Version tested: DS
The conventional wisdom is that everyone hates conventional wisdom. I saw a poll recently that asked the readers of a political blog, "Do you think the average voter is adequately informed?" Ninety-one per cent of respondents answered "no." Later in the survey came the question, "Do you think you yourself are adequately informed?" You already know the punchline: ninety-two per cent said "yes."
It's odd, but our democratic society has a near-universal disdain for average ways of thinking. We love to imagine ourselves as unconventional, above the fray. That fantasy is what drives the Layton series, which celebrates the power and pleasure of a non-average intellect.
Professor Layton and the Last Specter (that's the U.S. title - more on that nonsense later) is the fourth game in the series. As usual, the professor's Holmesian adventures bring him to a charming village populated by simpletons. Sure, they're eccentric and often loveable characters, clever in their own way, but still doltish on the whole. They'll buy into pretty much any urban legend, just because it's what everybody else in town believes too.
As a result, sinister forces find it easy to manipulate the people's fears. In Last Specter, the village of Misthallery is paralysed by fear of a marauding phantom and a witch who places hexes on people she doesn't like. Lately, the phantom has been laying waste to local buildings in curiously precise attacks that are obscured by the fog of night. One side effect of the mayhem is that the only contractor in town has become quite wealthy, as he's hired to clean up every mess. Nobody finds this suspicious.
We players have to save these simps from themselves, and the vehicle for our genius is Professor Layton. He, at least, is suspicious of the Misthallery mischief on our behalf. Unswayed by popular opinion (and instinctively dubious of it), he's an intellectual superman whose thought process always leads him to the doorstep of fact.
In real life, we prove our superior thinking by watching The X Factor with ironic distance. In Misthallery, we do it by solving puzzles. The puzzles in Layton are elaborate traps for the conventional thinker. They present tasks that appear to be either impossible - like the puzzle that has you divide an assortment of seven coins into two equal piles - or all too simple.
One puzzle of the latter variety asks, if one bulb in a row of 10 streetlights burns out every two hours, and a repairman can only replace a bulb every three hours, how many bulbs will still be lit at the end of 12 hours? The developers are taunting us, saying, go ahead, take the obvious path to the solution. Because they're waiting at the end with a sour squawk of music and a big "INCORRECT" sign, Layton's equivalent of a pie in the face. You fool! Never take the direct path. (Except, of course, when the direct path is the one to take.)
As the series ages and becomes a tradition, the danger is that its mental trickery will start to feel conventional itself. I whined about sliding-block puzzles in last year's review of Professor Layton and the Lost Future, so I won't belabour the point here. Suffice to say that they have lost their ability to surprise, and they're not the only puzzles in Last Specter that feel that way.
But like last year, I remain impressed overall by the Layton developers' ability to stay one step ahead of our expectations. It's amazing that the studio, Level-5, hasn't run out of ideas yet. The puzzles abound with wit and linguistic sleight-of-hand, rendered in a joyful Bohemian style that lends Úlan to these nerdy brainteasers.
The professor's trunk has been refurbished with a new handful of side games. There's one where you train an acrobatic fish to collect coins, and another where you fill in the blanks, Mad Libs-style, to the script of a puppet show as it's performed on screen. The best of the lot is the train game, in which you weave track around a game board to navigate a speeding locomotive through stations and around hazards like oncoming traffic. It's reminiscent of the excellent iOS game Trainyard, albeit simpler.
Lost Future explored the origins of our hero, and this game takes us back to the early days of his sidekick, young Luke. Essentially a prequel, Last Specter is the story of Layton and Luke's first mystery together. When Layton meets the young man, he's not the scamp we've seen before, that chipper boy with the pluck of a Dickensian bootblack. Rather, he's a sullen kid trapped in an affluent but troubled household. This gloomier chapter to his story adds dimension to Luke. While the Layton games are formulaic, Level-5 also uses each new entry in the series to deepen their characters a little, and the progress is appealing.
Like the original Japanese release, the North American Last Specter cartridge also includes Professor Layton's London Life, an entirely separate game that has practically nothing to do with the familiar Layton adventures. Set in a quaint dollhouse version of London where the citizens are all characters from the Layton universe, you play a fresh-faced newcomer who's out to make a living in the big (but tiny) city.
London Life is cut from the same cloth as life-simulation games like Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon, although it's daintier and faster moving than either of those. You find a job to amass wealth, and you spend that wealth, with brings you happiness. That happiness in turn makes you more efficient at your job, which brings in more wealth, and so on, like one long Karl Marx acid trip.
The mini-game-centric career paths are hit or miss - it's hard to make trash-collecting fun - but London Life is a pleasant delight overall. The basis for its charm is found in the career-specific nuances that emerge as your quest advances, and in the little interactions you have with the tiny but fully realised denizens of the fair city.
If you live in actual London, however, your cartridge doesn't come with London Life. Japan, North America, and Australia get this rather huge bonus; the U.K. and the rest of Europe don't. It's the kind of tedious, infuriating localisation strategy that Nintendo still holds over from the 8-bit era, when it was possible to keep people on distant shores from knowing they were getting the short end of the stick.
Even the varying titles of the game betray the fingerprints of busybodies in corner offices. The game I reviewed is called "Professor Layton and the Last Specter," and the game that will be released in the U.K. is called "Professor Layton and the Spectre's Call." Read those two titles out loud; the difference you hear is the sound of a marketing executive justifying his salary.
That's all this is, really. Somebody in a thousand-dollar suit typed up an ingenious little global-sales strategy, broke it down into PowerPoint-friendly bullet points and presented it to a room full of other suits. Nintendo may plan to release London Life as a separate title in the U.K., but that information is kept secret from the public, because The Strategy says so. After all, conventional wisdom holds that people in thousand-dollar suits must know what they're talking about. This is why we hate conventional wisdom.
(It is, of course, possible to stick it to the man and import the U.S. version of the game. But be prepared to deal with the fact that words like "favorite" are spelled without a "U." It's my understanding that this type of thing infuriates certain people.)
We don't know what we want until we know we can't have it. In Lost Future, there's a sweets vendor who refuses to sell her confections to anyone but children. Suddenly, even though she was perfectly content before that moment, Professor Layton's research assistant Emmy wants nothing more than a candy cane. The professor himself, ever the reasonable sort, couldn't care less.
Without the tangentially related bonus pack-in, Last Specter would just be another rich, satisfying Layton adventure. It offers the same delight and entertainment as any of the past Layton games. A rational mind would conclude that there's no reason to be less satisfied this time around, yet the average European gamer is going to be miffed that the rest of the world gets to enjoy something extra. Which one are you? My guess is that we're all more average than we'd like to think.
8 / 10