Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Professor Layton and the Curious Village review

I went far too long without buying a new game, and just about as long without reviewing one. Luckily, I picked this up on Friday, killing two birds with one stone.

Developer: Level-5
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: February 10th, 2008
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone
ESRB Notes: Mild Violence

It's not every day that a new franchise emerges with brand-new content and characters, and it's even more rare that the release is worth a player's time. But this is not the case with Professor Layton and the Curious Village, the first entry in a new series by Level-5 (Developer of Dragon Quest VIII). Until recently a developer mainly for Sony platforms, Level-5 has made the jump to the Nintendo DS with the Professor Layton trilogy. And personally, I couldn't be happier.

The game begins with a beautifully animated cinematic showing Layton driving his car through the English countryside. He and his apprentice, Luke, are headed off to the village of St. Mystere. Layton has a hunch that an apparent inheritance dispute is really something far more important, and his intuition doesn't often steer him wrong.

Just what is this "Golden Apple" mentioned in the will?

Upon arrival at St. Mystere, Layton's hunch proves right, as a villager is murdered soon after. Furthermore, bizarre sounds are coming from the large (And somewhat bizarre looking) tower at the center of the town. St. Mystere is no ordinary village in the English countryside, that's for sure. As the story unfolds, Layton uncovers many a secret, and there are more than enough plot twists to satisfy even the most rabid M. Night Shyamalan fan, although most of these twists make sense and fit the story perfectly. Every twist serves a purpose other than to catch the player off guard. An excellently woven tale, with expertly written dialog tying it all together.

The villagers in town have a strange fascination with puzzles. To many of St. Mystere's inhabitants, a person isn't worth talking to if they can't solve a riddle. Puzzle solutions are almost like currency in this village, with almost every encounter with a villager leading to some strange and abstract conundrum which Layton must figure out. If players are having a particularly hard time solving a puzzle, they can use a Hint Coin in order to gain a small advantage. Each puzzle has three hints, each of which cost exactly one coin. The first hint is usually a little obvious, with the consecutive two being more and more helpful to the player. Don't go thinking you can buy the more useful hints first, though. Each must be purchased in order. We can't go making things too easy, now, can we?

These Hint Coins are hidden throughout the village of St. Mystere. When players see something suspicious, they can tap it with their stylus to check for Hint Coins, and sometimes even secret puzzles. But beware, as there are nowhere near enough Hint Coins to buy every hint for every puzzle. Players would be wise to save their coins for the real head-scratchers.

Successfully solving a puzzle earns the player Picarats, credits which don't have much use within the story mode, but can unlock bonus features accessible from the "Bonus" button at the main screen. Less Picarats are earned if the player answers a puzzle improperly, making it so players can't just input every possible answer until they get it right. Of course, they could just cheat and turn the DS off every time they get a wrong answer, but that really takes away from the satisfaction of solving a puzzle. Some puzzles can be solved with simple trial and error, and even luck on occasion. But would you really risk your prize on a hunch? It's really not worth answering unless the player is 100% sure that their answer is correct. It's either that, or lose precious Picarats.

Answer this puzzle carefully, or the 10 Picarat prize will dwindle...

If you're really stuck on a puzzle and you're all out of Hint Coins, no need to worry. Almost none of the puzzles in the game are absolutely mandatory, but players will sometimes need to have solved a certain amount in order to advance. For example, at one point it is required that you solve 75 puzzles before you can advance. If you can figure out the majority of them, you should be fine. Just make sure you solve all the easier ones!

However, some puzzles must be solved in order to continue the story. Sometimes you'll need to figure out an abstract riddle in order to open a door, obtain an item, or convince a villager to spill the beans on something. Since there's no way around these ones, it's a good idea to save up your hint coins for just such an occasion.

Sometimes, a puzzle may become unavailable due to the player having missed his or her opportunity. Fear not, for there is a way to play these puzzles later on. There is a special house in town where all missed puzzles go. If you find that you've let one get past you, you can always come to this little building and solve them on your own time. Nobody gets left behind!

The variety of these puzzles is amazing. One minute you may be sliding blocks to get a ball to a certain point, the next you could be using logic and abstract thinking to decode some sort of secret message. Of course, with so many puzzles, you're sure to come across one you've seen elsewhere (In books, on the internet, etc.). Think of these puzzles as freebies. It may feel like cheating to get one right off the bat, but believe me, you'll be thankful that you knew the answer. Players may need all the help they can get to succeed in this game.

Some puzzles may be as easy as just looking for the
matching shape, while others can get quite complex.

Of course, there is more to this game besides puzzles. It's just that puzzles make up a very large part of it! Players will also walk around town on foot, moving from screen to screen in search of clues, Hint Coins and, yes, puzzles. You may be thinking that all these puzzles seem unnatural and out of place, but believe me, it all makes sense in the end.

If there's one flaw with Professor Layton's gameplay, it's that the game is fairly linear. You're almost always told exactly what to do, and the top screen even reminds you of your next objective. You will occasionally have to do some hunting to figure out your next move, but for the most part, you're just going from point-to-point.

Players have a lot more on their plate than working their way through the villagers' puzzles. There are several integrated mini-objectives mixed in, such as collecting shredded pieces of a painting, building a strange gizmo, and furnishing Layton and Luke's rooms at the inn. Although I've only finished but one of these three side quests, I'm fairly sure that they all have some sort of reward at the end.

If there's one thing I absolutely love about this game, it's the amazingly well animated cinematics. I can't even describe how brilliant these cartoony segments are. So here, take a gander at the game's first English trailer:

As you can see, the art style is reminiscent of classic French cartoons such as Tin Tin. It's very smooth, and the picture quality on the Nintendo DS screen is far superior to that of a Youtube video. There's about ten solid minutes of animation in the game, all of it drawn beautifully. The amount of cinematics thins out a bit towards the middle of the game, but there's more than enough animated goodness at the end to make up for it. I find myself going back to watch some of my favourite scenes over and over again (The Ferris Wheel video being the most viewed, no doubt).

The art style of the cinematics carries over to the rest of the game, with each character bathed in an air of liveliness. The animations are smooth on the most part, with a few clunky bits here and there. Hey, nothing's perfect, but Layton sure does it's best.

Also, as you heard in the above trailer, the game's cinematics are all fully voiced, with some fairly talented actors giving more life to the already lifelike characters. The British accent on a few of the characters is a teeny bit shoddy, but thankfully Luke and Layton are quite believable. And the voices sync up with the animation fairly well, especially considering this was originally in Japanese.

The soundtrack is all very calming and suits the situations well. It has a very old English feel to it, and it meshes with the game's setting perfectly. Overall, the sound is quite well done.

The main storyline in Professor Layton took me about 13 hours to finish, so I guess the average play time will be somewhere between 10 and 15 hours. This is fairly impressive for a DS game, especially one with so many cinematics and lushly animated scenery.

However, although I have finished the story, I am not done the game. As I said above, I still have to complete two of the sidequests, and there are even more puzzles available via the Bonus button on the main screen. Furthermore, players can unlock new puzzles by connecting to the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection (The game says that you're downloading them, but really you're just getting a patch to unlock them). And finally, players may find themselves digging this one up when the next Layton game comes out. Using a secret code hidden in Professor Layton and the Devil's Box, players can access a feature called "The Secret Door". I've found out what this is by doing a bit of research, but I won't spoil it for you. Let's just say that those who appreciated the game's art style will like it.


Storyline: 9.5/10
Plenty of twists keep the players guessing all throughout the adventure. The plot is very well written, and the character dialog is quite believable. Overall, a great story that every gamer needs to experience.

Gameplay: 9.1/10
The amount of variety in the puzzles is staggering, and even the most clever gamer is sure to get stuck on more than one occasion. However, the rest of the game is fairly linear, and walking back and forth can become somewhat tiring.

Graphics: 9.0/10
I am absolutely in love with this game's art style. Everything all feels so alive, and the cinematics are just breathtaking in their quality. The talking heads during conversations are a little disappointing compared to the lush animated sequences, but it's to be expected on a DS game.

Audio: 8.9/10
The fully-voiced characters add even more to the brilliance of the cinematics, even if the accents are a little shoddy at times. The music is nice and suiting, although not exactly memorable.

Longevity: 9.3/10
13 hours is quite respectable for a DS game, and Wi-Fi Connection puzzles add to it even more. Plus, players can unlock even more riddles on the bonus menu, adding unknown levels of replayability.

OVERALL: 9.4/10
Professor Layton and the Curious Village is a triumph of game development. The puzzles are challenging almost to the point of frustration, but the storyline kept me coming back for more. Animated cinematics are just the icing on this delicious cake of a game. Definitely a must-buy for puzzle lovers and DS owners looking for something refreshingly different. I can't wait for the next installment!

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