"Puzzle solving is a most gentlemanly pursuit," reflects Professor Layton in this, the sixth and final whistle-stop adventure in his well-to-do series. It is certainly the mantra by which the top-hatted scholar, his prep schoolboy sidekick Luke, and the games in which the pair appear have always lived. No other video game protagonists have carried themselves with such good grace and charm, prizing politeness and respect over burliness and brawn, battling their enemies not through the fisticuffs that characterise developer Level-5's other games (or indeed most other video games), but through brainteasers and kindly quips.
For this reason, the Professor Layton series has a tone and texture unlike any other. Its grist is a series of riddles, the likes of which you might find amongst the crosswords of a thick holiday puzzle compendium: ferry the chicks across the river without leaving any unattended; find the piece of string that will untangle the knot. But these nostalgically familiar challenges nestle within a world constructed from a uniquely Japanese idea of Englishness, all tinkling bone china teacups and Oxbridge refinement. Finally, some overarching mystery drives players through the story and the 160-odd puzzles that, in this release, punctuate its twists and turns.
Whether this is a true goodbye remains to be seen. Video game publishers, even more than movie studios, struggle to leave their most prized worlds and characters behind for long. But for now, The Azran Legacy has a certain melancholic tone about it: this is an ending, even if it might not be the ending. Its story, despite being a prequel, is more wide-ranging than many of the previous games'. That's true of both its thematic core - the discovery of an ancient power that threatens world peace, the mystery of which has now been prodded at across two games and a spin-off movie - and its raw geography. Taking to the skies in an airship called the Bostonius, Layton and his team tour the world with a blockbuster budget, visiting everywhere from London (where they ride buses, meet Ealing-comedy-style coppers from Scotland Yard and, rather implausibly, bump into Luke's mother) to North America, South Africa and Russia.
The rhythms of play remain largely consistent with previous entries in the series. Each location is divided into a series of scenes which can be poked at with the stylus to yield puzzles, hint coins (which are used to buy clues, from a gentle nudge in the right direction to a partial solution) and, later in the game, rare artifacts and interesting items which are added to Layton's personal collection. Having written thousands of puzzles for the series by this point, Level-5's designers have largely dispensed of the gimmicks and trick questions that characterised the early Layton games.
There is a much greater emphasis on mathematical problems, although these are always presented in such a way as to inspire excitement rather than dread and, more often than not now, each puzzle mirrors its placement in the world and story. The number of Picarats that may be won from a puzzle's successful solution indicates its difficulty. Incorrectly guess the solution to a puzzle, and the number of Picarats that can be won decreases - although in this game more than any of the others, there are many puzzles in which you can simply reset your solution without penalty. In this regard it is, arguably, one of the easiest games in the series.
In The Azran Legacy there is a clear antagonist, the nefarious Targent, an organisation seeking to harness the power of the Azran - as personified in the character of Aurora, a waif-like, naïve girl who Layton discovers cryogenically frozen at the start of the game. Aurora is able to interact with Azran ruins, unlocking their secrets; this sets up the globetrotting race between team Layton and Targent in what is arguably the most action-oriented game in the series.
At times you will engage in RPG-style random encounters with Targent members where puzzles are used in lieu of attacks. There is even an early action sequence in which you must shoot down drones during a high-speed chase through the clouds. These sections are handled with supreme tact and, despite their inherent violence, don't spoil the game's broader, non-combative style. Linearity is also broken, as after the first few hours you are free to choose your own route through the game's five self-contained yet interlocking mysteries.
"Most video game series fail to make it to their conclusion with dignity intact... Professor Layton ambles to the end of his journey with his head held high"
As well as the orthodox puzzles, Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy hurls a number of additional unlockable mini-games at you: games such as Nut Roller, in which you assume the role of a squirrel and roll a walnut around a series of gardens, avoiding perils, and Blooms and Shrooms, which has you planting flowers in order to set off a Bomberman-style series of chain reactions to bring neglected gardens back to life. While most of these diversions are in keeping with the puzzle-oriented tone of the series, Dress Up, in which you must select various items of clothing in order to satisfy the orders of a fussy customer, feels disappointingly incongruous.
Most video game series fail to make it to their conclusion with dignity intact - be that the dignity of their characters, the dignity of the player, or both. Professor Layton ambles to the end of his journey with his head held high. Here is a video game series that, over its course, never once betrayed its character, its intention or indeed its players. This final chapter may be more ambitious and sprawling than the tightly wound mysteries of the earliest titles, but what it loses in focus it makes up for in exhilarating range. (And there is still a 'Eureka!' moment when the missing piece of its grand narrative puzzle falls into place, just as there was in The Curious Village.)
"Fashions change, but steam trains remain majestic," remarks Layton, while waiting on the station platform in some pastoral village mid-way through this story. Not only steam trains, dear Layton, but also the video game vehicle in which you have travelled these past few years, which has transcended the fickle fashions of the industry and remained true to its singular vision. Puzzle solving is a gentlemanly pursuit, one that will perhaps never be better personified than in Professor Layton and his inquiring entourage.
9 / 10