The biggest surprise on the Nintendo DS
bluej33 wrote this review on .
This is the one thing that kept me away from Professor Layton for a while, but let me assuage any fears you may have. If you're apprehensive about picking up this game because you think, as I did, that you're shelling out thirty bucks for what you could get in a puzzle book for a couple dollars, don't worry. Because while you may have seen some of the puzzles before and not every puzzle is entirely new material, the game features high production values and fantastic presentation, and is certainly worth a purchase from any DS gamer.
The puzzles themselves are the meat of the game, and these are incredibly well-done. Every puzzle that you encounter is gauged in terms of difficulty with a money value -- the currency used by the citizens of St. Mystere, the titular curious village, is the picarat -- and you'll earn that respective amount if you beat the puzzle in one go. The money that you collect will be important later in the game when you need certain amounts to unlock bonus content at the end of the game. Some puzzles are worth a mere 5 or 10 picarats, whereas some of the super-tough bonus puzzles at the end are worth 99 picarats. You'll be penalized for entering the wrong answer by having the picarat reward reduced, but usually you'll never lose more than 20% of the total value of the puzzle -- the exception is where there are only two choices, in which case if you answer wrongly you'll lose a whopping 50% of the puzzle value.
Puzzles can be really tough, but there's a lot of freedom in that you don't really have to beat a puzzle if you don't want to -- or more likely, if you can't. You can't beat the game fairly easily without completing too many puzzles, so if you get stuck you can usually skip a puzzle without too much consequence. However, if you skip too many puzzles, you're going to run into some trouble -- there are several instances where you are required to have completed a minimum number of puzzles before progressing. Additionally, there are certain puzzles that serve as locks on doors, such that it's impossible to go any further unless you complete this puzzle.
However, if you really get stuck on a puzzle that you wish to complete or that is required, you can receive up to three hints to help you out. You can find hint coins scattered throughout St. Mystere, and each hint requires one of these coins. You can go ahead and blow three coins and pretty much get the answer to a puzzle, as the final hint basically gives you the answer, but this is a dangerous habit to get into. There are some later puzzles that are really tough and you'll be ticked off if you realize that you spent coins on simple puzzles early in the game and can't afford to purchase hints for more difficult puzzles late in the game.
The puzzles are incredibly well-imagined and quite clever. There are some traditional puzzles scattered throughout the title, such as the classic "turn the triangle of coins upside down in three moves", sliding block puzzles, magic squares, and "bring all the animals across the river following these specific conditions". But along with that are some really neat puzzles; some of them involve logic, others fairly basic math (a few times basic knowledge of Algebra is going to be necessary, or at least helpful), and the most exciting: those that really require you to be clever. Oftentimes the answer lies in not overthinking a problem and instead reading the problem carefully -- they're cleverly worded and often misleading.
But of course, I wouldn't be recommending Professor Layton if it was simply a boring progression of puzzles -- there's a strong story element to the game (more on that momentarily), and you'll travel throughout St. Mystere as you fulfill certain objectives (usually just moving from place to place, gathering information). All the action takes place on the bottom screen, with a map displayed on the upper screen. You walk around from section to section of the town and simply tap on something to investigate it. Tapping on people initiates a conversation with them, and tapping suspicious items will often yield you a hint coin. Also, tapping on certain items will allow you to investigate them and file them as clues.
All these puzzles are held together with a surprisingly well-written story. Professor Layton and his assistant, a young boy named Luke, are renowned for their puzzle-solving abilities and are called to the village St. Mystere to investigate an inheritance dispute. An untimely murder quickly complicates things and its up to the good Professor to investigate things and figure out exactly what's happening. The game's title doesn't mislead; the village truly is mysterious, as the 40+ people you'll encounter all have unique personalities and are, strangely, constantly presenting you with puzzles. The writing is also well-done and can be downright hilarious, and the pacing is fantastic.
The characters themselves are all distinctly weird and have incredible personality, for the most part. A few of the minor characters are rather forgettable but most of them are pretty impressive. Professor Layton and Luke, in addition, are well-developed and as you progress through the game you'll grow more and more attached to them. The storytelling is also really great; most of the plot comes through typical story boxes, but scattered throughout the title are some really fantastic-looking cutscenes complete with voice-overs. Throughout most of the game you'll get occasional plot with puzzles taking up most of your time, but the last hour really shines in that the pacing really picks up and all the unexplained mysteries of St. Mystere finally come to light.
The title's presentation is tight, as are the touch screen controls. It's really easy to pick up and play, and the menus are easily navigable. The game keeps excellent track of what's going on, so you could put it down and pick it up a few weeks later and get right back on track (not that you'd likely want to), thanks to a quick recap of the story as well as some really awesome menu options. For example, you can check in on all the mysteries you've come across and access Layton's journal to go further back in the story. There are also some extra distractions throughout the game, such as assembling a painting or a robotic dog (parts of both of these are obtained for solving certain puzzles). Additionally, you gain furniture throughout the title and can create the ideal hotel room for both Layton and Luke.
The game can easily be completed in under 10 hours -- it took me just over 9 hours, and I went out of my way to solve as many puzzles as I could before the story's truly surprising climax. If you are easily troubled with tough puzzles, it could easily take you longer, as even some of the required puzzles are quite tough. However, once you've finished and the end credits have rolled, there's still tones to do. Depending on the number of picarats you've gained throughout the adventure, certain bonus features will be unlocked. For example, you can get a profile section for everybody in the game, some uber-difficult special puzzles, and more. Additionally, it's fun to go back and find all the hidden puzzles and complete all the extras. It's got a ton of play value and is easily worth the money you'll pay for it.
For the most part, Professor Layton is a real visual treat. I already mentioned the cut scenes, and they're certainly one of the high points of the game -- actually, there are few parts of the game that aren't enjoyable. They take full advantage of the graphical capabilities of the DS and the voice acting is quite good for a DS title. There are only a few throughout the majority of the title, but the last hour of the adventure is chock full of these scenes, and big plot surprises are generally taken care of with them. The rest of the game, however, is dripping with charm thanks to a really distinct, anime-like art style. The conversations outside of the cutscenes are done with 2D character models, each with a few canned expressions, much like Fire Emblem. This becomes a slight problem, because these expressions aren't quite enough for every situation -- for example, Layton has an annoyingly confident smile on as he's being accused of murder.
All told, Professor Layton and the Curious Village is among the best titles on the DS. The puzzles are really a lot of fun and the investigative work will be a blast for any fan of point-and-click adventures (think Phoenix Wright, Hotel Dusk, and Trace Memory). While the conclusion is satisfying, there are also some characters that are left unexplained; this, combined with some other obvious hints assures the player that the Japanese sequel will indeed be brought over to North America. It's a fantastic game that's a must-have in any DS-owner's collection. Professor Layton promises to be the poster child of one of the DS's most successful and innovative franchises, and you won't want to be left out.