Professor Layton and the Curious Village
Professor Layton and the Curious Village is one of those games that I had in my hand many times, thinking about buying it, wondering if it's any good. If the score bar up northward didn't give it away already, it is. It's a lot of good.
Mind you, you need to know what you're getting yourself into. Professor Layton is basically just a collection of brainteasers held together by a cute narrative and some appealing artwork. If that's not the sort of thing you enjoy, then this game has absolutely nothing to offer you; if you're interested in that, though, there's a lot to be said for it, even when you consider that books of brainteasers can be had for around five bucks at Barnes and Noble. Books don't generally offer the connecting narrative and the feeling of accomplishment you can get here, for one thing, and books don't support downloadable content -- but more on that later.
The idea here is that Professor Layton (styled as an entertaining fusion of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, and Indiana Jones) and his young assistant Luke (who should absolutely be played by Ke Huy Quan) get invited to the village of St. Mystere to solve a mystery, and then get wrapped up in several more mysteries, and have to solve a whole lot of puzzles and page through a whole lot of dialogue and watch a fair few cutscenes. Not that I'm implying that the dialogue and cutscenes aren't good; they are. There are a few places where they go flat, but for the most part they're very entertaining. The writing is generally understated, as befits the theme, but the jokes that do come up are pretty good. The game even successfully employs the creaky old wheeze of "funny character names" in a few places.
The game has a really quaint look-and-feel that, for an anime-styled game, gives it a surprisingly good Victorian England seeming. The backgrounds are beautiful, and the sprites are generally just as good. There's very little animation here -- on par with most console adventure games -- but what there is is sufficient to make the village not look completely devoid of life. Soundwise the game is pretty strong, with music that's both catchy and well-matched to the atmosphere. The voice acting isn't the best ever, but it's not bad by any means, and there isn't a whole lot of it. Professor Layton himself is very good, and Luke isn't much worse; the other characters aren't as strong, but you also don't hear from them very often.
Which brings us to the meat of the Professor Layton experience: the puzzles. Though it may be pretending it's an adventure game, what we have here is really nothing more or less than an interactive book of brainteasers. None of the puzzles even attempt to be organic in any way -- usually they'll be introduced by someone saying "hey strangers, solve this puzzle for me" and then fwoom! You're sent to a puzzle screen to do the solving. There are 120 puzzles in the regular game, and another 15 bonus puzzles that unlock as the game progresses. These 135 puzzles are highly varied, and hit pretty much all of the major puzzle categories. You have logic puzzles, math puzzles, chess puzzles, card puzles, water-measuring puzzles, tricky-wording puzzles, and a whole lot more -- the whole nine yards of puzzledom, basically. Some of them are classics, some of them are variations on classics, and some of them are brand new for the game. Of the lot of them, I'd say only one of them is a genuine "use the tape to get the cat hair" situation, and one more has slightly ambiguous wording. So one-and-a-half weak puzzles out of 135 isn't anything resembling a bad record.
If you find yourself getting stuck, the game has a hint system, and it's pitched just about right. You need to search for "hint coins" throughout the village; every puzzle has three hints, and every hint costs one coin. This prevents you from just spamming the hint button on every puzzle without at the same time creating too much impetus to run and ask the interweb for help; with the exception of the one puzzle I called a crapper earlier (067 if you're keeping score at home) I never needed more of a push than the hint system could provide. The hint coins are fairly generous -- after completing the whole game and all fifteen bonus puzzles, I still had more than a hundred hint coins left -- but there aren't enough to buy every single hint the whole way through, so you do need to be somewhat conservative with them.
The game uses only the stylus for input, and all puzzles are solved by drawing, writing, circling, or what-have-you with the stylus. It's done very well; only one time my whole way through the game did I ever get an incorrect answer because my input wasn't properly recognised by the game as what it was looking for. It's also fairly good at translating what you've written into letters and numbers -- it's a good bet my handwriting's worse than yours, and it could mainly understand me (though my 4 and 9 gave it a conniption), so you shouldn't have to spend too much time erasing and rewriting and trying to get it to interpret you correctly. The use of the stylus is mainly perfect for the puzzles you'll be solving -- manipulating matchsticks with the d-pad would be absurd, but it's fairly intuitive with the stylus, for example. And every time you need to do something new stylus-wise you'll get a training screen first to make sure you understand the basics. Which is nice.
As I alluded to before, Professor Layton has downloadable content. If you have a wireless access point available to you, you can connect to Nintendo WFC and download new puzzles (they're menu extras -- don't expect them to be integrated into the main game). At present, they're releasing a new puzzle every week; I can't say how long that will continue, but, hell, it's not like the base 135 was a terribly small number to begin with, so it's all just gravy. If you get on the Laytonmobile a bit late, don't worry; the first time you connect to the service, it'll download not just the current puzzle-of-the-week but all the previous ones as well. So you won't miss a thing.
To sum up, Professor Layton and the Curious Village is an excellent game as long as you know what you're getting involved in. It's an ideal travel game, so thank God it's on the DS, hey? Almost every one of the puzzles is entertaining, and a fair few of them will give you some serious challenge -- it took me about ten hours to clear the main game, and then a while more for the extras (the timer doesn't run then, so I don't know for sure), and there's downloadable extra content on top of that, so there's good value here for money. Does it compete with a $5 puzzle book? I'd say yes -- it's more portable, more interactive, gives a greater feeling of success, and has a charming little narrative. Granted, you'll almost certainly figure out what's going on faster than the game does, but, hell, it's still fun.
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