The Last Specter will have Layton meeting Luke for the first time.

User Rating: 8 | Layton Kyouju to Majin no Fue DS
The point and click adventure genre is one such genre perfectly suited for the DS's touch screen interface. In 2008, developer Level 5 introduced DS gamers to a new franchise called Professor Layton with their debut title The Curious Village. With charming characters, a mysterious story and a main emphasis on puzzle solving, the Professor Layton series would quickly grow to be one of the most beloved franchises on the DS. Now Level 5 has released its newest installment stateside with The Last Specter, which actually turns out to be a prequel chronicling Layton's first meeting with his future apprentice Luke.

A young boy makes an ominous prediction. "The specter will appear tonight." A beautiful melody is played on a flute, and the town of Misthallery is covered by a dense blanket of fog. Within this blanket is a menacing creature known as the Specter, and it has only one thing on its mind: destruction. A letter is sent from Misthallery to London to the office of Professor Heschel Layton beckoning him for his help. A newly self-appointed apprentice by the name of Emmy Altava insists on coming along. When the two arrive to Misthallery, they learn the sender of the letter is a boy named Luke Triton and they quickly witness the Specter's fierce might firsthand.

As with all Professor Layton stories, The Last Specter begins veiled in mystery. To uncover the truth, you'll wander all around the canal-lined town of Misthallery to meet townsfolk and learn as much as you can about this destructive invader. What is it? Why is it hellbent on destroying the town? Most importantly, who is behind it all? You'll meet all sorts of people from cheery ferrymen to aspiring hiders to a ragtag gang of rascals to a bitter man who failed to become mayor. They range in all sorts of sizes and appearances, but one thing they all share in common is an affinity for puzzles.

In general, the franchise's gameplay mechanics have evolved very little since The Curious Village, but the one facet where it continues to shine is in the puzzle solving. On the game's box, it boasts that it contains "more puzzles than ever before", but at 155 puzzles in the game's main story, that's about par for the course. False advertising aside, the variety of puzzles are still mind-boggling. Puzzles range from simple optical illusions to logic puzzles to mathematical problems that will take you back to your geometry and algebra classes. There are even a couple of a classic sliding block puzzles which you'll either love or hate. A minor complaint, though, is that the wording on some of these puzzles is intently deceiving, and some puzzles do an awful job of explaining to you why the answer was the correct solution.

If you never played a Professor Layton game before, it works like this: puzzle difficulty is ranked in Picarats. The higher the number of Picarats, the harder the puzzle will be. If you submit an incorrect answer, the number of Picarats you'll be awarded decreases. You are given tools to help you devise a solution, such as the translucent memo sheet that applies itself over the top of your puzzle, and the hint coins that reveal tips. Hint coins can be found just about everywhere by tapping on hidden areas, and the game's very liberal with dispensing them. You can unlock up to four hints for each puzzle, with the first hint being rather vague to the last hint practically spelling out the solution for you.

There are far less checkpoints that require you to solve a minimum number of puzzles this time around, so if you want to breeze through the game, you can. Should you chose to do so, you'll be missing out on quite a lot more than citizen-given puzzles. You'll also miss out on three new mini-games. There's an isometric train set that has you building track through several stations, picking up extra fuel as needed, all the while dodging traffic and other trains. A fish tank mini game will have you strategically placing bubbles to direct a fish's path to collect all the coins on screen in a given time. There's also a set of three plays that you can direct by filling in the blanks with appropriate actions. Finishing any one of these mini games will unlock a set of bonus challenges that will feature some of the hardest puzzles in the game.

The Last Specter has a couple of returning features. Granny Riddleton, the witch who collects and stores any puzzles that you miss in a game's chapter is on holiday, but tasks her cat Keats to do her job while she's away. If you miss any of the mini games as result of missing a puzzle, don't worry. Keats will provide it for you. There's also Layton's Journal, which jots down notes of significant importance so if you forget what's going on in the game, you can always refer to it for a quick refresher. There's also a new feature called Episodes, which plays little flashbacks regarding particular characters giving you a deeper look into certain events.

It's also wise to access the fish tank mini game as soon as you can, as you gain a fish that occasionally pops up on the screen to reveal locations of hint coins, collectibles and hidden puzzles. There's another critter to keep your eyes peeled for, and he's a mouse that randomly runs across the screen. If you manage to be quick enough to tap on him, you'll be given mouse badges. Get enough of these guys and you'll be given access to a Whack-A-Mouse game. It's a nice little diversion.

Speaking of diversions, the biggest diversion lies in the form of the bonus game London Life. London Life is an RPG that has you creating a character and then performing life-simulating tasks as you roam about London. You set off registering your home address, and then you talk to the many citizens of London, performing tasks for them to obtain Happiness. The more Happiness you accumulate, the better people will respond to you and the more quests they'll bestow up on you. The game has a nice quaint 8-bit presentation to it, and the bonus game reportedly contains 100 hours of gameplay.

Professor Layton's visuals have not changed since the first installment. This isn't a negative knock on the game, as the character designs are charming and whimsical and the backgrounds are artistically beautiful. Technically, however, there simply are no improvements. The games could always have benefited from better animations or more special effects on the game's backgrounds, but that just isn't seen here. Still, it's the design of the game's world and the Londonish style that makes the game appealing to the eyes. The animated cinematics are also as much a joy as they ever were.

The same goes for the audio. The Last Specter uses a lot of the same sound effects as the first three titles. From the dings of exclamation points that pop up when you find a hidden puzzle to the blings of hint coins you discover, it sounds practically identical to any other Layton game. The music is also heavily recycled, as you'll recognize several character themes and puzzle songs as being used from other games. As with the visuals, it's not necessarily a negative knock, as they are delightful to the ear, but reusing previous games' music crowds out the opportunity for new songs. What also remains is the same well-performed voice acting from Layton, Triton and the rest of the gang.

Professor Layton and The Last Specter is the last game of the series to be released on the DS, and it couldn't have been at a better time. Although the stories have always been enthralling and the puzzles always a great deal of fun to solve, the franchise is beginning to run the risk of becoming stale. Still, new mini games, a wealth of new puzzles and the incredibly long London Life will ensure that there's enough value and enjoyment to be had with this title. Although it's not Level 5's best offering, The Last Specter is still deserving to be in any Professor Layton fan's collection.