Version tested: DS
Suspension of disbelief is a beautiful thing in the hands of Level-5. The developers of Professor Layton and the Lost Future are asking players, for the third time, to buy into the ludicrous premise of the Layton story: an obsessive archaeology professor solves mysteries for the public, under the implicit contract that they repay him by feeding his hunger for bite-size brainteasers. Everyone obliges this deal. And by the way, there's time travel in this one, too. Because that always makes sense.
Out of context, it sounds like a bit much, but Level-5 assumes that its game's charm and fun will justify the silliness. And it's right. Lost Future is infused with such a good-natured confidence that it would be cynical to question it. We all know by now that the Layton games are, in essence, an attempt to build a wonderful theatre around the logic puzzles at their heart. It's a pleasure to watch Level-5 put on its show. Who would want to fight it?
Those all-important puzzles have the same puckishness and flair as ever, maybe more so, even as they hew to a well-worn set of genres. You've got your maths tricks, as in "It takes one man two minutes to cross the river with three passengers in the boat...", and logic exercises along the lines of "A says B is lying, and D insists C is telling the truth." There are also mini-mazes, "What's wrong with this photo?" teasers, and others basically, any puzzle that would look at home on the back of a cereal box has found its way into Lost Future.
The puzzles burst with colour. It's the most vibrant Professor Layton title yet, getting a lot of visual pop out of the DS' tiny screens. The writing is crisp, too, with a freer sense of humour than previous games in the series. Lost Future is entirely accessible to Layton newbies, but fans will notice a few winks and nods as a reward for their loyalty.
In keeping with tradition, the professor's trunk contains three optional side-games that are unlocked little-by-little as the main story progresses. From easiest to hardest, these mini-games are a storybook whose missing pieces you must fill in with stickers, a car game in which you must direct Layton's jalopy around an obstacle course with strategically placed road signs, and a parrot-delivery service where you help your avian courier by stringing up rope perches.
I was struck especially by the look of the car game. Once you're done placing all the detours and jumps, you tap a button, and the screen fades away to a lush animation of the joyride that you set up. Watching Layton's car with this new visual treatment, I felt like I had, in a way, produced a tiny cartoon short.
Some of the puzzles have the stale aroma of reruns I'm positive that I've arranged soup cans on a grocer's shelf once or twice before but Lost Future is more notable for the old standards it leaves behind. The hoary old matchstick puzzles have been thinned from the herd. Better yet, those sadistic, claustrophobic sliding-block affairs make only a rare appearance, which is fine with me, because I'm sure I'll have an endless supply in hell.
Other changes indicate that Level-5 is paying attention to details. The memo function has been overhauled with a variety of pen colours and sizes, making the touchscreen much more versatile as a scratchpad. A fourth level of in-game hints has been added, deemed the Super Hint, a.k.a. the "Oh, for Pete's sake, we'll just tell you the goddamn answer already" option. Even the "CORRECT" (and dreaded "INCORRECT") title cards are redone as cute cartoons featuring some of the game's minor characters.
The story could easily stand on its own as an upscale anime mystery jaunt. After the prime minister disappears in a time-machine demonstration gone wrong, Layton and Luke travel to a different London 10 years in the future to see if they can track him down. To make matters more confusing, Future Luke joins Present-Day Luke as a second sidekick. Don't worry, the sci-fi gobbledygook is kept to a minimum, at the professor's behest.
Layton has other motives for pursuing the case. He believes that the long-ago death of his grad-school sweetheart, the woman he planned to marry, is connected to this latest incident. Until now, our hero has been little more than an amusing Sherlock Holmes knockoff. In Lost Future, the bucket-headed fellow with the pencil-point eyes acquires a humane vulnerability. He transforms from caricature to full-blooded character.
At this point in the series, it would be banal to note that the story and the puzzles of a Layton game are only tangentially related in terms of plot. When you have to solve a maths problem to make an angry rabbit move out of the way, I think we inherently understand that the cause-and-effect relationship there is whimsical at best.
But let's not be so naive as to think that the different pieces of the Layton games are operating on separate tracks. In fact, they cohere quite beautifully into an overarching world. The developers have a keen sense of their early 20th-century Continental aesthetic, and it informs every corner of the game, from the most epic cut-scene to the meekest checkers puzzle. Likewise, the thematic undercurrent of Lost Future never wavers in its celebration of mental agility and the joy of reason.
The game is all the better because it doesn't strain to give its puzzles a superficial connection to its script I don't need to see that pointless struggle. Instead, Level-5 focuses on the more satisfying end of building a world where we can challenge our minds and enjoy a good yarn well told. That task is hard enough, even if Professor Layton and the Lost Future makes it look easy.
9 / 10