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Review – Professor Layton and the Curious Village

posted on March 13th, 2008 by horatio

As the perpetually annoying sidekick Luke’s cockney accent will quickly inform you at the start of the game, Professor Layton and the Curious Village tells the story of the eponymous Professor Layton, renowned puzzle solver, and his apprentice Luke as they investigate the death of the Baron Reinhold in the curious village of St. Mystere (I hear that’s heavy-handed-plot-device-ese for “mystery”). More specifically, Layton is tasked with settling the Baron’s will and finding the enigmatic “golden apple” it references.

Getting to the bottom of this riddle will require interacting with the various townsfolk of St. Mystere– sounds easy, right? Only one one little problem, the people of St. Mystere just love puzzles, and if you want to get anyone to do anything for you chances are you’re going to have to solve a puzzle for them first.

Professor Layton wants *you* to solve more puzzles… and join the Army.

Need to get across a river? Solve a puzzle. Glass of milk? Solve a puzzle. High class prostitute delivered to your inn? Solve a puzzle (if only it were that easy…). Much like Puzzle Quest, which is a shell for the puzzle-game Bejeweled, or the Ace Attorney series, which is a shell for awesomeness (more on this later), Professor Layton is a point and click adventure game that serves as a shell for a series of logic puzzles and other riddles. But just how crunchy and delicious is this shell, and how creamy and satisfying is the core?? Let’s find out!

The Creamy Core of Professor Layton: Pulp or Pith?

As mentioned before, the basic mechanics of Professor Layton involve you wandering around St. Mystere via point and click trying to figure out what and where the golden apple is. Nearly every time you interact with a townsperson, you’ll have to solve a puzzle. The puzzles themselves range from the classics (matchstick puzzles, how many lines did it take to draw this image, etc.) to the mathematical (some simple geometry, magic squares, etc.) to logic (e.g. truth-teller and liar puzzles) and an assortment of other random ones.

Every puzzle has three hints, but to unlock them you have to have a hint coin. Luckily (if you’re an idiot, and need hints, you loser) hint coins are strewn about like candy in St. Mystere and can be collected by tapping random looking suspicious objects. Tapping these objects may also yield bonus puzzles, which are necessary if you intend to solve all puzzles in the game. Finally, solving a puzzle will give you picarats, a basic scoring system, where more difficult puzzles earn more picarats, and failing a puzzle will make it worth less picarats the next time around. There are a few other meta-puzzles you can participate in by collecting items by solving the normal puzzles, but their format is not so interesting as to warrant spoiling them.

So, the big question of course: if the game is just a bunch of puzzles, are they good enough to drop 30 bucks on? For me, that answer is yes. Despite my qualms, I had a great time with this game, and played it almost non-stop until I had beaten it. The variety of puzzles is great, and in only one or two cases did I feel like you had to really grasp at straws to find the solution. In terms of difficulty, however, it’s true that a good 60-70% of the puzzles are “filler.” That is you’ll solve them in almost no time, probably less than 3 minutes. For me, this really wasn’t an issue. After all, I think in all genres 70% of what you do is filler: 70% of actions in platformers are easy as cake, 70% of battles in RPG’s are a joke, and even in fighting games 70% of the rounds are a sinch, it’s only the last couple of rounds that are difficult.

Voyeurism? Graffiti? I don’t know what that guy is doing staring at the wall, but if you want the answer you can bet you’re going to have to solve a puzzle for him.

What makes the difference, of course, is the story and atmosphere behind the filler. Anyone who has played Phoenix Wright before knows that most of the investigation period of the game, and even a good bit of the trials, is filler work. But by having ridiculously hilarious and witty dialog and some great anime-style art, you immediately forget that all you’re doing is clicking the play button on the bottom of the screen ad nauseum. Unfortunately, as I will discuss now, Professor Layton does not quite rise to this level, and it is for this reason that I am mildly disappointed in the game. And now!

The Stylish Shell behind Professor Layton, Old Navy or Banana Republic?

The aesthetic aspects of Professor Layton are decidedly mixed. Some parts were executed quite well. There are a number of animated cut scenes that are simply beautiful, and the style behind them is unique and helps to create a unique ambiance for the game. And despite Luke’s off-putting accent, the voice acting is quite good and I think it’s safe to say by the end you’ll wish you were in fact as bad-ass as Professor Layton, top hat and all. Another nice detail, every time you finish a puzzle a short animation plays of either Luke or the Professor exclaiming they think they’ve solved it, only you don’t actually know if you got the answer right until the end of the five second clip. It’s a cheap way to build suspense, but it works surprisingly well and adds a nice feeling of triumph to every time you solve one of the game’s 135 puzzles (excluding the downloadable content they intend to continue releasing for free to owners of the game).

On the other hand, the soundtrack is abysmal, as most of the game relies on the loop of one song that is itself no more than thirty seconds long at most (at least, it is not noticeably different beyond thirty seconds…). Where the cut scenes are great, the art behind St. Mystere is decidedly drab. I can understand where the art directors were trying to preserve the mood and dark environment of the village, but they did so at the cost of creating an engaging world that is enjoyable to spend time in. In the end, the art and sound are passable and certainly unique, but I see no reason that there couldn’t have been more variety in either to create a more compelling environment in which to point and click.

I swear this is the last time I hire the Keebler elves to design my village.

I have similar feelings about the plot, which has terrible pacing. The first three-quarters of the game show the Professor and Luke bumbling around like idiots, chasing cats and lazy employees. The last few chapters make it all worth it, though. When the mysteries of St. Mystere finally unravel, there are a couple of twists and turns that are wonderfully satisfying to watch, and by the end I can guarantee it will be hard to say goodbye to the game’s main characters. Ultimately, the game largely plays out like a season of Lost, with almost too little intrigue to keep you plowing through, even if there’s a nice payoff in the end.

For me, the aesthetic flaws behind Professor Layton were not dealbreaking. In fact, while playing the game, I didn’t notice them at all, I was too busy feverishly solving puzzles. On the other hand, I’d have enjoyed this game with no graphical presentation: I routinely eschew my readings for classes in order to blow through free logic puzzles on the web. When I finished the game and came off the high of the novelty behind the genre, I felt a bit disappointed. This game is good, but it could have been great if only a little more attention were paid to plot and dialog, artwork and sound.

Hopefully the sequels will address these issues; I’ll let you know, because, despite my issues with this curious game, I can’t wait to solve some more damn puzzles.

8 Comments

  1. GJ said on March 13, 2008:

    If Jay solves the puzzle of your sexuality, will you write more reviews?

  2. Shota said on March 13, 2008:

    Don’t count on that GJ. Jay can’t solve the puzzle of anyones sexuality even when their (my) enormous pink torpedo is violating his puckering sphincter.

  3. TrueTallus said on March 14, 2008:

    Nice review! My enjoyment of the game was also primarily derived from it’s core puzzle gameplay through the majority of the narrative, Horatio, though I found the 70% easy puzzles a plus rather than a minus. Maybe it’s that each puzzle was unique, or perhaps I just place more value on mindless brain teasing than mindless experience grinding, but the sensation I got while burning through easy puzzles felt more like the rush I associate with mercilessly slaughtering a room full of grunts in Psi-Ops than enduring a padded out fetch quest in any given Final Fantasy. That is to say solving simple puzzles came across as empowering rather than something that had to be endured.

    I will say that I’m a bit surprised by your impression of the artwork. Was it mostly a lack of color that turned you off? I thought it was uniformly cohesive and great, though as you mentioned (and particularly in light of level 5’s past projects) somewhat preoccupied with earth tones. The detail in the indoor environments in particular was neat.

    I’d also like to chime in agreement with you on Professor Layton himself being badass. It’s about time a main character in a video game was smart enough to know what’s going on when the player does.

  4. horatio said on March 14, 2008:

    Thanks TrueTallus. To clarify on my problem with the artwork, I agree that the detail was great and quite cohesive, but the cohesion may in fact have been too much for my tastes; the game held so tightly to the earth tones that I felt no real thrill in moving between buildings and rooms (with perhaps the exception of the manor and the last building in the game), everything sort of felt the same to me.

  5. christian said on March 14, 2008:

    the art looks like richard scarry illustrations

  6. TrueTallus said on March 17, 2008:

    It definitely has an illustrated children’s book feel to it, Christian. The lines and shapes are generally a bit more well defined (less sketchy) than what I think of as Richard Scary-ish, though I’m certainly no expert in picture book art.

    I suppose I can see where you’re coming from, Horatio, about getting bored with a palette of all browns- I think Luke himself makes a snide remark to that exact effect. Perhaps Level-5 will put all the cards on the table for the next Professor Layton mystery, and we’ll end up with something more visually akin to a Broken Sword game (I certainly wouldn’t complain!).

  7. jay said on March 26, 2008:

    I just finished this game and I must disagree with some of your review Horatio. I found the art and music to be thoroughly charming throughout. The first thing I did after finishing was scour the internet looking for images from the credits to use as my wallpaper (which I also did after finishing Phantom Hourglass and failed in both cases).

    It would’ve been nice if they had tied the puzzles to the game a little more. The plot would be stupidly convoluted if every puzzle were mentioned in dialog, but certainly more could have been integrated. The ending felt anticlimactic, and a puzzle on the way down (you know what I mean) that tied into the plot would have been a really excellent way to wrap things up.

  8. TrueTallus said on April 1, 2008:

    I thought about the possibility of integrated puzzles as well, Jay. The classic accusing parlor scenes toward the end of the game seem as though they would have lent themselves well to a Trace Memory-ish recollection game of deductive reasoning played out from Luke’s point of view, something where the professor (in the midst of exposing the truth) posed a question about what was going on and Luke (the player) has to put two and two together. Granted that’s still not much of a puzzle, but it probably would have made for a more hands on approach to the narrative.

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