The Professor Layton games occupy a brilliant little niche in the puzzle game genre, delivering mind-churning challenge with whimsy, humor, and heart. The titular gentleman and his eager apprentice have returned once more to answer a call for assistance, following a path that leads onward through the mysteries of time. Built around a slew of great puzzles and moved along by intrigue and intellect, Professor Layton and the Unwound Future is gratifying on many levels. Anyone who enjoys pitting their wits against brainteasers could enjoy this game, but something better occurs here than unraveling mazes and counting blocks. This is a delightful adventure that enchants the mind and blends its challenges, narrative, and world in a near-seamless weave.
The cry for help this time around is itself the source of a puzzle--the message comes from Layton's young companion Luke, from what appears to be 10 years in the future. Things have gone awry, and apparently only the present team of master and protege can set things right. Through a giant device in an old clock shop, the pair enters a gritty future version of London that's being held in the firm grip of a mafioso, portrayed as a shadowy figure in a dashing top hat. The Layton of the future has become some sort of criminal mastermind, researching time travel for his own nefarious ends. Matters are not always what they seem, and the tale of revenge and politics takes a number of insane twists and turns along the way. But even the story's absurd moments are great to watch unfold, and there's enough suspense, action, and real emotion to carry you through to the end.
You roam the city using your stylus and explore your current environment on the touch screen while the top screen displays a map along with your current objective. It can be easy to get distracted while wandering the city looking for new faces and new puzzles to conquer, so the objective reminder and locator on the top screen is a welcome feature. Layton keeps a journal that updates as you discover more information in case you need the refresher, as well as a puzzle index. If you miss discovering a puzzle, the game helpfully rounds these items up and stores them for tackling later. Buses and subway stations allow rapid transit between distant areas, minimizing the amount of time it takes to run around, which is handy if you don't want to go hunting for extra puzzles. But the game is played afoot, and each puzzle completed takes you one step closer to solving the many mysteries you encounter.
The fate of future London and the wacky ensemble cast of characters it houses depend on your mental acuity, and there's ample opportunity to stretch your synapses. Every conflict in the game is settled through a genteel battle of wits, no matter how hardened the thug or how desperate the situation. The puzzles themselves are a balanced mix of memory games, mazes, logic puzzles, visual tests, and more. Sometimes these are integrated into the nearby environment; other times they're posited by a character as an impromptu exam. Unlike previous games, the tests here are mostly unique with only a few repeated templates, so if you really hate sliding block puzzles, you don't have to worry about getting bogged down in multiple versions of the same thing. Successful completion of puzzles earns you picarats--points that you can trade for additional features when the game is finished. A memo tool lets you jot down notes and work through your thoughts or allows you to trace your way through some of the more complicated shapes you see. You can use multiple colors and vary line thickness to keep things visually organized when jotting memos, though for a few puzzles, it's inadequate. It's difficult to trace multiple looping, slender paths weaving over and under each other without making your notes look like you're working out some anger issues. If you just can't scribble out the solution, salvation gleams in the form of precious hint coins.
There are a large number of these coins scattered throughout London, and tapping every chimney, window, and suspicious nook will quickly yield up a considerable collection. You can then spend those on some of the game's tougher offerings to get a little extra assistance. Each puzzle generally offers three hints for one coin each and then a special hint for two coins that you can select if you still need help. When you get truly stuck, spending the coins is virtually always going to allow you to reach the answer, with the special hints almost outright providing solutions. They're written in a way that encourages you to think and perhaps salvage a bit of your pride. Even if you answer incorrectly, the failure screen after such an attempt offers a sort of freebie hint that often is enough to kick-start your thought process in the right direction. Incorrect answers will shave some of the picarats off the total you can earn for that challenge, but there's a balance struck among optimizing picarats, saving up your hint coins, and progressing. The game may wrack your brain, but it provides numerous release valves to allow you to bypass tricky items and possible sources of frustration, moving things along while hopefully sacrificing the minimum number of points.
The puzzles themselves will hold your attention not just because they're cleverly designed and work your gray matter, but also because many of them are imbued with the same charm as the rest of the world. The denizens of the future come in every size, shape, and personality imaginable, each with memorable and unique features. Whether they're aiding you, antagonizing you, or cowering fearfully behind the edge of the screen, you'll look forward to meeting them and prodding them with your stylus to start new challenges. The rich color and detail of the cartoon world and characters is matched by a wonderful variety of music that uses some of the catchiest accordion themes in gaming. A few animated sequences pepper events with smooth and engaging action, and there's a good amount of voice work to go along with these and other narrative beats. The gentle tones of Hershel Layton and the youthful piping of Luke are a welcome and familiar sound, and other characters flesh out their performances well.
There are more than 150 puzzles to discover, though you only have to complete a certain number to progress. If the regular fare isn't enough for your superior intellect, there are three minigame selections you unlock throughout the course of the game that provide even more thought-twisting fodder. If you can complete these additional feats, you can earn extra bonuses, like a helpful parrot that points out the location of hidden hint coins. Beating the game allows you to access even more puzzles and other features, purchased with your picarat bounty that you've managed to collect throughout your journeys. Additional downloadable challenges can be gathered over time, as well. With the amount of content available, you can easily clock in close to 20 hours as you complete all your investigations and scour the streets for hidden treasures. The extended ending itself is touching and easily worth all the mental gymnastics it takes to get there.
If you love adventure games, mystery, and a good mental workout, Professor Layton and the Unwound Future will serve your needs admirably. The memorable characters, charming setting, and rigorous challenges form an utterly appealing whole that even a newcomer to the series can easily appreciate. Whether you fancy obliterating the many brainteasers or just getting by with the minimum, one truth will remain clear: The gentleman's sport of solving a puzzle will never go out of style.