Playtonic tightens up its nostalgic take on platforming and turns its eyes to the future.
The original Yooka-Laylee quite rightly had its eyes set on the past. Pitched as a tribute to retro 3D platformers, Playtonic's debut was made by veterans who helped define the genre for diehard fans who helped fund the game's massive Kickstarter campaign. The result was suitably bright and nostalgic, if a little scrappy, with solid enough foundations Playtonic has built on brilliantly for this follow-up. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair finds the buddy duo in a modern 2D platformer that feels, in comparison, like it was made specifically for today.
Three impressive things each add something fresh to the formula. The first is the Impossible Lair itself, a lengthy and tough-as-nails level available right from the start which also serves as the game's finale. But while you can jump into it from the off, it's likely you won't get very far. It begins with a boss fight against the nefarious Capital B, and it all goes south from there. But it also features a unique mechanic - a shield which grows throughout the game as you save another bee at the end of each level. The more levels you complete, the more hits you can take in the Impossible Lair.
Playtonic has described the Lair as being inspired by Breath of the Wild's Hyrule Castle - which you can similarly step into as soon as you leave that game's opening Plateau area, Calamity Ganon in your sights. The Impossible Lair works as a tighter, smaller scale homage, one which keeps track of the number of your attempts and the percentage of the level you've been able to clear in a specific run. It also keeps the game focused: here is the thing you must do to complete the game - the sting in its tail - and here is how strong you need to become in order to bee-t it.
Not that there's a rush to see the ending. Impossible Lair unfolds level by level over an intricately put together world map, and it's another star attraction in the game's offering. You'll spend a lot of time here, poking around its corners, exploring its routes and unlocking shortcuts back to various other areas. You can fast-travel to any unlocked level, of course, but you'll miss plenty along the way. It's here you'll find Pagies hosting challenge levels, or equippable Tonics which grant handy new moves and funky visual styles.
Yooka-Laylee's power-ups - water, fire, ice or bomb berries which Yooka can fire from his mouth - also make a return here to help you explore new sections and solve the game's puzzle-filled caves that host unlockable routes back to old areas. You'll also regularly come up against paywalls - literal metal gates to your progress erected by snake spiv Trowzer, for which you'll need to hand your over hard-won level coins in order to progress. All in all, the hub is a denser and more manageable area than the original Yooka-Laylee's expandable 3D worlds, more tightly designed while still offering the same kinds of interactivity.
It's here you'll unlock each level's alternate form, the game's other clever twist. Platformers routinely remix levels, of course, but the versions on offer are changed enough they could easily be their own individual levels. Waterlogged versions of courses are triggered when you flood the area around a level portal in the overworld, for example, while wind-blown variants are unlocked when portals find themselves in the way of statues which blow out gusts of hot air. Every level has one of these variants, and all offer far more than an alternate route. Each one rethemes the level, and offers a fresh path through with a whole new range of collectables.
Levels themselves can be lengthy, and Yooka-Laylee's health mechanic (which allows you to take one hit while partnered with Laylee, but who'll fly away when you do) keeps you on your toes. Each level has a fair sprinkling of checkpoints and Laylee bells (which recall Laylee if you've lost her), and their difficulty can be tweaked further through your selection of equipped Tonics. Up to three Tonics can be active at any particular time, with options to increase the number of checkpoints and how long Laylee will flap around for when injured before flying away. There's a cost to using these - helpful Tonics will decrease the number of quills you'll gain from a level (and you'll need these to unlock other bits and pieces in the overworld) while neutral Tonics will offer no penalty if you just want to complete a level with a big head or googly-eyed enemies. And if you struggle too much, the game will offer to skip you forward to the next checkpoint, ala New Super Mario Bros.' Super Guide.
Amongst all the new, there's still plenty of the old. References to classics of the genre are dotted all over the game. Yooka Laylee's canon of characters (some actual cannon) are all back for the ride. And there are a lot of puns. But it's the new in Impossible Lair which impresses, the tightness of the game's 2D controls and intricately designed levels which stands out, and which seems better fitted to Playtonic's toolbox. It's a far more polished game than the studio's predecessor, and one well worth exploring through.