Game Review

by David Riley,

Professor Layon and the Curious Village

Nintendo DS

Professor Layton and the Curious Village

The DS is certainly something. In developing it, Nintendo set its sights on people who weren't playing videogames. It worked. Brain Age and My Spanish Coach flew off the shelves. The royalties flowed like fine wine. The casual market was happy. Aside from the occasional Castlevania, hardcore gamers were mostly lost in the shuffle. Until now. Until Professor Layton and the Curious Village.

There are plenty of people who are happy enough just to yell times table solutions at their handheld or bake cookies with Cooking Mama. They love Sudoku and doing the New York Times Crossword puzzle on the computer. Many
casual players are happy with Bejeweled whether it is loaded up on Internet Explorer or carried around in their back pocket.

But, deep down, the hardcore gamer craves a sort of cohesion that doesn't exist in the “five minutes a day!” game. There's a fair amount of crossover to be sure, and Cooking Mama has snared as many hardcore gamers as Halo 3 has secured the casual sect. But where is the game that will truly appeal to both?

Here sits Professor Layton. Brain Training wasn't building any bridges. This game is.

In the sleepy village of St. Mystere the secret fortune of a recently deceased Baron is hidden. The Baron, a fan of riddles, has constructed a devious challenge to those who seek his fortune: find the fabled Golden Apple and become rich beyond your wildest dreams. The villagers have invited the titular Professor Layton, a world-class riddler, to solve the Baron's puzzle. But, unsurprisingly, there's mystery afoot in St. Mystere and the Baron's guessing games aren't the only thing aiming to keep the professor perplexed.

The game makes no pretense about its purpose. Every villager you meet bombards you with multiple logic-based puzzles. Some are simple mathematical problems. Some are trick questions. Some are diabolical in their complexity (at least at first glance). They will have you ferrying sheep and wolves safely across a stream right after you figure out how many squares you can make on a peg board.

But there is an important difference between this game and ones like Brain Age. It overlays an actual game onto the brainteasers, it gives you a reason to turn it on besides the puzzles. It's not a daily distraction anymore, it's a true-blue game.

But it's not like most games. No combat. No massive array of weapons ready to deal death. No sprawling dialogue trees. No 45 minute RPG cutscenes. There are your wits and there are puzzles (and there are a lot of them). Some are very different from each other, but they are all there specifically to tie your brain in knots. Many puzzle games for the DS test silly things like how fast you multiply and divide. They score more on reaction speed than cognitive thinking. Here you're encouraged to take your time. Just sit back, relax, and figure out how many passengers you can get off a sinking ship in twenty minutes if you have a lifeboat that holds five people.

The world of Professor Layton is deceptively large. Though the village you explore consists of only twenty or so static screens, there's tons of detail packed into each one. You're urged to click everywhere to uncover secrets. This primarily uncovers hint coins (to help with particularly frustrating puzzles), but the occasional secret puzzle is hidden underneath that inconspicuous potted plant or juicy rack of lamb. Many puzzles open up pieces of the game's meta-puzzles too. There's a jigsaw to complete, a robot dog to build, and a bit of feng Shui in making sure that Layton and his apprentice are happy with the furniture in their rooms. All this is really just a façade to steer you back into the game's true objective (solving puzzles), but you'd be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable front.

It'd be tough to find one that does it any cuter, either. I'm sure I'm not the only one that was put off by Dr. Kawashima's strangely polygonal head in Brain Age. The town's cast of little caricatures do wonders for the game's personality. The chubby nobleman unlucky at love is a favorite of mine, and it's difficult not to be charmed by the title character with his Sherlock Holmesian style of detective work. (Though he takes great pains to deny that he's anything but a professor, Layton can't help but crack the case and put the mysteries of St. Mystere to rest.) The game's aesthetics certainly help. The creators don't deviate from the cartoony cel-shaded images of their previous games, but neither do they wholly imitate what's come before it. What it resembles most is a child's picture book, and its style is a refreshing change from wide-eyed anime heroines or gruff space marines.

Layton is a charming story told by even more charming characters. This is exactly what's needed to add that little bit of extra ‘oomph’. It's the atmosphere of the game that changes it from something you pick up when you're bored and the TV's on to something you can't bear to play with the TV on. Every logic riddle or numbers game you solve brings you just a little closer to unraveling the town's secrets. It can be tough to stop when you feel like you're just a step or two behind the culprits.

Level 5, the designers, have already proven themselves in the RPG-sphere. Dark Cloud 2 is one of my all time favorite games, and Rogue Galaxy was maybe the best sleeper hit of 2005. Professor Layton proves that they've got more in them than leveling up and building new swords. Their ultimate goal is to suffuse you with brain teasers, and they do it handily. They also create a whole world in which these puzzles exist. It's pretty amazing what a difference that makes.

Just like casual gamers would benefit from putting down Fish Tycoon and trying something more engaging, hardcore gamers might want to take a night off of Gears of War to see what's going on in the Mysterious Village. Level 5 only set out to have you solve a few puzzles, but they might end up creating that bridge between casual and hardcore that the DS so pointedly needs. There are plenty of games out there for the gun nuts, and there's no shortage of Sudoku either. Here's something that happily exists in the space between the two.

It's not life-changing. It's not the type of game that will have you rushing home from work to play. It won't keep you up until all hours of the night. But you'll definitely enjoy the time you spend with Professor Layton. Beyond the fantastic puzzles, it tells a fun little story, with cute little characters and a great musical score (Tomohito Nishiura cribbing directly from his Dark Cloud 2 score. But hey, it was great there, too) and at the end of the day there's an appropriately gushing happy ending to warm the very cockles of your heart.

It's very nearly the whole package, and that's more than you'd expect from any puzzler. What's more, it's proof to the casuals that there's more out there than scratching a stylus around, and it's proof to the hardcore that games can still be pretty awesome even if they don't have you killing aliens with rayguns and explosive crossbow bolts. And with weekly downloadable content and another game on the way this year, you won't be short of brain-teasers anytime soon.

Overall : B+
Graphics : B-
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : A
Presentation : B+

+ Great puzzles and lots of them. A solid, non-invasive soundtrack. Weekly downloads keep the puzzles flowing.
Sometimes the story gets a little too chatty when you just want to solve puzzles.

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