Professor Layton Review

Mar 7, 2008

Never before I have felt so connected to a Penny Arcade comic. I recently picked up Professor Layton and the Curious Village, a puzzle-adventure game for the Nintendo DS. After roughly 10 hours of game play, I've completed the game, so I thought I'd post some thoughts on it. Before we get to that, however, I'd like to explain how this game works.

Professor Layton is one of those hybrid titles like Puzzle Quest. It is neither an adventure game, nor is it a puzzle game; it's somewhere right in the middle. Layton himself is a private detective of sorts who is hired to figure out a puzzling will left behind by the late Baron Reinhold. Along with his assistant Luke, Layton quickly finds himself in an ever-increasing mysterious situation. There are twists and turns all over the place, and plenty of mysteries to be solved in the process.

Each person you meet will give you clues to the ever increasing list of mysteries you encounter, but only if you solve a puzzle for them. And by puzzle, I mostly mean 'brain teaser.' The puzzle difficulties are all over the place in this game. Some puzzles are easy to solve, while others will have you banging your head against a hard surface in frustration. There's a hint system in the game that offers you three hints per puzzle, which is often enough to help you figure things out, but sometimes the hints are themselves quite cryptic. Getting a hint costs you a 'hint coin,' of which there are a limited amount (though plenty are hidden throughout the game world). When you solve a puzzle successfully, you are awarded a number of 'picarats' (essentially points). Each puzzle is worth so many of these picarats, with harder puzzles being worth more. Answer incorrectly and the value awarded goes down. I'm not sure what this point system is good for. At one point you learn that if you get enough of these picarats, something special happens. I never saw anything happen as a result of my score, so I must not have gotten enough. But enough about these details. Let's jump into my review.

The Good

Gorgeous Graphics
Professor Layton is drawn in an anime-style, with a distinctly European vibe. This particular title feels a little like something Hayao Miyazaki and his friends at Studio Ghibli would do, much in the vein of Howl's Moving Castle (a great movie, by the way). Not only does the static art look great, but there are a number of animated cut-scenes which are stunningly nice to watch. Hopefully more games will make use of this visual style!
Interesting Story
The storyline is quite unique, which is refreshing. I really felt as if I were playing through a movie, and the twists and turns throughout the story were entertaining. Much of the writing is top-notch, and a few genuinely funny moments made me laugh out loud.
Plenty of Puzzles
There are a total of 120 puzzles in this game, which offers plenty of game-play time. I only found about 100 of the puzzles (some of them are hidden in various parts of the village), so I plan on playing through one more time to make sure I find everything. Several mini-games (or mini-puzzles, whichever you may prefer) are also made available to you as you play through. You must build a device with 'gizmos' that you find, repair a painting via scraps that you find, and furnish the living quarters of both the Professor and Luke. The publisher even offers weekly downloads of new puzzles, though I haven't tried out that feature.
Great Voice Acting
A few of the animated cut-scenes include voice acting, the quality of which is excellent. The characters sound believable, and it's clear that a lot of work went into giving each one a unique personality.

The Bad

Difficulty Extremes
One of the most frustrating aspects of this game is the wildly varying difficulty levels between puzzles. Some are very straightforward, while others are ultimate mind-benders. A few of the puzzles had fairly low difficulty ratings in game, but I found myself stuck, indicating to me that not all of them are rated as accurately as they should be.
Little Punishment for Failure
There is very little punishment for failure on any given puzzle. Suppose you have a puzzle that's worth 50 picarats. Each time you fail, the value comes down by 5. But this deduction only ever happens 3 times. So, regardless of how many times you try this particular puzzle, you will score at least 35 picarats. This essentially means that you can brute force each puzzle, especially those that offer multiple choice answers. This feels like a cheap way to beat the system (though it's a handy way to get past those truly difficult puzzles).
Repetitive Music
The music, while not gratingly annoying like in Puzzle Quest, is very repetitive. To my knowledge, there's no way to turn it off either. You could turn down the DS speaker volume, but you might miss the audio in a cut-scene as a result (and you definitely don't want to do that). An option to disable the game music would be very welcome.
Over-sensitive Handwriting Recognition
Handwriting recognition is used throughout the game for you to enter answers to various puzzles. It seems a little too sensitive to me, and doesn't give you nearly long enough to write some characters that require two or more strokes (the letters T and F for example). As a result, some trial-and-error is required in order to answer correctly.
Not Enough Voice Acting
As impressed as I was with the animated cut-scenes and voice acting, I was disappointed that there wasn't more of it. The little snippets we get are truly high quality, but more would have been great.
Little Replay Value
Once you've solved all the puzzles, there's very little to draw you back to this title. The weekly puzzle releases from the publisher are interesting, but I doubt I'll keep up with them.

The Verdict

This was a fairly fun game, and I really loved the art direction. While each puzzle is unique, they get a little monotonous after completing 75 or so. I have to admit that I was really tired of the game by the end, but my desire to solve each mystery I uncovered kept me going. At least one sequel is planned for Professor Layton. Unless the gameplay is tweaked, I'm not sure I'll pick up any subsequent titles. But this initial offering was entertaining, at least for a little while. The eye candy and unique story are worth the price of admission. My final verdict: B

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