Professor Layton Hands-On

Level 5 has a quirky, puzzle-driven mystery headed to the DS in the very near future. We gave it a try.

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Professor Layton and the Curious Village
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In the recent tradition of offbeat, narrative Nintendo DS adventure games like Hotel Dusk and Phoenix Wright, ubiquitous Japanese developer Level 5 has a charming new game heading to stores called Professor Layton and the Curious Village. It's been out in Japan for a good year now, but the game's formidable mix of devilish logic puzzles and a heavy reliance on written and spoken dialogue made importing Professor Layton a daunting prospect for anyone but fluent speakers of Japanese.

Well, good news: Layton is due out in North America next week, and from the looks of a preview build we got to play, it has gotten a top-notch localization. You'll play the role of the affable Layton and his quick-witted assistant, Luke, who have traveled to the village of St. Mystere to solve the mystery of a puzzling last will and testament left by the late, eccentric Baron Reinhold. The will's bequeathal hinges on a mysterious object called the golden apple, so everyone involved with the will in some fashion is scrambling to figure out just what the golden apple is, and where it might be located.

The game is rendered in lovely 2D art and has been rife with continental charm so far, from all the authentic British accents to the accordion-heavy soundtrack and prolific donning of top hats and other old-world accoutrements. The architecture and prevailing design of St. Mystere make it look just like a sleepy little European hamlet out of some old storybook or animated film. In short, Layton has a surprisingly cohesive aesthetic and presentation that are so evocative you'd hardly know the game was developed by a Japanese team.

Some of the puzzles here will have you seriously scratching your head.
Some of the puzzles here will have you seriously scratching your head.

If you had to categorize Layton, it would fit best in the adventure genre; you navigate from one static background to another by simply tapping on arrows pointing in available directions. But the gameplay is driven almost entirely by logic puzzles. As an old lady informs you when you enter town, St. Mystere's "main export is...the puzzle!" Indeed, just about every resident you run into in the town will have some sort of puzzle for you to solve before you can progress, though usually the puzzles are unrelated to the storyline, from what we've seen so far.

Each puzzle has three hints associated with it that you can access if you're stuck, but you'll have a finite number of hint tokens for use in the game (with a handful more hidden throughout the town), so you'll want to be extremely judicious about when you want to get a hint. The puzzles also pay out an arbitrary number of picarats, the game's currency, and each time you fail to solve a puzzle correctly, the payout will be reduced. Picarats can apparently be traded in for some kind of benefit later on, though we haven't gotten far enough to see their effect yet.

We only got to play through the early area of the game before Nintendo swooped down and repossessed our copy of Layton, but we got a good feel for what the puzzles will be like. One puzzle presented us with eight identical-looking weights, one of which was lighter than the others, and we had to determine which one was the light one. We had a scale to use to compare the weights, but we could use the scale only two times, so we couldn't solve the puzzle by simple process of elimination. Another puzzle showed us four top hats with varying heights and brim widths and then challenged us to pick the one with a brim as wide as the hat was tall. This sort of optical illusion required a lot of eyeballing. We figure we'll be seeing more puzzles of this type later in the game.

Nintendo says more puzzles will become available on the Internet on a weekly basis.
Nintendo says more puzzles will become available on the Internet on a weekly basis.

Another puzzle gave us a riverbank with three wolves and three chicks on one side, and a raft at the bank. We had to get all six animals across to the other side while observing the following rules: There couldn't be more wolves than chicks on one side of the river (or the wolves would feast, natch); the raft could hold two animals at most; and at least one animal had to be on the raft for it to move. Yet another puzzle had a surprisingly subjective solution: We were shown a dog made out of matchsticks and then were asked to move only two of the matchsticks to make the dog appear as though it had been run over by a car. (Nobody said this puzzle-solving business was all laughs.)

Nintendo claims that the final version of Layton contains more than 130 puzzles, though it seems like some of those will be optional and not part of the main storyline. Furthermore--and rather surprisingly--the company will be making new puzzles available for download on a weekly basis, though we haven't heard how many you'll be able to fit on your Layton cartridge at once, nor whether you'll have to pay for them. As mentioned, Professor Layton is set to hit shelves next week, so look for a full analysis soon.

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