Posted April 6th 2008 by Jordan Mammo.
When Brain Age was released on the Nintendo DS, its positive critical and sales reception proved that there would be a market for Nintendo's new wave of casual "non-games." Nintendo followed up by crafting a faster-paced sequel with Big Brain Academy. Whereas these two titles were basically crafted as self-help books to help keep our minds sharp, developer Level-5 decided to go in a different direction with Professor Layton and the Curious Village. The game tries to take the genre a step forward by incorporating mind-bending puzzles into the storytelling process.
Professor Layton puts you in the role of the professor himself and his apprentice Luke as they try to find the Golden Apple, the key to discovering the Reinholds' family fortune. While searching for the apple, you'll stumble upon a murder mystery, discover why so many residents are being kidnapped at night, and reveal the inner workings of the village St. Mystere. A storyline in a puzzle game seems like an odd combination at first, and indeed, it takes a little while for Layton to pick up some steam. Once it starts rolling, however, you'll find that it's the most compelling reason to see the game through to the end.
Before the story picked up, what kept me most interested in continuing was the art direction. I don't think I've seen anything come out of Level-5 that strays far from anime, so whoever decided to throw in some European influence deserves some credit. The game is gorgeous, and the characters and setting feel inspired and refreshing. Seeing it all come together in motion through the game's cut-scenes is even better, and the characters' voice-work is also pretty good. Thanks to the atmosphere and puzzles, St. Mystere has a good shot at making you linger while events unfold.
As Layton and Luke, you'll spend your time in the village exploring, uncovering clues about the story, watching cut-scenes, and collecting "hint coins" that you can use to help get through some of the game's tougher challenges. The more villagers you start to talk to, though, the more you notice something strange about them. Every single one of them loooooves puzzles, and every single one of them wants you to solve a puzzle before they say anything else to you. The best way to earn someone's trust is by solving their puzzles. The best way to get people out of your way is to solve their puzzles. Poking around town even manages to uncover riddles hidden within buildings! With Layton and Luke being such big puzzle fans themselves, this would seem to be a match made in the greatest hobby shop ever.
This is the second game I've played in which the inhabitants of a town are unanimously obsessed with something (the first being Dogz, whose point of obsession is obvious). To its credit, Layton's village comes across more as strange than as immensely scary. It's something you wonder about as you play, and the title manages to semi-rationalize this fixation later in the story. The villagers may be weird, but rarely to the point of being off-putting. At this game's strangest point, however, nothing can wipe the look of shock off of your face when a character discovers his brother has been murdered, turns to you, and then asks you to help him solve a "doozy" of a puzzle that the killing reminded him of.
"The audacity!" you think. How insensitive!
... Wait, so, these brothers need to sit at a table and they can't be next to the brother directly older or...
... No, this is ridiculous! I mean, his brother just died! ...
... *Solves puzzle*
Actually, that was a doozy of a puzzle. Pity about his brother.
This is basically how Professor Layton unfolds, albeit that was a more dramatic example. There's usually a disconnect between the puzzles and the story, so it's almost surprising that the game actually ends up working. The adventure portion is very linear and the exploration limited. Meanwhile, the puzzles are satisfying, but since they're more riddle-like and one-hit-wonderish than those in Nintendo's Brain games, they don't offer much in the replay department. The two are not usually connected and thus their integration seems a little ham-fisted at times. Yet the combination is still compelling because the parts compliment each other even if they don't quite work together. Ultimately, Professor Layton isn't really a clever story told using puzzles. It's a clever story for puzzle-lovers, and in that sense it works very well.
The puzzles themselves range from asking you to parse language to solve riddles involving logic and math, create images out of matchsticks, draw constellations in the sky, and many more. Most of the problems in Layton will require you to think a bit outside the box when it comes to solving them since they're not as straightforward as the ones in Nintendo's games. Fortunately, even though you may spend twenty minutes or so just staring at the Nintendo DS screen before getting the answer, the solution is rarely, if ever, illogical or unfair. Depending on what kind of thinker you are, different types of puzzles will be far more challenging than others, and you'll find yourself gravitating towards certain kinds and trying to avoid others. Fortunately, there's enough variety here to ensure that you won't be stumbling upon the same kind of problems too often. And if there's a type of puzzle that you can't solve even with the hints, most of the time you can skip over it.
After all, how stupid would it be if you couldn't proceed with your investigation because you couldn't figure out how many minutes it would take for bacteria to multiply in a bowl of water?
The nice thing about Professor Layton is that it knows how stupid that would be, and it does right by tending to avoid that kind of scenario. Since many puzzles have nothing to do with the actual context of the game, it would be terrible for them to really hinder your progress.
Steady Beat - Curiously strong. Is Altoids still using that slogan? Can they sue?
Professor Layton and the Curious Village is a game for those looking to get a bit more out of the puzzle titles on the Nintendo DS. The game blends together puzzles, storytelling, and great art to create something altogether unique among the current crop of DS games. Though the puzzles and adventure aren‘t as smoothly integrated as possible, when they're combined they still form a quality experience. Layton tells a clever story and throws challenging, entertaining puzzles at the player; the whole may not be greater than the sum of its parts but, in this case, the sum of its parts is pretty good.
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Level-5's European-style art really shines and gives The Curious Village a vibrant feel.
It's hard to see how this puzzle contributes to solving a murder mystery...
... but you better solve it anyway!
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