Wednesday, 30 November 2011

REVIEW: Professor Layton and the Lost Future

Professor Layton and the Lost Future
[DS] [Level-5] [2010]
For a series that revolves around solving ridiculously clever puzzles throughout numerous bafflingly genius adventures, the history of Professor Layton is a rather strange case in itself. In February 2007, the original Japanese version of what us here in the UK know as Professor Layton and the Curious Village was first stocked up on store shelves. The quirky little puzzle game received much critical acclaim, and went on to see an English release in the US just about a whole year later. Back then, it was positively baffling as to why Nintendo, the rather known folks who published Level-5's series at the time and continue to do so now, never decided to release the first game in Europe. After all, the excellent title revolved around a British character, Professor Hershel Layton (who would've guessed?) and his young cockney apprentice Luke Triton, yet this adventure still failed to see release in the UK because quite frankly, quirky Japanese games like this one never really sell that much over here. At least, that's what Nintendo thought at the time. It was a risk worth taking, then, when the big N decided to release Professor Layton and the Curious Village here in the UK and the rest of Europe over a year and a half after the game was originally played by foreign Japanese super-humans. Curious Village sold by the bucketloads, mainly thanks to Nintendo of Europe's clever advertising campaign which pushed the game as a title that adults could enjoy, regardless of their gaming experience. Every subsequent year following the amazingly successful release of the first Professor Layton game in Europe, a translated version of the already-available-in-Japan-a-year-earlier Layton title would see another critically acclaimed launch, and it's all thanks to the decision to unleash the top-hatted Professor's first case over here.

Here we are then, three years after Professor Layton and the Curious Village entered our DS systems in the form of a PAL release. The fourth Professor Layton title, titled The Last Specter over here, has just seen another critically acclaimed release. The first in a prequel trilogy to the original three games, the next Layton title looks just as ace as the original three games, and I can't wait to get my hands on it, most probably on Christmas day. Enough about the now though, and back into the past. Or rather, since the third title in the acclaimed series is based around jumping ten whole years into a future version of London, let's head back to the future. The Lost Future, to be exact. Today I'll be reviewing what at this moment in time is without a doubt my second favourite handheld game ever, topped only by the legendary The World Ends with You. The gripping conclusion to the original trilogy is not only without a speck of denial the best Layton game of the first three, but it's also one of the most well-written adventures to date.

Don't get me wrong, I loved the first two games in the puzzling series, but the title following those games properly chased them out of their puzzle-infested waters like some kind of conundrum solving genius... in a top hat. A noteworthy upper-hand that Lost Future has over Curious Village and the slightly disappointing Pandora's Box, is the greatly increased amount of content to be found in the game, which can only be described by how much more time you'll invest into the game without getting bored in comparison to the first two. It took me 15 hours to reach the end credits of the original trilogy's conclusion, almost triple the amount of time it took me to 100% finish the first and second games respectively. And I won't forget to mention that, even after I conquered Lost Future's main plot I still had another two or three hours worth of extra content to get my brain running with, which is pretty spectacular if you compare and contrast with the first two titles. Even when I did some kind of speed-run of the third game for this review, it still took me twice as long as it did to finish the first two games without rushing through them. I wouldn't go on about the length of any game this much unless the game in question is The Lost Future as, while 18 hours is only really a decent amount of time to reach most games' end credits, it's such an improvement over its predecessors. However, I'm not saying anyone should start at the third Layton title completely ignoring its rather short following completely, as the Layton saga is very much as focused on plot as it is puzzle solving. Speaking of which, The Lost Future happens to showcase the most well-written, most enjoyable and drastically importantly, the most emotionally impacting plot of any of the games in the series leading up to the fourth game which of course, I'm yet to play.

The plot of The Lost Future is one I certainly won't spoil, but will at least touch upon due to the fact that this is my first review of a Layton game and you as a reader might not actually be familiar with the Professor and his short, timid cockney apprentice. The two protagonists of each game in the original trilogy take the form of Professor Hershel Layton and Luke Triton, self-employed freelance investigators who tend to have a knack for solving the most baffling of cases that many, including the players themselves, won't be able to completely wrap their heads around. In Curious Village the gentlemanly duo were tasked with solving an inheritance dispute in, you guessed it, a rather curious village, although not all was as it seemed. In the sequel, Pandora's Box, a mysterious box said to lead to the murder of whoever was to open it was the main focus in the plot which also tied in with various other things, although again, not all was as it seemed. Having played through the first two titles, I knew the plot of The Lost Future wouldn't be quite as it seemed, but the story of the third game is so well-written and gripping that I was just as confused as I was when trying to wrap my head around its predecessors, in a good way that is. Without spoiling anything past the half an hour of this 15 hour investigation, Layton and Luke set the scene of Lost Future by pondering a letter that they have supposedly received from a future version of London. As if this wasn't ridiculous enough, the letter's sender is stated to be a slightly more elderly version of Luke. The letter itself concerns the future Luke's homeland, still London, but a London that has been thrown into utter chaos regardless. Any true gentleman and his apprentice would normally ignore something like this, but when reminiscing about time-travel related events that took place a week earlier, the duo set out to a clock shop where the letter from the future Luke wishes them to travel in order to receive 'further directions'. What happens from there onwards is something you as a player should experience yourself, to be perfectly honest. Let's just say that you'll need a handkerchief ready for one of the most tear-jerking ending sequences in video game history.

While the majority of each Professor Layton game's story is told through dialogue sequences (many of which in the third title are voiced) you'll often be treated to some truly excellent animated cutscenes. These video segments use an art-style that feels like a brilliant fusion of the artistic movements of Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki, the same guy who brought us Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle among many other Studio Ghibli-produced gems, and Sylvain Chomet, French director of Belleville Rendezvous and more recently The Illusionist. This art style fits the Layton games perfectly, and makes for an excellent way to present the fully animated and fully voiced cutscenes, by which there are more than ever before in Professor Layton and the Lost Future which is definitely pleasing as the amount of animated sequences in the first two titles was slightly lacking. Again, this is another aspect regarding a larger amount of content that places the third Professor Layton game high above its two predecessors.

The gameplay of the Professor Layton games took 'interactive novels' a giant leap further when Curious Village was first released, and what you'll be doing yourself in Professor Layton and the Lost Future actually hasn't changed very much since the series' elements were first unleashed upon the majority of DS owners. Most of the time when playing any of the series' first three titles you'll be using your head to solve some truly genius puzzles from the minds of Japanese puzzle masters, as they call them in the trade. While the prospect of these conundrums may sound a little bland, it really isn't. Ever since the first title in the series, the puzzles in Professor Layton games have packed just as much charm as the story segments, not to say both of the original trilogy's two main elements aren't intertwined in any way. A puzzle is quite clearly shoehorned into even the most ridiculous situations, and the 'this [insert object here] reminds me of a puzzle' gag is often used by the Professor in order to send the player off into a conundrum in relation to the object they just tapped.

There are a fair few puzzles that are required to progress through each Layton game's main plot, but there's even more optional ones to take part in than those that are actually compulsary. At some points however, the player is asked to solve a certain quantity of puzzles before they can move on so they do have to solve the optional ones, which is a much better way to move things along as the player has a choice over which puzzles to partake in. And trust me, you'll have a lot of trouble with some of these brainteasers. Luckily, that's where Hint Coins come into play. Throughout the point and click segments outside of puzzles, you'll find coins hidden in certain areas of the hand-drawn scenery just by giving their locations a tap with the stylus. If you're having difficulty getting a puzzle solved, you can buy up to four hints with the coins you've collected, ranging from the first hint not really helping you at all to the Super Hint, which basically tells you the solution straight up to the puzzle you're finding tricky. Your reward for solving puzzles other than in some cases to move on the story, come in the form of Picarats, a numerical value that acts as a sort of currency for unlockable after-game content. The more times you get a puzzle wrong, the less Picarats you earn, which is a clever way of ruling out the possibility of tapping every option available to the player, or in other words cheating. You can unlock each bit of bonus content with the minimum amount of Picarats, but then you'd have to solve every puzzle in the game. All in all the puzzle system in every Professor Layton game to date has worked, and while The Lost Future isn't at all a revolutionary take on the standard fare for these games, it really doesn't have to be. Unfortunately, the third game's only real striking flaw is in some of the puzzles. Quite frankly, the first thirty or so are an absolute breeze to get through which can't be said about the first two games. This is due to the fact that, since Layton 3 was already in development by the time it was decided that the first Layton game was to be released in Europe, an amount of puzzles that simply wouldn't translate from Japanese to English had to be replaced with easier tasks. After playing through the first two games, these easier puzzles felt like a bit of a slog to get through in all honesty.

Let's not end on a slightly down note, though. Professor Layton and the Lost Future is not only the best game in the acclaimed series thus far, it's also some of the most fun you can have on a certain handheld with two screens. It's a massive improvement over the first two games, not to say you shouldn't play through Curious Village and Pandora's Box beforehand (and trust me, you'll need to for certain story elements to make a genuine impact in the third title). It has more animated cutscenes than ever before, a much better written story than its predecessors and more brain bending puzzles to get your teeth into, despite the fact that the first 30 or so won't take quite as much thought processing to solve this time around. As the great Professor Layton himself has stated time and time again, "Every puzzle has an answer," and if you were to ask me if you should buy this game, then here's your answer: Definitely, at least unless you're genuinely not into these sort of games. And that's another puzzle solved...



Anonymous said...

I couldnt have said it any better to be honest! keep up the awesome work. You are very talented & I only wish I could write as good as you do :) …

Jess said...

It's good to see you're still keeping this going ^__^

You're right, there's definite improvement here :D

Very professional as always though, very well written :)