I thought the holiday season was supposed to be the most murderous, time-sucking part of the year, but I was wrong. What was once a traditionally lazy span of months before the spring blitz has, in 2008, become a thing of nightmares, with great games coming at me from every angle. And with many of them coming via Nintendo's foul little handheld, there's nowhere for me to hide -- it's too damned accessible.
Professor Layton and the Curious Village (DS)
Developed by Level-5
Published by Nintendo of America
Released on February 11, 2007
I'm ashamed to admit that Penny Arcade beat me to the joke, and what a joke it was. It's funny because it's absolutely, fundamentally true -- what is it with a village so hung up on puzzles that they'd set aside concerns like a fucking murder to tease you with riddles and brain teasers? But that's not a question worth asking -- just buy the ticket and take the ride. The village of St. Mystere, its rules and conventions, are built around the mind-bending experience inherent to Level-5's Professor Layton series. And once you're acclimated, it's easy to accept local custom. You've got a job to do, puzzles to solve.
But make no mistake, Professor Layton and the Curious Village isn't just puzzles, one after the other. While they certainly serve as the crux of the gameplay, they function within a completely realized and utterly beautiful world crafted by the wizards of Level-5. The setup: when a wealthy baron in the aforementioned puzzle-obsessed village of St. Mystere dies, the family contacts one Professor Layton to tend to the man's somewhat esoteric will, which describes a family treasure with worth beyond measure. Upon arrival, Layton and his trusty assistant Luke are besieged with mystery and, naturally, must get to the root of several mysteries to unravel it all. And what luck -- the village has a total boner for riddles, adding a little spice to the challenge.
The game is gorgeous. Lemme say this again: the game is gorgeous. It features an art style resembling a blend of Hergé's Tintin and The Triplets of Belleville -- a lovely cartoon style with outlandish, exaggerated character designs of all shapes and sizes. The game is presented in a static slide background scheme for the areas that make up the village of St. Mystere, and populated with animated sprites that pop up in higher resolution during conversations with the townspeople. Throughout the game, several fully-animated cutscenes are shown that really illustrate the breathtaking art style at its best -- in motion. While the appeal of Layton's visual style is entirely a matter of taste, it's difficult to deny just how much work the art does towards setting the game apart from its peers. Just one of those things you have to see for yourself.
I'm surprised to say that Layton also features some of the best voice acting I've heard all year. In a DS game? Fo' serious? Unexpected but true, the voice acting is as charming and appropriate as the characters it represents, and really serve to bring together that previously mentioned aesthetic in an extremely cohesive way. The music, too, fits the tone and mood of the game, with one exception: the ditty what plays during your puzzle-solving, which sadly is the only music you'll hear while tackling the game's many puzzles. And my God, you'll be hearing it quite a lot.
The story gets rolling right quick, and the game swiftly drops a handful of simpler puzzles in front of the player to get the ol' cogs churning in a way that will prepare you for some of the more fiendish puzzles later in the game. The puzzles, designed by Chiba University professor Akira Tago, range from the benign to brain-melting in terms of difficulty, but are paced quite well to help the player get accustomed gradually. Like Brain Age, you'll actually notice an improvement, a change in thinking as you move along -- you'll be learning to tackle things from unconventional angles and shift your mindset to better suit the puzzle at hand. It's a bizarre transition and one you wouldn't expect in a handheld game, but it serves as one of Layton's most compelling features.
Pay no mind to the shoehorning of Layton's over 130 puzzles into the goings-on of the mystery at hand -- it wouldn't work any other way. That Level-5 managed to surround the puzzle gameplay with a beautifully rendered story and cast is a marvel, but it comes at the cost of common sense; why would someone ask me to cut up stamps when there's a murderer on the run? But consider the alternative: stripping the puzzles of their aesthetic and circumstantial contexts, down to the puzzle's bare core, and redressing it to fit in the context of Layton's evolving plot -- what possible use could there be of the rearrangement of matchsticks to move along a story? At the end of the day, Level-5 was left with two options in fitting gameplay to plot: a bizarre, quirky world in which everyone loves puzzles, or an abandonment of context altogether, which is -- well, Myst. We're fortunate they took the route they did. Layton wouldn't be nearly as satisfying if it was simply a list of puzzles to be checked off with every success.
The puzzles, for the most part, are wonderful; the sort that leave you with a genuine sense of satisfaction after completing one on your own, cutting through the thickest of logic traps and pulling the right answer from the deepest pits of your churning mind. And for those particularly difficult ones, Layton's hint system is gently implemented, requiring the use of "hint coins" -- tokens which can be found by clicking points of interest in the village as you explore -- to reveal up to three nudges to get you moving in the right direction. Rarely, if ever, does the game push you directly towards a right answer; hints are therefore easy to use without feeling wracked with guilt for giving up on yourself. Even if you spend a token or two in a given puzzle, the sense of accomplishment remains.
They can't all be winners, however. Indeed, a handful of puzzles fall into that obnoxious word-play riddle category, the sort that make you want to cut out your eyes when the answer finally dawns on you -- or worse, when you look up an answer out of sheer desperation. These puzzles aren't driven by critical thought or logical process, but by a crude sense of novelty -- a "how do you make an elephant float" sort of mechanic. These puzzles, graciously, tend to be few and far between.
Gotta-solve-'em-all completionists will appreciate the fact that no puzzle in Layton will be lost to the progressing plot, as every unsolved or undiscovered puzzle is moved to a particular location after the completion of each of the game's chapters. Like Phoenix Wright, it's difficult to wring out a second playthrough of Layton, but the shamelessly addicted can look forward to weekly puzzle downloads via the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, which will prove useful in a game which, by its very nature, is a bit limited in terms of replay value.
It's expected that Professor Layton will be a big hit with some gamers, but not everyone -- some folks simply don't dig this sort of fare, which is fine. But for those gamers who love the idea of a rigorous workout of the ol' noggin, Layton delivers an exemplary experience wrapped in one of the most stunning aesthetics yet seen on the DS, or any system. Level-5 has proven itself to be one of the industry's most capable and talented development teams, and able to work their magic in any genre, be it strategy (Jeanne D'Arc), action RPG (Dark Cloud 1 and 2), and in fresh territory like Professor Layton. While it's by no means a perfect first effort, Layton is one of the most unique titles we've seen in some time, and definitely worth checking out.
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