When I first heard that Professor Layton was coming to the 3DS, I had but a single thought. The victory finger? Will that be in 3D? I'd quite like to see that in 3D.
Well - spoiler alert! - the victory finger is in 3D, and it's every bit as good as I had hoped. Tackle a puzzle, pick a solution, and then wait for the professor to point at you in triumph. The victory finger! Right in your eye. My count of enchanted objects has only been enhanced by this new dimension. Seriously, the first time it happened I almost ducked. Almost.
The game beyond the victory finger is pretty good too, now that this Japanese 3DS launch title has finally washed up on our shores. Structurally, very little has changed when it comes to the lovely mixture of story-led adventure game and logic puzzle compendium fans expect, and the new presentational twists offer a harmonious blend of the old and the new. The 3D character models add a touch more life to the Layton regulars as they wave their arms around and run hands through their hair, perhaps, but they also capture the hook-noses, comb-overs and strabismus squints of the supporting players surprisingly well.
The 3D environments you explore with a swipe of the stylus perform an excellent impression of the 2D environments of old, too. The artful, hand-drawn textures give the geometry that same storybook feel, while only a very gentle tilt as you move your magnifying glass around betrays the extra dimension at work. The world is still riddled with hint coins and collectables to find as you hunt for puzzles - even if you don't have to tap as much anymore. And although some screens now allow you to peer behind objects with a brisk prod, the 3D effect tends to be understated, as it is in the lovely anime cut-scenes.
Speaking of cut-scenes, the story's once again the standout element of the adventure, picking up where The Last Spectre left off and sending the Professor and his friends to the holiday town of Monte d'Or. That sounds like a low-grade soft-scoop ice cream with pretensions of greatness, but it's actually a weird Layton-esque spin on Las Vegas, rising from the surrounding desert as a tangle of neon lighting, multi-storied hotels, theme parks and casinos. The latter elicit a quiet disdain from the good professor. Quite right too.
"Typically for the series, the plotting blends the sweet with the genuinely macabre."
Monte d'Or's not just the setting. It's also crucial to the plot, with the game's central mystery hinging on the reasons for its sudden wealth and the identity of a sinister Masked Gentleman who seems determined to bring it to its knees, one show-stopping miracle at a time. Dapper in white tails and a leering, golden mask, he's another classic Layton villain, and the narrative that spills outwards from his nasty pranks sends the professor exploring his own past as well as the furthest reaches of the sprawling city. Typically for the series, the plotting blends the sweet with the genuinely macabre as it heads towards its conclusion.
Sending as iconic a figure as Layton back to his early days for part of the campaign is a bit risky, if you ask me - but, stupid teenage haircut aside, he's largely undiminished by the experience. The professor's youthful tragedies - and this is rather a tragic tale at heart - chip away at very few of the teasing ambiguities that lurk behind the two black dots of his eyes, and he remains as wonderfully unknowable at the conclusion as he is at the start, thank the good Lord.
It's nice to meet some of his old gang, too, whether it's a collection of uncommonly polite school friends or his fretful mother and absent, rather blasť, father. The narrative zips along on parallel tracks through the past and the present, supporting a 13-hour running time rather well all told, and the whole thing concludes with a teaser for the next game - along with an end-credits blast of midi jazz that's so bad I'm still recovering. (It belongs, I suspect, to a genre of music known as "tunes they used to play in McDonalds in the 1980s".)
Strung through all of this, of course, are the good old puzzles, none of which will provide too much of a shock to series veterans. There are lots of chequerboard offerings and lots of the old "A is fat, B is stupid, C is a liar, who is D?" type treats, but while it keeps the sneakier trick answers to a minimum, Miracle Mask doesn't feel like a truly epic haul of head-scratchers. Some of the best challenges on offer utilise 3D environments to elegant effect, but as an understandable concession to the one-eyed, none of them can actually rely on stereoscopic depth to work their brain-teasing magic.
"Despite the shift in dimensions, this is a pretty standard Layton adventure. Luckily, that remains a ringing endorsement."
They're decent, but rarely inspired, and most of the really fresh puzzling fun is left for a third act dungeon crawling section in which you explore a series of ancient ruins from a top-down perspective, rolling boulders around and avoiding - I am so happy to type this - biomechanical mummies. I'd play a whole game of this sort of thing.
Beyond that, the professor's battered portmanteau offers a range of additional treats, such as a smart robotic spin on Chip's Challenge and a shelf-stacking mini-game that is far more fun than anything involving shelf-stacking should be. There's also a year's supply of daily puzzles waiting for you once you finish the main campaign, and if you've been stocking up on Picarats, you can expect even more to unlock besides.
Despite the shift in dimensions, this is a pretty standard Layton adventure. Luckily, since Layton adventures tend to be one of the more dependable highlights of the gaming calendar, that remains a ringing endorsement. The puzzles may be covering old ground more than usual, but the cast of gentle characters and the elegant sepia-tinged mirror-world they inhabit seem to grow in potency with each instalment. Take some time off from the big Christmas releases to explore Monte d'Or: glittering treats await.
8 / 10