Review: Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (Nintendo DS)

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box
Developer: Level 5
Publisher: Nintendo
Genre: Adventure
Release Date: 08/24/09

Last year, the Professor Layton series made its debut outside of Japan with the release of Professor Layton and the Curious Village, which Alex and Aaron reviewed. It sold well enough that its sequel, Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, also received the localization treatment. In addition to the Professor Layton series, Level-5 has such titles as Jeanne d’Arc and two Dragon Quest games in its repertoire, which makes for a somewhat auspicious outlook for this game.

Let’s see how this sequel rates.

The story begins when Layton receives a message from his mentor, Dr. Schrader. The doctor has managed to find the Elysian Box, which according to lore will kill anyone who opens it. Layton and Luke rush to the doctor’s home, only to find him shifted off the mortal coil. The only clue they can find is a ticket to the Molentary Express. So on the train they embark in order to unearth more information on the Elysian Box and shed light on the various mysteries that emerge along the way. There’s a bit of deja vu here, as Layton’s last adventure was also spurred on by a letter carrying news of (or foreshadowing in this case) a death, which is an interesting little parallel. The Elysian Box in the game also shares similarities to Pandora’s box from Greek mythology.

Some characters from the previous game return in this game, such as the incognito-challenged Flora, the disgruntled inspector Chelmey, and your arch-nemesis Don Paolo. A couple of familiar faces from St. Mystere also make cameos. While the story does a relatively good job of driving the game and is as charming as its predecessor’s, it’s not without its flaws. For starters, if you were hoping to find out what the deal is with Don Paolo in this game, prepare to be disappointed. I know they have to save some material for the next game, but it feels as through they’re dragging out this plot point so thinly it’s practically transparent, especially with how abruptly he was introduced in the last game. The new antagonist also doesn’t show up until about three-fourths of the way into the game. On another note, at the end of The Curious Village, Layton and Luke leave with a certain other character. Yet when The Diabolical Box begins, it’s just Layton and Luke, and it’s never explained how and why they got separated, not even when they meet again.

Incorporating brainteasers into a story is a neat concept, but it’s not executed quite as smoothly as it could have been. The puzzles felt somewhat shoehorned into the game, as often either one of our motley crew or whoever they’re talking to would suddenly spout some variation of, “speaking of, have you heard this one?” and launch into a puzzle. Granted, in the first game, there was a reason everyone kept giving your puzzles. But the cropping up of puzzles unrelated to the task at hand does break up the flow somewhat, especially when there’s no apparent reason for everyone to be such puzzle aficionados, or for puzzles to be found in random objects, since you’re traveling around more in this game rather than remaining in one place the whole time.

Still, what’s here is an admirable effort, and though the two parts don’t integrate that well, taken separately each part is functional on its own. Despite the above grievances, I still found myself wanting to continue through the game to find out what else would unfold. You even get to see the normally gentlemanly and pacific professor swordfight briefly, which is neat to behold. The solving of the mysteries is a bit more spread out, though there’s still not that much interaction in the sleuthing that unearths the answers to said mysteries.

The graphics look pretty similar to those found in the first game, with the same art style that would befit a children’s book or a Hayao Miyazaki film. The character portraits now face an angle rather than head on like in The Curious Village. They also have little animations when talking – Chelmey’s angry finger wagging portrait (with smoke puffs coming out of his head) is especially amusing. The in-game graphics also look somewhat more polished, with animated details in the background. During the hamster minigame, the hamster and everything else on the board are all rendered in 3-D. The colors on the models look a bit washed out, but the models themselves are decent.

Animated cutscenes pop up frequently, but they’re still rather short, either showcasing a location or a couple of lines of dialogue before switching back to an in-game scene. They look and move nicely, and I wish they were longer. There’s even 3-D bits mixed in seamlessly with the 2-D; seeing the train in motion is particularly impressive.

There are some familiar tunes in the soundtrack, including the tune that plays while solving puzzles. While the theme itself is fine and dandy, infinite looping of just about anything will eventually wear on the ears, and such is the case here. Given that there are even more puzzles in this game, that means you’ll be hearing it for a large portion of the game, and I eventually end up just turning the volume down after a while of solving puzzles. The rest of the soundtrack is pleasant to listen to and fits the overall atmosphere of the game, though Layton’s theme is still my favorite.

The voice acting is a mixed bag. Layton’s voice actor returns, and does just as good of a job as he did in the last game. Sadly, Luke sounds just as much like a stereotypical British boy, and it’s still just as grating. Flora’s voice sounds a bit too deep for her, and it’s a bit jarring to hear her talk as a result. The other voices at least fit their characters, even if some come off as hammy. Overall, there’s more voice acting this time around – even the hamster gets a voice, though he usually just complains about having to exert any energy. For some reason, they gave him a rather loud and obnoxious voice, which is an odd choice for a hamster. Yes, he’s supposed to be a laggard, but that doesn’t make him any less annoying to listen to.

The flow of the game is much like the last game. For those who haven’t played the first game, or need a refresher, you talk to people to gather information, poke around the various environments for clues, and of course solve puzzles. Naturally, the stylus is your main method of interacting with the game, and unless you know where to look, you’ll end up clicking on every last pixel of a scene to find everything hidden there. Of course, you have to pinpoint exactly the right spot, or it won’t register. This proved annoying at times, as I’d be clicking every inch of the screen and still miss a hint coin. While wandering around, you can see who is currently traveling with you on the top screen and your current objective, which helps keep you on track. To move to another area, just click on the shoe and click on one of the arrows that appear, and to talk to someone, just tap on them (if they’re about to give you a puzzle, a red exclamation mark will appear). It’s all pretty straightforward.

The meat of the game comes in the form of solving puzzles. These range from spatial reasoning to deductive reasoning, sliding puzzles to math puzzles, and so on. Some will ask you to rearrange and order things according to hints given to you, while others will have you naming the total amount of possible combinations of a collection of objects. You may also have to look at a picture and figure out what’s out of place in it. If you’re the type to do lots of brainteasers and/or played the last game, some of these will be familiar to you. In terms of input, you either drag objects around, circle something, or write in your answers. I’ve noticed that if I write too quickly or don’t write large enough, then my letters and numbers get mistaken for something else, but overall I’ve had little problem with the handwriting recognition or the detection software (other than the aforementioned hint coin example). Even with one puzzle wherein I had to trace a top hat shape out of a pattern, it still registered even though the shape I managed to draw only vaguely resembled a top hat. In addition, there’s a memo feature that lets you scribble notes during any puzzle; clicking on the memo icon will cause the puzzle to gray out and gives you space to scribble out notes to your heart’s desire (though the notes are erased if you quit the puzzle). Each puzzle is worth a certain number of Picarats, which serves as the game’s scoring system. If you answer a puzzle incorrectly, you can retry the puzzle, but you’ll earn less Picarats from that puzzle. Accumulating more Picarats will unlock more features in the bonus section.

Should you want a break from finding and solving puzzles, there are some new minigames to keep you occupied. One involves helping a generously proportioned hamster to shed those extra pounds by designing exercise routines for him. This entails placing objects within his range of sight to motivate him him into walking. The goal is to place them in such a way that he takes many steps and thus burns more calories. Different objects have different properties. For example, the light bulb will startle the little guy into running in the direction he’s facing, while the apple will entice him to walk towards it if it’s within three spaces of him, even if there are other objects nearby.

Much like you rebuilt a robot dog in The Curious Village, you rebuild a camera from parts you find this time around. The camera serves the same purpose as the dog, namely, finding hint coins you haven’t picked up yet. In some areas, a camera icon will appear, and touching it will snap a picture. You then have have to spot the differences between the actual location and the picture. The differences are usually where the hint coins in that area are hiding. Doing this will also unlock a hidden puzzle there.

Finally, you can brew different teas, Layton’s beverage of choice. This works by dragging three ingredients (you can use an ingredient more than once) into the teapot, then putting the lid on it and waiting for it to brew. At some points a character will ask you to make a tea with certain flavors and properties (for instance, something sweet and refreshing); doing so will yield you more information and cooperation. When “HELP” appears on the tea set, brewing the tea Layton or Luke requests will net you a hint coin. Completing these minigames also offers other rewards, namely unlocking more puzzles in the bonus section.

If you’re stumped on a puzzle, you can buy hints with hint coins. Spend those coins wisely, however, as the amount of hint coins you find is finite. Generally, the first hint tends to be the most ambiguous and thus arguably least useful, while the last hint can all but hand you the answer on a silver platter. Some hint coins are easily missed, as unlike the last game, you won’t be able to return to every place you’ve been to once you leave. So if you don’t find those coins while you’re in the area, there’s no getting them once you’ve departed. The good news is that you won’t have to go coin hunting in the same places at night, lest you miss any coins that mysteriously appeared there.

There are enough puzzles here to keep you busy for quite a while, especially when you factor in the Wi-Fi puzzles. However, once you’ve solved all the puzzles the game has to offer, there’s not much reason to try them again unless you wait long enough that you forget the solution. There’s also little point in going back through the story again unless you really enjoyed the plot, want to challenge yourself, or want to pick up any missed hint coins or Picarats. Even then, you can access the puzzles you’ve found/solved in your trunk. Still, the weekly downloadable puzzles and the bonus puzzles will keep you coming back to this title. You also don’t have to worry about missing any puzzles as you proceed through the story, as those you don’t find will go to Granny Riddleton’s shack and wait for you there to come and solve them. At the end of each chapter, a list of puzzles sent to her shack pops up to let you know what’s available. Since you travel to multiple locations, you also don’t get the opportunity to go back and explore them once you’ve beaten the game, and you can only revisit around 60% of the locations in the game.

In addition, if you still have your copy of The Curious Village, you can now unlock content in both games by entering passwords found in each game. Keep in mind that you have to use the same DS for both games when accessing this content, as the passwords are different for each DS. The third game – which as of this writing has yet to released outside of Japan – will also have content that can be unlocked with passwords obtained from each of the first two games, as well as unlock more bonus content in those games. This serves as incentive to hang onto both games.

The puzzle variety is about the same as the first game, with variations of the same types of puzzles. However, the variation lies in length rather than difficulty, which gives the impression that the puzzles were conceived this way as padding to make the game feel longer. How mentally taxing you find this game relies partly on how adept you are with solving certain types of puzzles. In that regard, everyone’s wired differently, so it’s a bit hard to gauge just how challenging a given person will find the game. For instance, some people find the sliding and deductive reasoning puzzles annoying, while those are the types of puzzles I tend to like. On the other hand, anything involving something like finding the area of a specific oddly shaped part of a shape will just cause me to lose my patience quickly.

How well you remember the tricks to solving the puzzles in the last game also plays a role, as the same types of puzzle are present here, albeit with different values and details. The puzzles are scattered in terms of difficulty. You can also use the old cheap trick of saving before tackling a puzzle, guessing until you nail the solution, then reload your save and input the right answer, which helps you get the most possible Picarats. You do also have to think outside the box for some solutions, as focusing on only one part of the puzzle will result in the word “INCORRECT” popping up on your screen.

Like its predecessor, this game is a hybrid of an adventure game and a puzzle game in that you go around finding clues, questioning people for information, and tackling any brainteasers that you encounter. The way this combination is pulled off isn’t really something you commonly see, even if it has its snafus. The mastermind behind the puzzles for the first game, Akira Tago, returns to supply the puzzles in this game, which is another possible reason why some of the puzzles will seem so familiar to some. While the majority of the story also takes place in a village with a sinister looking tower looming over it, you do get to see other places as well, which makes the game feel a bit less claustrophobic. The new minigames help the game feel a little more varied, but you don’t need to complete them to beat the game if you feel disinclined to participate in them.

I found it hard to put down the game long enough to write this review, as I just wanted to keep solving puzzles and watching more of the plot unfold. However, there were points where I did end up needing a break because I bumped into a puzzle that stumped me. Despite that, I still wanted to get past said confounding puzzle and see what else the game had to offer, and what puzzle I would be presented with next. There is, of course, that sense of satisfaction that comes from nailing a puzzle.

Anyone who liked the first game, or brainteasers in general, will probably want to pick this up, especially given that the password from this game is needed to unlock a section in the first game (and vice versa). There’s more fantasy elements in the story of this game (in contrast to the more sci-fi feel of the first game), which may better or worsen people’s opinions of the plot, depending on personal preferences. Puzzle games tend to be a hit with the casual market, which will also help sales. Naturally, those who like action-oriented games and become bored quickly with puzzles likely won’t enjoy this.

I adored the first game, and this game retains much of the charm the first game had. That game does a somewhat better job of tying up loose ends and expanding on the set up the first game established, although some are still left dangling. I imagine those were left that way to be tied up in the final game of the trilogy, though those looking for a story with everything all wrapped up in a neat little bow at the end will be disappointed. There are enough new features that this game doesn’t feel like a rehash of the last game with a new coat of paint on it.

That being said, one thing that disappoints me is that the side story, “Professor Layton and the London Holiday” which was in the Japanese version did not make it into this version. I’m rather puzzled (pun unintended) as to why it wouldn’t make it in, unless it was a time issue or something along those lines. Even then, I would’ve been willing to wait longer if it meant getting that section translated. While this isn’t a gamebreaking omission, it’s still one that will be felt by anyone who’s played the Japanese version.

The Scores
Story: Decent
Graphics: Good
Sound: Above Average
Control and Gameplay: Very Good
Replayability: Good
Balance: Poor
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Very Good
Miscellaneous: Decent

Short Attention Span Summary:

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box contains much of the charm that drew people to the original. The idyllic visuals are just as nice to behold, though the puzzle theme still has me reaching for the volume switch after a while. There’s still a disconnect between the puzzles and the plot and the difficulty still feels scattershot in terms of how and where the puzzles are placed. Still, if you like puzzles, enjoyed the first game, and have lots of time to kill, this will suit your tastes nicely.



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2 responses to “Review: Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (Nintendo DS)”

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