The success of the Brain Training games, and all pretenders to the throne that have followed, have shown that we quite like putting our noggins to the test. So a game that is essentially a collection of 130-ish puzzles and brainteasers is no bad idea, but how do you make an assortment of puzzles feel like more that just a random collection thrown together to cash-in on a current craze?
The solution Level-5 - probably best known for their work on RPGs Dragon Quest VIII and Rogue Galaxy - have come up with is to wrap the entire thing in a Sherlock Holmes-style tale of mystery, delivered with buckets of charm and panache.
Dear Professor Layton...
The game opens with protagonist Professor Layton, an English gentleman who happens to have a penchant for puzzles, and his young assistant Luke en route to a place called St. Mystere. The late Baron Reinhold's widow, Lady Dahlia, has requested the professor's help to solve the mystery of the Golden Apple, a test left behind by the wealthy Baron to find someone worthy of inheriting all he possessed.
This is explained in a lovely little animated opening sequence that leads straight into the first puzzle of the game: Lady Dahlia's invite includes an unmarked map and a clue as to which village is St. Mystere. Using the clue provided you have to work out where you should be heading and circle the correct location. Upon arriving you find that the drawbridge into the village is raised and the bridge operator doesn't know which crank to use. Cue another puzzle where you have to match the right crank shape to the hole shown. It's a nice introduction and sets the tone for the game to come.
Riddle me this
The game works like a simple point-and-click adventure, where you navigate between screens and can click on items and people to interact with them; anyone familiar with the Ace Attorney games should have a good idea of what they're in for. There's no item management to worry about though - the story and exposition all come through interaction with the village's colourful array of characters.
St. Mystere's inhabitants are also the main access point to the game's puzzles, as interaction with a villager will invariably result in them tasking you with solving a puzzle before they reveal any further information, task-relevant or not. This somewhat odd fascination with puzzles harboured by the villagers could feel a little contrived (and has lead to some gentle lampooning online), but the game does offer an explanation for it by time the credits roll.
Puzzles themselves cover a nice range, including everything from maths and logic to wordplay and spatial puzzles. Aside from the odd one or two, all are clearly explained and have clear-cut solutions. In fact, any time you get stumped, once you figure out the answer you'll be kicking yourself for not getting it sooner, so obvious they all seem once conquered. And if you do get stumped the game isn't going to sit around letting you get annoyed: Professor Layton employs a very clever hint system that treads a fine line between being helpful and allowing for abuse.
Give us a clue
Each puzzles has three hints available, with each level of hint becoming less subtle. But to unlock each hint you need to spend a hint coin, with these being hidden in the scenery of the game (found by tapping with the stylus). However, there are not enough hint coins in the game to view every hint - a point the game is keen to stress when it introduces the mechanic to you - so you have to spend wisely. And it worked: any time I got stuck there was the natural temptation to go straight to the hints for help, but the fact I might need my coins later would prompt me to try a bit harder. It also acted as something of a system of pride, being able to show that I had solved the puzzles on my own merit.
At the same time, those moments when something just completely threw me and frustration would begin to creep in, before the desire to throw my DS at something set in I was able to buy a hint to help push my line of thinking in the right direction. Though I did find that the first level of hint was often too subtle and I'd already got myself to that point, necessitating that I buy two hints to get a useful clue.
Here's my guess
You may need those hints more and more as the difficulty does steadily increase as you progress through the game. It's a gentle curve though with some later puzzles being more complex versions of earlier challenges. At every step though there's a great sense of satisfaction to be had from solving the puzzles.
This in and of itself is a huge accomplishment and can easily justify the game as a worthy purchase, but to my mind it's the story and the setting that make this a 'must own' title. The village and characters are full of effortless charm, and the world is rendered with a glorious art style that makes exploring each new area a joy. The animated sequences that appear from time to time are executed with real flair and make me wish they were doing a full-length piece to accompany the game. The voice acting is mostly likeable, though Luke's voice is perhaps a little on the annoying side.
Credit is also due for the interaction with the game's puzzles. Input is always intuitive and the puzzles that require you to write letter or number answers feature an impressively accurate handwriting system.
All in all Level-5 have created an incredibly likeable world that is a pleasure to play in and explore for the duration. Now this is where some people may draw issue, the duration isn't particularly long. Depending on how much the puzzles stump you, the 130-odd puzzles can be tackled reasonably quickly and there's not a massive amount of replay value to be had.
This falls down to a fundamental argument about how do you judge a game: do you rate it purely by its mechanics as a game, or as the experience as a whole. For me, it is without doubt the latter every time. This is why I stand by Bioshock and Call of Duty 4 as two of the most outstanding experiences of 2007. And for me, Professor Layton is nothing short of brilliant throughout.
As a testament to the infectious appeal of the game: I started telling people I worked with about the game and gave them a couple of examples of the puzzles. They enjoyed working them out so much they wanted more to have a go at, and so I showed them a couple in game. After seeing the game they all decided to order their own copies, one even seeing it as the justification to go get himself a DS.
The only real negative I can level at the game is that so far there's no planned release for Europe. I can't understand why this is, as the appeal is apparent in my persuaded friends and co-workers (even my mother who's not a massive fan of logic puzzles is interested), so the only option we have is to import. Thankfully this is easy enough to do, and probably cheaper than buying a local release, but even so, this is just another example of Nintendo's poor attitude towards the territory.
To be continued...
European release issues aside, this is an excellent game that I can't recommend enough. Unless you have an inherent hatred for puzzles and brainteasers then I can't see how this game will appeal on some level.
Best of all, Professor Layton and the Curious Village is the first in a planned trilogy of Professor Layton games. The sequel has already been released in Japan and I'm hoping that it doesn't take another year, like the original, to translate and make its way west (else expect it to hit North America in November). Colour me excited.