Professor Layton Review
Of the various popular game genres, I've always felt that good puzzle games are truly underrated. It takes a sharp mind and keen intellect to beat a puzzle game, and you don't even get a handy acronym for the effort. It takes considerably more skill to write a good puzzle game versus most other genres, like FPS. FPS designers just have to build a maze and stick enough enemies in it to keep your typical, rabid, frothing FPS gamer occupied for a few hours, though most FPS games are so linear they more closely resemble a very long hallway than an actual maze. To create a good puzzle game, you have to implement a wide variety of puzzle types, make sure they're challenging but not impossible, and put enough variety to keep it from getting boring; in other words, there's a lot of opportunities for puzzle games to fall flat on its face, whereas you can satisfy most FPS players just by putting enough squishy polygons in front of the crosshairs.
The Professor Layton titles are a series of puzzle games released for the DS, featuring the eponymous Professor Layton and his faithful sidekick-slash-apprentice-slash-semi-platonic bedmate, Luke. If you've never played the game, Professor Layton can best be described by imagining Sherlock Holmes, and then removing the wit, charm, and opium. His man-boy lover Luke, on the other hand, is a gender ambiguous castrato with a fondness for baby blue clothes and was raised by parents who apparently have no problems with their son taking extended excursions with a strange man. I appreciate that game designers can't hope to eliminate every childish innuendo that perverts like me can extract from even the most innocent of situations, but seriously, partnering an eccentric older man with a young, effeminate boy? In what first-world society does that not raise some eyebrows? Then again, Level 5 is based in Japan where people can buy school girls' panties from street side vending machines, so maybe this sort of thing is standard operating procedure.
The first game finds Layton and Luke traveling to Stepford—I mean St. Mystere—to try and inherit a fortune from a local millionaire by solving a riddle, which is as arbitrary as Bill Gates naming his heir by the outcome of a pie-eating contest. In the end, they decide not to take the treasure because Level 5 wanted sequels and god knows if Layton had inexhaustible piles of money he wouldn't have to do this shit for a living. The second game follows the trail of a diabolical box which kills anyone who opens it, which seems to resemble other magical boxes owned by, say, Pandora or Moses. In the end, Luke saves the day by using his powerful lungs and purdy mouth to blow like he's never blown before. The box I mean, not Layton.
Professor Layton and the Unwound Future finds our ethically murky duo traveling through time some ten years in the future to a dystopian, bizzaro London where Layton is evil and Luke has hit puberty. The dynamic duo sets out to discover the truth about London and find out if the evil Layton is also the future Layton of the present Layton. I won't spoil the ending of the game but suffice it to say it is easily the most dramatic and emotional of the series, so before I begin using words like "moving" and "poignant," I'd better hurry up and make another gay joke; more like Professor Layton and the Bi-Curious Village! Hey-o!
If it sounds like I'm being overly critical of the Professor Layton storyline, let me make it clear that the stories are actually quite good and compared to most video game stories they're Oscar-worthy even if they have a tendency to "borrow" from other scripts, but puzzle games don't really need stories. Their individuality comes from the puzzles themselves, there's no need to mask their cookie-cutter form with what is generously called a plot. Take Myst for example; an immersive environment with a complex narrative, but I challenge you to remember a damn thing about the plot other than the fact that the white page was on the main island the whole fucking time.
The Layton stories are twisting and intriguing, but during the game it's too distracting to keep up with the puzzles AND the story, which culminates as the final puzzle in which you are required to solve the overarching mystery based on some snippet of dialogue earlier in the game. It's like watching The Usual Suspects and being interrupted every five minutes to answer the door, and at the end you have to remember what color hat Kevin Spacey was wearing at the beginning. Plus, if you're anything like me, you're so eager for the puzzles that you impatiently tap your way through all the endless dialogue. I don't need all the lengthy back story and motivation to solve some random character's puzzle, let's just cut to the chase.
The game is certainly not without its flaws; one issue that has still not been fixed since the first installment is the designer's habit of littering the levels with characters that do not have puzzles or further the story. As a puzzle fiend, I am continuously looking for my next in-game fix and many of the puzzles come from randomly jabbing your stylus into unsuspecting passerby within each scene. However, after solving your puzzles, these characters don't disappear, and as there is no clear way of telling when these characters have new puzzles, you wind up tapping every person you walk by, the vast majority of whom just repeat the same lines over and over again, requiring you to tap furiously to try and skip past them. There is one character in the newest game that offers one puzzle at the beginning, and one line of dialogue at the end. The rest of the time, each time you tap her you she just makes snoring sounds; so why the hell is she sitting there?!
Something also needs to be done about the hints. Each puzzle has three regular hints, and all the hints are written by the same three people. The first hint is always written by Captain Obvious, the second by Petty Officer Subtlety, and the third by Lord Baron von Giveaway. The first hint is always something useless, and the third hint practically solves the puzzle for you. The only worthwhile hint is the second one, but you must purchase the first hint before buying the second hint. It eventually got to the point where I'd go to a walkthrough and read the second hint, and then just buy the first hint in the game so I'd lose a hint coin and wouldn't feel like I was cheating. There's also a super hint, but if you really need more than the first three, I would have a CAT scan performed to see if you may have misplaced any significant portions of your brain.
Despite its shortcomings, you could certainly do a lot worse. For the $35 it cost, I got nearly 19 hours of gameplay out of it, compared to the seven or eight hours I got out of some $60 games. The puzzles can feel a bit repetitive, specifically the ten or so puzzles that are solved by flipping sixes into nines, but it can ultimately be forgiven with the otherwise excellent puzzles and quality story. Layton fans need not fear that the conclusion of the trilogy means the end of the series; the ending promises another sequel. I can imagine the plot goes something like this: Luke is working as a janitor at MIT when Professor Layton discovers he is a mathematical genius and takes him as his apprentice. Soon after they travel to Oz to deliver 50 stolen cars so the wizard doesn't kill Layton's estranged, illegitimate daughter and are sidetracked by a cyborg who claims to be sent from the future to protect them. Hilarity ensues as Layton coaches a women's sports team, Luke fakes an orgasm in a restaurant, and finally the pair travel 20,000 leagues under the sea only to discover Soylent Green is people.