Inside Pulse 12

Review: Professor Layton & the Curious Village (Nintendo DS)

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Professor Layton & the Curious Village
Developer: Level 5
Publisher: Nintendo
Genre: Adventure
Release Date 2/10/08

There was no way I was going to pass up the chance to review Professor Layton. Not only did it promise brain teasing puzzles and an all new storyline, but it was also developed by Level 5; a company I’ve come to respect greatly. (They also made Jeanne D’arc, our PSP game of the year for 2007.)

Since finally buying a DS last year, I’ve become bound and determined to find the games that best utilize the stylus and touch controls. Games like Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, Trauma Center, and Elite Beat Agents have entertained me to no end. From the way things looked, Professor Layton was a logical buy and a must play title. It’s already had huge success in Japan, where the sequel is out as well, and gotten a lot of attention here in the states. This is a planned trilogy and seemingly destined to become a big title for the DS.

But enough about that. How good is the game?

Story

In the town of Saint Mystere, (Get it? It’s mystery with an e instead of a y! How clever!) the incredibly wealthy Baron Reinhold has passed away. As per custom, whenever such a man dies, the reading of his will becomes a public spectacle. Apparently, he left his money to no one. Not his wife, daughter, nephew, or even a close friend. Instead, he declared that whoever finds “the golden apple” will inherit his entire fortune. This of course sends the entire town in a frantic search which bears no fruit. (Sorry. I couldn’t help it.) In response, the baron’s widow, lady Dahlia, calls in the big gun. Professor Hershel Layton, the famed puzzle solver, comes along with his young apprentice Luke. Together, they set out to solve all the town’s curious puzzles and quirks, as well as discover a little bit about themselves. (It sounds hokey cause it is.)

All in all, the story wasn’t so bad, but the telling wasn’t good at all. Level 5 has never been known for their script writing after all. One of things that got me was the cut scenes here. They’re wonderfully done, but they seem to last five seconds and only give us a quick look at a building or a line of two of dialogue. Even worse, there was a part at the end of the game where a cut scene started, than stopped. Two lines of dialogue were written, and then another cut scene began. What would have been so hard about adding those lines to the cut scene? Some of the choices here are just weird. The game makes a point of keeping about ten or twelve mysteries going on throughout the entire game, and all of these are answered in the final minutes. How is this done, might you ask? Might you be using deductive reasoning or even solving one last puzzle? No. Layton just tells Luke EVERYTHING. Apparently, he had a whole list of hunches that he never mentioned before.

Oh, and in case you were wondering how a game full of over a hundred puzzles could possibly incorporate a valid storyline….it can’t. Almost all of the puzzles have nothing to do with what’s going on. Characters are simply obsessed with solving puzzles and will ask you to solve them anytime and anywhere. (Even after a murder.) This is eventually explained, but only in passing.

Layton is just one of those games that will give you more questions than answers and expects you to be content with a whole flood of answers crammed into the last five minutes of the game. There are almost no real relationships between characters, and the “villain” just kind of shows up without an explained reason. Even Layton had no idea why this guy was chasing him. I know that there are two sequels planned, (Layton 2 is already out in Japan) but a little info would have been appreciated.

Graphics

This is a hard one to gauge. On one hand, the graphics are pretty simple. On the other hand, the art style is….simple. I think it’s fair to call the graphics a success in that regard. The town looks mostly perfect in all regards. We have cobbled streets and dusty street lamps in a town of rustic Victorian homes and an honest to god Clock tower. In other words, it looks just like what you’d expect from an old English town. For the simplicity, there is a high level of detail in each screen. LaytonGraphics

I believe Lucard compared the graphics to some Japanese Anime or two in his review for the game. I don’t really watch those, but the closest comparison I could make here is a couple of old Nick Jr. shows; Little Bear and Franklin. Both of the shows had pretty decent art and animation, but just like Layton, they suffer from an apparent dimness. Maybe the developers are just using some geographical stereotyping, but the whole town seems awfully gloomy. (It takes place in Britain, btw.) The colors always seem a little flat.

Beyond that, the character models are an interesting thing to look at. Most of the characters have somewhat larger heads in comparison to the rest of their body. They also tend to vary in the eyes a bit. If you look at the screenshot I have above, you’ll notice that Luke has whites in his eyes. Now take a look at Layton. Bingo. There’s nothing but black dots. Honestly I can’t figure out the logic in that. In either case, all of the characters stand out from each other. Once you’ve memorized a name to a face, you’ll never mistake one character for another. That’s always a good sign.

All in the entire graphical package is pretty solid. There is a bit of a blur effect during the cut scenes, but that can mostly be attributed to the limitations of the DS screen. It’s a pretty good looking game, so hopefully other devs will follow this example.

Audio

Ah yes. Audio would be the second half of our scores for presentation. Unlike my talk of the graphics, this won’t be such a cheerful toned criticism.

First off, the voice action is atrocious. Layton’s voice actor is the exception here, as he pulls off both clever and intelligent…well…um….intelligently. Luke gets just as much dialogue though. This is a bad thing. His voice sounds like a British kid trying to do an American accent trying to do a British accent. It’s not good, and it might be even offensive. The two other cases of voice acting are pretty bad too. The inspector sound like a stereotype with a cold, and the girl you meet (I won’t give her name for spoiler’s sake) reminds of the hack job Mandy Moore did with Aerith in Kingdom Hearts II. Let’s take score here. You get one decent voice and three terrible ones. I think we can call that a losing scenario.

Voice acting is usually bad. In good games, the music can save you from the despair they bring. This will be the case for Professor Layton; at least until the first few hours of gaming are up. There are really only a handful of tunes in the game that I noticed. The big offender in the group is the puzzle theme that plays every time you try your hand at one of the games many brainteasers. It gets annoying pretty fast, and given that completing puzzles is the only way to advance in the game, you’ll have to hear it at least ninety or so times. Trust me. When you get stuck on a puzzle for a long time, you’ll be apt to turn the sound off, lest you throw the DS across the room just to stop the damn song.

Controls and Gameplay

Layton is a true point and click adventure game. Everything is controlled with the Stylus, meaning your touch screen is finally going to get some more use than the occasional bland minigame. In fact, I don’t even think there was a single control feature that could even use the button. Movement is done by tapping a shoe in the bottom right hand corner and then selection a direction. Accessing and utilizing the menu screen begins with tapping a carpetbag in the top right-hand corner. Even scroll through text requires a tap on the screen. That’s pretty much all there is to talk about there. It’s a nice touch, but options are always a good thing, and Layton has none of those.
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Now gameplay is generally curtained off into two types here. First, you’ll be exploring and investigating by using the controls described above to move about the map. Tap a person, or an intriguing object to either open up a bit of text or start a puzzle. Pretty basic.

The other form of gameplay are the puzzles themselves. There’s a surprising bit of variety here. There are logic puzzles, math problems, trick questions, spatial reasoning, sliding puzzles, pattern recognition, you name it, etc. Most of these simply require you to circle and answer or write one in. The recognition technology was pretty good as far as I was concerned. The only problem I had was with the letter A, which came up as all kinds of letters and even a number or two. I know that some people had problems with fours and nines, and I have a theory on this. I draw my fours using two strokes. First and L and then an l. I was able to do this in the game without a hitch ever. As long as you don’t take your sweet time, the game realizes that you’re not done yet and will let you finish the number. Now, I did try to draw a four in one stroke, and that caused problems. Even though when the four showed up onscreen it was a triangle with one leg and one arm, (4) if you draw it that way, the game thinks it’s a nine.

It really is nothing but exploring to find puzzles to explore new areas to solve more puzzles. The story mode contains one hundred twenty puzzles for you to play through. Some are more fun than others, and even others are just broken. (There’s one puzzle involving chocolate that doesn’t make any sense unless you know a lot about Japanese culture for instance.) You’re more than likely going to need to use some of three hints allowed per puzzle, which you must purchase by spending coins you earn through exploration. It can be fun. It can be frustrating. It’s usually a least a little fun.

Replayability

I have some good news and some bad news.

Bad news first; the story isn’t worth replaying. It’ll take you about ten hours to get through the game unless you rush through it. There are no branching storylines and no new puzzles. Anyone expecting to go multiple play throughs is going to be disappointed.

Ready for the good news? All of the puzzles can be accessed out of the story once you’ve beaten them. That’s one hundred twenty puzzles at your fingertips, plus ten bonus puzzles that offer an even greater challenge. This adds to any game’s replayability as it is, but Level 5 and Nintendo have something else to whet our puzzle needs. There are weekly puzzles you can download onto your cartridge. This could be a game you keep in your DS for quite some time based solely on that.

Balance

Here’s the inherent problem that you’ll face any time you create a game with so many puzzle types; Everyone is going to be good at some puzzles and bad at others. I fancy myself pretty good at logic puzzles myself. Give me anything where I have to figure out how to make seven squares using a set amount of pegs (not being able to use any peg twice), and I get lost. I can’t fault Level 5 for trying, but it would be virtually impossible to find a good balance here. There are some puzzles that are amazingly easy, and even others that are so hard that you’ll be frantically searching through gamefaqs for the answer.

There seems to be no rhyme or reason as to what puzzle is placed where. A few minor characters tend to keep the same kinds of puzzles around, but beyond that it seems like they just flipped a coin. I had easy puzzles towards the end, and hard puzzles at the very beginning. I had some excruciating ones in the middle.

Originality

These puzzles didn’t just come from the minds of Level 5. I know before this game came out I had never heard of Akira Tago, but all of the puzzles in the game come from his books. Apparently he’s a puzzle solving fiend. It wouldn’t be too farfetched to assume Layton is at least partially based on him. laytonshot3

And this whole puzzle/adventure hybrid thing? Well Puzzle Quest is still fairly recent in all of our minds at this point. It proved that mixing genres can be a recipe for success. This game has some new takes on some not so new ideas.

Addictiveness

I finished this game in less than twenty four hours after I got it. I NEEDED to beat it. There were times when the horrible balance caused me to put down my DS in disgust, but I was soon to pick it back up again. The wonderful thing about brainteasers is they’re a ton of fun, and when they stump you, you have all the more reason to keep playing to prove the game isn’t smarter than you.

If only for the sheer nature of puzzles, you’ll be addicted to this game. How long that addiction will last is up to you.

Appeal Factor

This game has been getting a lot of press. It’s already sold a ton in Japan and is poised to do the same stateside. What can I say? People love puzzle hybrids. Give a casual game a story and a more expensive price tag and people can’t wait to buy the thing. We’ve seen this with Puzzle Quest, and we’re seeing it here as well.

Miscellaneous

I like the game and all, but it has a major fault that I feel I must address. The entire game feels like it’s just an introduction. Much like the first X-Men movie, there’s not a lot of time for any real development. There’s no further proof needed than the end of the game. Nothing is truly resolved in the grand scheme of things. Sure the mystery of Saint Mystere is solved, but more questions than answers remain, which could be hit or miss for the series.

Basically, the second game better have a hell of a story to make up for all of the set up in this game.

    The Scores

Story: Above Average
Graphics: Good
Sound: Mediocre
Control and Gameplay: Very Good
Replayability: Very Good
Balance: Bad
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Very Good
Miscellaneous: Mediocre
FINAL SCORE: Enjoyable

    Short Attention Span Summary

If you love puzzle games or adventure games, there’s no reason you shouldn’t pick up Professor Layton & the Curious Village. There are tons of fun and challenging puzzles to find and to master. If, however, you’re looking for a great story, it’d be best you went elsewhere. This is a pretty good start to the series, and I look forward to the sequel. I just hope they use the momentum of this game and actually go somewhere with it.

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