PROFESSOR LAYTON AND THE MIRACLE MASK (3DS)
The Professor Layton formula is pretty well set at this point, and as with the music of AC/DC and the Ramones, one might be tempted to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But still, even the greatest formula can become stale with too much repetition, so we find ourselves with changes afoot in the world of Luke and the good Professor. The biggest change pops out at you (apologies) when you first fire up the game: 3D models for the characters and 3D effects on the hand-painted background of the top screen. For the most part, this is not a positive change: the backgrounds look fantastic, and you can swing them around to really appreciate the added depth, but the characters look blocky and clumsy, and seem like a huge step back from the simple, beautifully rendered character images from previous games. There are some improvements: the characters move and interact along with the dialog, instead of just being still images with text underneath, and there seems to be a good deal more spoken dialog this time around. But overall, the change seems like something of a step backwards. I eventually stopped noticing it until it would call attention to itself – as when Professor Layton swings his arm around and points in your face when you get a puzzle right – and it would dropped me right back out of the experience. One of the joys of the Professor Layton series is how well integrated the beautifully animated cut scenes play with the rest of the game. Still, time marches on, I suppose. Another not-entirely-positive development is the inclusion of the occasional action-oriented set piece. These aren’t difficult and don’t last long, but they’re also not puzzles, which makes their inclusion seem somewhat … odd.
There, that’s out of the way. The rest of the game is pure Layton goodness. The puzzles are of just as high quality as always, with a nice mix of genres and difficulty thrown at you. There’s a kind of puzzle for everybody, from math-based brain teasers, riddles and spatially-oriented optical illusions. The game is a bit slow in doling out the puzzles at first, but that changes when you finally get to the other big change of the game: you spend a good portion of It playing as a young and inexperienced Student Layton. It’s a refreshing – and unexpected – break from the main plot, which is just as loopy and nonsensical as other entries in the series, thankfully.
As usual, the game also includes a series of mini-games that can take up entirely more time than you’d expect. This time around, you get to spend time training a rabbit to be a circus performer, directing a robot around various locations and collecting objects from around the game world for display. There’s nothing here quite as involving as Professor Layton and the Unwound Future’s “London Life” mini-RPG, but everything is a fun diversion. Nintendo is also planning on releasing a bonus puzzle every day for the next year – which, in addition to the well over 100 puzzles in the main game, means that you should be solving puzzles for quite a while to come. A true gentleman always provides value, apparently.
The people you meet are the same mix of cheerful grotesqueries as usual, and the fact that everyone you meet is just as obsessed with peg-jumping puzzles as you are is as delightful as ever. Taken together, it’s nice to see Level 5 dip a cautious toe into changing up the format of the Professor Layton series before it becomes stale. It’s a real pleasure to spend more time with the characters and their pleasantly goofy environs, and the puzzles are just as enjoyable – and occasionally maddening – as ever. If you like the series, you’ll be delighted by this entry. If you’ve never played one before, well, there’s no time like the present. (Level 5) by Aaron van Dorn