Version tested: DS
Perhaps the first mystery to solve in the sequel to the enormously popular puzzle adventure Professor Layton and The Curious Village is what the game is about. Released in the US as Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, and later this month in the UK as Professor Layton and Pandora's Box, it is a game about Professor Layton and an artefact known as, er, the Elysian Box.
Those more classically educated than wot I is might know of a connection between the fields of the Underworld in which heroes would find their final rest, and the jar nosy-parker Pandora went and opened, causing all the bad things in the world like swine flu and straight-to-DVD American Pie sequels. I do not. However, ignoring all this and focusing on the story of the game itself doesn't exactly make things any clearer.
If you played the wonderful Curious Village, you'll know the deal here. Professor Layton is a top-hatted gentleman of refined manners, accompanied by a young boy named Luke. Together they investigate mysteries via the pleasure of solving puzzles. As such, the games are essentially collections of around 150 short puzzles framed by an elaborate story. It would be unrealistic to claim that the stories link the puzzles in any meaningful way, while equally incorrect to suggest the narrative feels like an aside. Each is marvellously imagined and detailed, despite neither quite aligning.
The delivery in Pandora's Box is mostly identical. The mystery begins with the rather sudden murder of a friend of Layton's, Dr Andrew Schrader, which appears to be connected to the mysterious Elysian box that was in Schrader's possession until the time of his death. In searching his study, Layton discovers a peculiar ticket for the Molentary Express, a luxury steam train that travels through the English countryside - peculiar because it states no particular destination.
Layton and Luke get themselves tickets for the train in order to explore the mystery behind the death and the box. Along the way, everyone they meet and everything they see offers a puzzle for you to solve.
The original was mocked for the seeming insanity of its characters, people refusing to give them directions or sell them a room in a hotel unless our heroes could figure out the age of the younger daughter of a family based on some mathematical clues, or complete a maze. Anyone who played the game to the end would understand precisely why this happened, making those who scoffed look appropriately ridiculous. I shall not spoil the ending of the first game, but suffice to say Layton and Luke are rather astonished when they discover that also investigating Schrader's murder is one Inspector Chelmey. Luke pulls at his face just to be sure.
But if the original was confusingly convoluted in its logic for a village of puzzle obsessives, Pandora's Box is a tangled madness. There's a train full of them, then one town packed with more, then a further, more mysterious city positively rippling with puzzling fanaticism. The explanation is so mind-boggling you'd not believe me even if I did spoil it, which I clearly shall not.
Once again, the presentation is absolutely stunning. It mixes animated sequences that approach the gorgeousness of Hayao Miyazaki films with hand-painted backdrops and more simply animated characters, all beautiful. The dialogue is smartly written, and often very witty, delivered in a somewhat muddled combination of standard bleepity-bleep tones as text appears and brilliant voice acting from a strong cast - with one rather enormous exception. Lani Minella's Luke is still so phenomenally irritating that you want to push him under the rails of the Molentary Express every time the voice pipes up. (This is never worse than when, after completing a puzzle, he smugly declares in his lunatic accent, "That wos oolmost too oesy".)
Much larger, more interesting locations make for a deeper and definitely weirder game. However, the weirdness tips over into inappropriateness on a couple of occasions.
It's very tempting to make jokes about a strange older man hanging out with a ten-year-old boy to whom he is apparently unrelated, but it seems a shame to, since it's clearly so innocuous and innocent. But the game itself starts to poke at that with an early sort-of-joke where their connection is about to be explained to someone when it's rudely interrupted. (Apparently the fourth game in the series – part three is already out in Japan – is to be a prequel explaining how Luke came to be Layton's apprentice.)
This then gets more strange as the young girl from Curious Village, Flora, appears to join the Professor's entourage of kids. It reaches an unsettling zenith when you find what appears to be an adult theatre in the spooky city of Folsense, and a dubious woman starts making overtly flirtatious advances at Luke. Um. No thank you.
Of course, in the end a Professor Layton game will live or die by the power of its puzzles, whatever the reasoning behind their inclusion, and in this second part there are far more problems than the first. Curious Village had a couple that were slightly questionable in their logic; Pandora's Box has a few too many. Mostly this comes down to poor wording in the questions, where if you can work out in which of two or three possible directions the ambiguous prose was heading, you can manage to solve the puzzle. But sometimes this is only possible with trial and error. It's not common, but it's frustrating that it's there at all.
The puzzles themselves are a mix of maths, logic, sliding tiles and word games. There are dice, chess and peg puzzles that hark back to the classics, and an array of trick questions scattered throughout, more subtly than in the previous game. While most are elementary, quite a few are pretty tough. Anyone left thinking this is a children's game by the cartoon presentation should hear the adult language puzzle 118 caused me to produce.
A fantastic new inclusion that deals with a gripe from the original is the "memo" option when puzzle-solving. Previously only some puzzles would let you make scribbled notes on the screen - especially useful if you're being a smartypants and using algebra, but just as vital if you want to make a quick note, or cross out a known wrong answer. Now you hit "memo" and a translucent screen appears over the puzzle that can be written on. There's also smarter use of the stylus for many puzzles, letting you rearrange objects on the screen.
The accompanying mini-games are all completely new. Rather than a robot dog to build and eventually sniff out the hint coins that buy you clues for puzzles, this time you're given an overweight (and freakishly English-speaking) hamster to look after. Once you've completed a completely dreadful series of puzzles that cause him to lose weight (the whole thing seems like it was intended to be very clever, but can be completed with the minimum of skill), he will be your coin detector.
There's a camera to find parts of and build. Once completed it will let you take photographs of marked scenes, which then open up spot-the-difference puzzles, each of the three differences indicating the location of a bonus – generally two hint coins and one new bonus puzzle. These spot-the-differences are somewhat problematic, since the bordered version on the bottom screen shows less of the picture than the top screen. When scanning back and forth to spot differences, the pictures not including all the same items is damnably annoying.
Along with a diary to unlock with discovered keys, the final bonus inclusion is the daft-beyond-belief Tea Set. Here you are given a teapot, and a slowly growing number of ingredients from which to make new brews. Combining them is a hit-and-miss stumble toward finding consumable concoctions, which can then be served to other characters in the game when they display the lapse in fortitude that only a specific tea can help. Perhaps it's a Japanese joke spoofing the British – I'm not sure. But it's a lovely idea made slightly boring by the necessity to click through reams of repeated text as you brew the undrinkable.
Professor Layton and Pandora's Box is superbly charming (aside from its creepy moments), and Layton's constant reprimanding of Luke for not being gentlemanly enough is hilarious. A true gentleman always solves his puzzles, you know. But there's definitely a sense of slightly diminished returns in the puzzle selection. Creator Professor Akira Tago may be Mr Puzzle Pants, but you get the impression he used his very best ones in the first game, with a lot of repetition of ideas here. It's a small complaint that explains the small drop in score, but certainly doesn't prevent this from being an extremely enjoyable experience.
8 / 10