Posted September 13th 2009 by Oliver Chen.
Professor Layton is back, and this time, he isn't taking "no" for an answer (although he probably never did in the first place). Following the wildly successful Professor Layton and the Curious Village, Nintendo of America has finally released the sequel to the first puzzle-adventure DS title. Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box once again places our gentlemanly puzzle master and his assistant in a mystery buried deep in the past. This time, Level-5 has fixed many of the flaws that hounded the previous title, but again fails to make the game substantial enough to warrant a purchase.
As the title may imply, the plot of this game revolves around a mysterious artifact known as the Elysian Box, rumored to kill anybody who opens it. At the beginning of the game, the box claims one of Layton's mentors as its latest victim, and the box itself vanishes. The only clue Layton has about the murder is a ticket with no destination aboard the ritzy train, the Molentary Express. With no other leads, Layton and his protégé have no choice but to board the train.
All plot advancements are told through animated cut-scenes and character cut-in conversations, some of which are fully voiced. Everything is drawn in the "ligne claire" style of animation, which emphasizes strong, uniform lines and gives everything a distinctly cartoonish look. The people and locales all look great, and the soundtrack is outstanding to boot. Movement around the game is handled like a point-and-click adventure, with the stylus used to move between pre-rendered locations and to interact with people and objects located on each screen. Along the way, characters and situations in the game present the player with various puzzles to solve.
These puzzles, created by Akira Tago, an author of pen-and-paper brainteasers, range in subject from math trickery to sliding block puzzles to more famous puzzles such as the "Towers of Hanoi". Only a few of the puzzles are necessary to advance the plot, and only about 80 of the 150 total puzzles are necessary to complete the game. A new super-useful Memo system allows players to scribble notes and calculations directly on the touchscreen.
Fans of the first Layton title will immediately notice a shift in focus between the puzzles in this game and the ones in The Curious Village. The most obvious change is that the puzzles in this game are much more topical to the current plot situation. For example, crossing a bridge in the first Layton title would have required you to solve a puzzle by moving around matchsticks. In The Diabolical Box, the same obstacle would have been cleared by untangling a knotted drawbridge rope. Another big change is that the puzzles are much more consistent in difficulty in this title. Few puzzles are trivially simple, while virtually no puzzles require an obscure line of logic to find a solution. Overall, the puzzles are more difficult and more satisfying to beat than the ones in the previous game.
While the puzzles are a vast improvement in The Diabolical Box, one aspect of gameplay is still as annoying as ever: the hint system. Tapping certain bits of scenery on the overworld rewards players with a hint coin, which can be spent to unlock clues pointing towards the solutions to particularly frustrating puzzles. Unfortunately, the rather random nature in which the game hides hint coins means that the player will tend to waste time tapping every pixel of the DS touchscreen hoping for the "coin get" sound effect. As anyone would imagine, this is a gigantic pain to go through. I would rather they find a different method for giving out hint coins. Reward them for finishing puzzles quickly or without getting an incorrect answer, perhaps.
The biggest killer of this game, which the previous Professor Layton title also suffered from, is that The Diabolical Box is far too short of a game. I finished the main quest in two days with nearly all of the puzzles, even the optional ones, completely solved. My reward for finishing the game? A totally nonsensical ending plot twist. The ending somehow manages to be even more out-of-left-field than The Curious Village's unbelievable finale. While other people, especially casual gamers, may take longer to beat the game, they should not spend any more than twenty hours to finish the main quest. Layton also provides weekly downloadable puzzles over Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, bonus "master" puzzles unlocked by meeting certain milestones within the main adventure, and connectivity between past and future Layton titles, but these hardly extend the replay value of the game.
Make no doubt about it: Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box is a great game. One hundred and fifty puzzles are more than some puzzle books offer, and the ability to play these on a palm-sized device with touchscreen controls is a great boon for puzzle goobers such as myself. Some of the later challenges and the post-game puzzles are more than difficult enough to challenge even the greatest puzzle masters.
Despite these values, I can't wholeheartedly recommend purchasing Diabolical Box. Thirty US dollars for under twenty hours of gameplay with little replay value is just a waste of your money. Professor Layton is much less a game than a collection of puzzles tied together by a flimsy adventure game with unmemorable characters. Non-casual gamers will easily complete the game over a single rental period, then return it to the store and never think about it again. Think of it like you would any other puzzle book: it becomes completely useless after you finish it once.
Holy shit! 20 hours of gameplay is considered "short" now?
Monday, September 14th 2009
I beat it in about 12-13 hours. That's perfect game time, I've got work and grad school. Anything more than that would have been a chore.
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