendo platforms, and Price is aware that a strong affinity between the studio and Nintendo fans exists. "There's more of a natural fit between our games and fans of Nintendo," he explains. "Even though the Switch [version of Yooka-Laylee] came later down the line, it did incredible for us." It's encouraging then that with this sequel, Switch owners won't need to feel like second-class citizens. In fact, Price says that Switch has arguably been the studio's target platform this time around, even though it's less powerful than Sony and Microsoft's hardware.
Playtonic as a studio, as a brand, has got to be its own machine, its own beast
With the strong connection to Rare – which, it should be noted, is a short drive away from Playtonic's offices – it's unsurprising that so many fans compare the studio's output to what many of its staffers have done before on the SNES, N64, GameCube, Xbox and Xbox 360. However, Price insists that Playtonic as a company needs to carve its own niche, and that means stepping away from the past to a degree.
"We do want to do games in styles to what we've done in our past, but we've also got to stand up on our own two feet," he adds. "Playtonic as a studio, as a brand, has got to be its own machine, its own beast. So we'll be looking to try and do a bit of both in a way that makes sense; no more are we going to say 'we're doing a spiritual successor to this game we've previously done'; everything we do from this point on is a brand-new concept for us, unshackled. But hopefully, there's plenty of crossover – without us having to say it or try to achieve it – with stuff we've done in the past, as well."