US Release Date: February 10, 2008
System: Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: E
Price: $29.99 at Amazon.com
Professor Layton and the Curious Village was released in Japan in 2007 to great success, spawning two sequels and a planned manga series. The English version of the game was released this February and has thus far been very well received by US gamers.
This is a hybrid game, the sort of thing that might result if a point-and-click adventure ate a book of brainteasers and then had a baby with a European cartoon (the developer has dubbed the genre “puzzle adventure”). You control the titular Professor Layton, a noted puzzle solver (you can apparently get famous for that – who knew?) With his young apprentice, Luke, in tow, the Professor has come to the town of St. MystÃ¨re to find a mysterious treasure alluded to in the will of a wealthy Baron. Naturally, once you arrive in town, this simple task becomes rapidly more complicated, and you are trapped in the town until you solve a number of mysteries.
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Sight and Sound
This is a charming little game, due in large part to the graphics and sound. By opting for 2-D graphics rather than 3-D, the developers have been able to take full advantage of the DS’ small screens to display the beautifully executed artwork. The characters are cute without being cutesy or twee. The artistic style feels very European; the game has been widely compared to The Triplets of Belleville, and also reminds me of cartoons like Madeleine–a refreshing departure for the anime-dominated Japanese video game world. The color palette is subtle and sepia-toned, with a late summer afternoon mood.
The music fits into the theme, with pleasant little accordion-and-glockenspiel tunes. Unfortunately, all the puzzles have the same tinkly music-box song behind them- you will end up muting the game fairly often, as a tough puzzle can take long enough that the repetition begins to wear. Additionally, the stock animations that play whenever you submit a puzzle solution get old pretty fast (it reminded me of the battle-ending animation on many of the Final Fantasy series- cute at first but soon you wish you could skip it.)
The cut scenes are absolutely first-rate, especially for a DS title. The syncing and movement is smooth, the voice acting generally strong, and the art is lovely- you could be watching a cartoon on television. I watched the opening cutscene of this game on an in-store demo and went from “I think I may buy that” to “WANT.” My only slight quibble is with the actor playing Luke… his British accent seems a tad wobbly at times, but it’s a minor thing. Aside from that, I only wish there were more of the cutscenes to enjoy.
Gamplay (Controls and Difficulty)
This game is almost entirely stylus driven- you can use one of the buttons as your “confirm” option in dialogue boxes, but aside from that all the action takes place on the touch screen. Tap on people to talk to them, tap on things to look at them. Unlike most P&C adventures, you don’t have an item inventory so you don’t have to wander through the world filling your pockets with random junk–when you tap on a non-person area of the screen, you have a chance of either finding a hint coin or finding a hidden puzzle. There are some objects that you collect as part of a few sidequest/minigames that unlock bonus content, but you will receive them automatically after solving certain puzzles, and they will automatically be put in their appropriate place.
The puzzles vary. Some of them actually have to be manipulated on screen by tapping or sliding with the stylus; there are several puzzles where you have to slide tiles around in a frame to complete an image, put a ball in a hole, or similar. Other puzzles are given in words and you tap a button when you’re ready to submit an answer. Thankfully, on these you can usually use your stylus to make notes on the touch screen–giving you, in effect, some scratch paper to work on your answer. I found this especially helpful for the puzzles where you have to do tasks like find the shortest route through a maze or calculate how many triangles could be found in a shape.
The difficulty of the puzzles ranges from “I could have done this when I was three” to “I feel like I’ve been trying to solve this since I was three, with no success.” In general, the puzzles get harder as you move through the game, but puzzle difficulty is also going to depend on what sorts of puzzles you are personally better at. (For instance, I suck at those spatial “which of these shapes is a rotated version of this other shape” puzzles so I nearly always get them wrong multiple times.) Each puzzle is worth a certain number of points (called “picarats”) which indicates the puzzle’s difficulty, ranging from 10 to (I think) 80 picarats. You get those points if you solve the puzzle right on your first try. If you answer incorrectly, the value reduces–but only for the first three wrong answers. Certain puzzles are multiple choice, so it’s pretty easy to cheat by just guessing each answer in turn, but where’s the fun in that?
If you are stuck on a puzzle, you can quit it and come back to it later. After each “chapter” of gameplay (there are 9 chapters in all), any puzzles you didn’t solve or find will be moved to a central building in the village, where you can go try them again.
The hint system varied in quality–sometimes even the first one gave too much away, but sometimes I would unlock all three and still be no closer to figuring out the answer. On some of the puzzles, such as the sliding puzzles, the hints really can’t say much–you just sort of have to keep fiddling with them until you get it. There are fewer total hint coins in the game than there are possible hints to unlock, so you are encouraged not to spend your hints profligately, but I never had troubles with running out.
My most significant gameplay issue was one of balance. The plot and characters of this game are quirky, humorous and engaging, but there just aren’t enough of them. Especially towards the end of the game, I would find myself rushing through a puzzle to try to get to the next bit of plot advancement. Tilting the game a bit more in the adventure direction would have been an improvement- as would working on making the puzzles more relevant to the situation. Some of the characters consistently give you puzzles that are relevant to them–a bartender that gives you liquid pouring puzzles, a glutton that challenges you to break a bar of chocolate in specific ways–but others seem, well, sort of random. Integrating the puzzles into the plot would help the game’s flow. Of course, any puzzle game with a plot is going to involve some suspension of disbelief, because most people just don’t lock their doors with brainteasers, but still, it’s worth making the effort.
Fun and Value
How much you’ll enjoy this game really depends on whether you enjoy solving puzzles and playing point and click adventures. If you like the adventures but not the puzzles, you will probably find the game frustrating; if you like puzzles but not the adventures, you will probably still enjoy it but skim through the plotty bits without paying much attention. If you like neither, you will hate the game; if you like both, you will probably love it. I found the plot engaging, the graphics charming, and the puzzles fairly challenging without making me want to fling my DS across the room… well, only once or twice.
Replay value on this title is problematic, and mostly depends on how good of a memory you have for the puzzle solutions. After you have solved a puzzle once, you have access to it in your puzzle library and can replay it at any time–but of course, you already know the answer. Some puzzles have room for multiple tries–trying to solve in the minimum number of moves, for instance–but the multiple-choice ones are pretty one-shot.
However, there are a number of unlockable “challenge” puzzles available, as well as a bonus area that you can’t unlock without a password from the game’s sequel (already out in Japan and planned for US release at a not-yet-specified time). Additionally, you can use the DS’ wireless capability to download additional puzzles for free–there’s been a new one every week since the game was released. There is no official word on how long this will continue, but it’s a significant bonus to the longevity of the title.
How to Buy + Should you Bother
Professor Layton and the Curious Village is available wherever Nintendo DS games are sold. If you would rather chew your own arm off than work through a book of brainteasers, it’s not for you. Otherwise, well, if after reading this you think you’d probably like it, odds are you will. It’s a nice change of pace, particularly for puzzle fans who feel like they’ll jump off a bridge if they have to play one more game of Sudoku.