Review: Professor Layton and the Last Specter

ProfessorLaytonLastSpecter

Practically a genre unto itself, the Professor Layton games have carved out their own little place in the handheld gaming landscape.  The love children of Myst and a book of MENSA brain conundrums, these titles have done well for Level-5 with their unique brand of puzzle-centric adventures.  The Last Specter does not reinvent the wheel by any means; it is another Layton game.  If you’re already a fan, then know that there are more puzzles and more extra game modes than ever before.  If you don’t know what all the Layton is about, read on.
 
Billed as a prequel to the first seminal game, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, this title tells the story of how the Professor and his young friend Luke first met.  For the first three games the young lad and the professor have traveled to locales solving crimes like a less creepy Batman and Robin.  (Layton’s ward habitually wears shorts, but they are of a more reasonable length than the boy wonder’s emerald hot pants.)  Layton, already a famous sleuth, is saddled early on with a more age-appropriate female assistant, Emmy Altava, and called to the town of Misthallery.  It seems that the Misthallerites have been plagued by a massive ghost that regularly destroys people’s homes and property.  The matter is both embarrassing and of great concern for the mayor of the town.  Embarrassing enough that they do not call in Egon Spengler and company, but distressing enough to call in Hershel Layton to see what’s what.  The mayor of Misthallery knew who he was gonna call, it just wasn’t the usual crew.
 
The storyline and characters are a touch darker than what has been seen in previous Professor postings.  It’s not that the Professor has to clear the name of a vicar accused of solving the mystery of what’s in Luke’s pants, but many of the characters are a somber bunch that project an aura of depression which presupposes failure.  It seems that having an unstoppable specter destroy property seemingly at random is not the way to high morale.  The friendly Layton and inexplicably enthusiastic Emmy are pleasant counterweights to the many dour characters and scenes encountered.  Occasionally the dialogue has voice over that is well delivered. And on even rarer occasions the story will be developed with a short animated movie.  These are well done and are consistent with the art style of the game.
 
I was hoping that, like a proper prequel, the game would show the Professor’s origin story.  Perhaps starting with Luke’s origin instead is the developer’s way of saying that Layton is just a really smart guy who loves solving mysteries and has a lot of leave to not teach his classes or grade papers.  He’s got tenure, so he can leave at the drop of a top hat to go to Spooky-time-Mystery-ville whenever he wants.  The Prof helps the lads at Scotland Yard solve crimes because he’s good at solving problems and is a gentleman.  He’s like a less dickish Sherlock Holmes.  His origin story was that he studied hard in school and eventually got an academic job.  No one wants to play that game.  So here’s a story about Luke’s crazy home town with its sixty foot tall ghost that blows up buildings.  Someone else can make the dull game about a guy doing well on his Standardized Aptitude Test, or whatever they have in fictional Britain.  Knowing this game series, it probably has something to do with puzzles.
 
The basic structure of the game is fairly straightforward when compared to the typical adventure game.  It usually amounts to “Go Here”.  “Here” being a place marked clearly on the map that is shown on the top screen.  In a Myst-like fashion, there is no environment to walk around in but a series of connected static screens that show a building’s exterior, room or an outdoor scene.  Everything looks old world and charming, yet exaggerated in a manner that could be called Japanese Europe or anime Britain.  The progression of the game is to go from place to place, solving puzzles for no reason, and talking to people to get clues along the way.  Puzzles to solve will pop up all of the time, often in a manner that appears to be calculated to force players to not suspend, but actually cancel their disbelief.
 
In a rare few instances there are puzzles or problems which have an actual connection to the world, say perhaps a locked door with a combination lock and an odd group of markings nearby (obviously a code to the right sequence of symbols or numbers), or perhaps a riddle that will lead to a password.  But, as is the case with earlier Layton games, by and large the puzzles have absolutely zero to do with the story or the world around.  Layton & Co. might be looking at a scenic lake (read: the player taps on the lake) and someone will chime in with, “That reminds me of a puzzle”, or a random citizen of cartoon Europe might challenge the great Professor Layton to a conundrum to see if he is the right chap to be investigating the mystery. 

Once the hammer falls on the brain teaser in the chamber, the game switches to a separate set of screens.  The top screen typically gives the set up for the problem and whatever rules there might be, the bottom screen has the actual puzzle itself.  A convenient “Memo” feature puts tracing paper over the bottom screen where notes and calculations can be written.  The shoe-horning of all these contextless problems into the game can equally be termed charmingly ridiculous and narrative breaking.  This structure is par for the course in Layton games, but is unusual if one has only ever played games like Riven and Portal where the puzzles actually have a realistic place in the world.  Even the Safecracker games had the thin explanation that the player had to solve all these random puzzles, because each was a part of a safe.  And how can you be a “Safecracker” unless you crack some safes?  It would defeat the whole purpose and premise of the game if you didn’t want to solve puzzles to bust open safes! 

It is kind of a similar mindset here; the problem solving is the draw, not the charming but flat story.  The story and puzzles work well hand in hand, the desire to solve new puzzles and see the rest of the story always leading the player on.  This is the magic of the Layton games, using these elements to complement each other.  The brain challenges are without a doubt some of the best standalone puzzles in video games and in puzzledom, but if it was just 150+ puzzles on a cart the draw would not be as strong.  Similarly, the setting and characters are charming, but not compelling enough to warrant playing without the puzzles as a regular break up to the tale.  The only time the game doesn’t work is when there are two or three very difficult mind benders in a row, which take a long time and a significant amount of mental energy to complete.  Luckily, you can just close the DS until you’re ready to go on.  Just make sure you save first as there is no autosave feature.
 
The puzzles are all new for this game, though some of them will seem familiar with the older Layton games if you’ve played them before.  Which is to say that the variety is impressive, but there are only so many kinds of puzzles that exist.  Mazes, math word problems, special relations puzzles, spot the difference variants, tile slides, and more are all out to challenge players.  I’m experienced at more puzzling in general than some and a little less than others, and I found the brain teasers to range from immediately clear to confounding.  Throughout the world are hint coins that can be spent to help in solving a problem.  There are three hints that either give more information or try to send the reader down the right line of thought for one coin each.  These nudges get stronger and stronger until the Super Hint, for two coins, is reached.  This clue lives up to its name as it will all but tell you the solution.  None of the problems appear to rely on any specialized information and really only one in thirty, I thought, was unfair.  These rare puzzles required either an unreasonably large lateral thinking step or a degree of mathematical knowledge that most people out of high school have forgotten.  Even those in high school probably don’t possess the right skill set unless they are in an advanced placement program that specializes in geometry.  The presence of the super hint option does iron out these wrinkles in its own way.  If you’re anything like me and tap everything that looks even a little bit odd, you’ll have more than enough hint coins to afford a super hint on a particularly vexing problem.  
 
The musical score is appropriate to the setting, a romanticized, animated Old World perpetually stuck in 1965.  If there is an award category for “Best Use of an Accordion in a Video Game” this game is going to get it hands down.  One could hold up the DS to a microphone and lay it over some stock footage of a riverside cafe in Paris, with mimes and ultra-cool, unemployed people with berets and it would be spot on.  Or at least a spot on cliche.  Overall the game sounds nice when it needs to.  The only exception is that the same musical track that plays when players stare at a puzzle is very distracting.  Probably any music would be distracting when trying to wrap one’s brain around how many gems are in a cube of twenty-seven glass boxes when the only information given is the view from three angles.  Luckily, the volume switch on the DS is pretty easy to find when concentration is required.  But you’ll want to turn the sound back on after inputting a solution.  In the moments between input and the reveal of Correct/Incorrect, three beats and images of the solver are shown getting closer to the screen, moments where all your self doubt lives.  These are tense moments that lead to equally intense elation or disappointment.
 
It’s possible to prolong the puzzling by downloading weekly puzzle packs.  If these follow the trend from previous Layton games, there will be about twenty or so new puzzles out before this service stops being supported.  After that, players can just do whatever “downloading” there is and get all the puzzles at once (I use quotes as I suspect all that is being downloaded is an unseen instruction to unlock content that is already on the cart).  I understand that America is a little behind Japan in Layton games, but it is difficult to appreciate a feature in the modern world that uses the online connection capabilities of the Nintendo DS.  The interface and system used by what is now last generation hardware is old and most users will have a hard time finding a wireless system that can talk to the DS so that they can get at these puzzles.  It is a bit beyond my understanding why there has not been an update to the WiFi communication abilities of the DS to include garden variety security encryption.  Many other systems update firmware off game media, but no such luck here.
 
In addition to these downloadable, illustrated puzzles there are several sets of extras which do not require a very old internet setup.  These modes resemble mini-games but are in reality increasingly difficult permutations on a puzzle idea.  For example, in one players will have to direct a puppet show using direction verbs that are gained while playing the game.  If the directions are incorrect, the play descends into nonsense and you’ll have to try again.  Successfully direct all the plays and a reward will unlock.  It’s like playing Madlibs with the goal of creating the most realistic narrative possible.  There are several of these mini-games, some of which are more entertaining than others.  All are unlocked as new areas to explore become available or certain events pass in the story.  So, in addition to the carrot of new, traditional puzzles and the advancement of the investigation, the potential to acquire new mini-game levels is another reason to keep playing.  Some of these are found strewn throughout the game world and can only be found by repeatedly tapping all over the place.  Sometimes there is an internal logic–fish tank race maps are found in bodies of water, for example–but a lot of the time it seems like the way to play the game is to just click all over the place.  This can be fun or frustrating, depending on how many times a player is willing to pull a lever to get a food pellet.
 
Attached to the game is a separate title called London Life.  This is billed as an RPG.  It is not one in the traditional sense of the initialism.  There are no monsters to speak of or dungeons to explore.  True, it is necessary to assume a Role in order to Play this Game, but it is misleading to characterize the experience as a role-playing game.  Instead of slimes and treasure chests there are jobs and clothes.
 
In London Life players will create a new character to bring into the town of Little London.  Once there, a virtual life will begin in a small metropolis populated by small sprite versions of characters from previous Layton titles.  It is fun for longtime fans to see these characters redrawn in this fashion and to read their dialogue with all of each character’s unique mannerisms and quirks.  Pauly from the Curious Village is still overflowing with rage and bile for no reason and Rodney continues to “strongly advise” that you fill out forms and help the town as necessary.  Things will progress similarly to the movie Amelie, a young person helping people with their problems, sometimes in anonymous ways.  Even when one helps directly, it might as well be anonymously as no one seems to remember that they were helped just yesterday with a really similar problem.  More basically, players will make a custom avatar to do fetch quests for various characters in order to earn Wealth to buy clothes and furniture for their very own flat.  All clothing has stats which will either increase how well certain folk are impressed by your attire or whether or not access can be gained to the ritziest club.  Throwing in dull jobs like trash collecting to grind out money does not increase the excitement, however.
 
This bonus game looks and sounds like a 16-bit Squaresoft title, for better and for worse – better because it is pleasantly retro, worse because it is at times hard to tell how to take thing A to dude B to complete a task.  The gameplay is what I would call the worst part of those older role-playing games, moving in a sparse environment to either a shiny object or to find a person who is not shown on any sort of map.  In other games there is an epic story to advance, party members to gain or a new dungeon to explore.  In London Life the reward might be a new set of drapes.  I recall marketing materials that claimed there would be up to 100 hours of content to this bonus game.  That number seems very high.  After a couple of hours I did start to grow attached to my lil’ Londoner, and started to alternate between musings of “I wonder if I can get some new shoes that will boost my formality and my coolness!?!” and “This is dumb.  Can’t these people find their own random objects?”  It is worth trying out, but my suspicion is that most people will ask themselves the second question far more.  It is possible to spend that many hours in the game with all of the grinding on unimpressive jobs to increase the play time, but I doubt anyone would want to do that.
 
London Life aside, The Last Specter is a complete package that delivers a charming story and tons of great puzzle solving action (if “action” is the right word to use; “pastime” might be more accurate).  If London Life is taken into consideration, it can at best be seen as a whole new game for a particular breed of players to enjoy and at worst is a menu option to ignore.  It is difficult to imagine that anyone who owns a Nintendo DS, or one of its variants, has not heard of Professor Layton.  What is easy to envision is a person who has heard about the series, but is afraid that there were too many narrative beats that would be missed if he or she hadn’t played the earlier games.  Professor Layton and The Last Specter removes this obstacle as the story takes place before the events of the other titles.  Whether you are new to the series or have solved everything so far, this is an easy to recommend game.

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Pros:
+ Charming characters and setting
+ Over a hundred self-contained, well designed puzzles aching to be solved
+ A silly amount of bonus content

Cons:
– London Life is not as spectacular as billed
– The story is forgettable
– Does not shake the Layton formula up

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Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Level-5
Release Date: 10/17/2011
Genre: Puzzle Adventure
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.