Game: Professor Layton & The Miracle Mask
Developer: Level 5
Available On: Nintendo 3DS only
It may be the riddle-solving scholar’s fifth outing, but his time-keeping leaves a lot to be desired. Released as a launch title for the Nintendo 3DS in Japan, it has taken 18 months for the latest Level 5 puzzle adventure to reach Western shores (meanwhile, the Japanese are eagerly awaiting the release of the next installment, scheduled for early next year).
However, we are not here to judge Professor Layton’s tardiness; rather we are here to be challenged by the game’s myriad of puzzles, and delighted by the series’ whimsical charms.
STORY: The second part of a prequel trilogy (started in last year’s Professor Layton and the Spectre’s Call), we see Layton, his assistant Emmy Altava and apprentice Luke Triton visit the opulent city of Monte d’Or to visit an old High School friend and investigate a spate of attacks by someone calling themselves The Masked Gentleman.
Possessing seemingly supernatural powers (such as the ability to turn the town’s civilians into stone, or fly), he appears to be wearing a legendary artifact known as the Mask of Chaos; an item that seems to be linked to the Professor’s past somehow.
What follows is an adventure that takes place in the present and in Layton’s teenage past (via flashbacks). As is normal for the series, the story is told through in-game dialogue (mainly text, although some conversations are also spoken) and the occasional animated cutscene. If you’ve played any of the previous games in the series, you should know what to expect. Like those previous games, the dialog is well localised (if a little full of grating London cockney stereotypes).
While not the most complex of stories (a stark contradiction compared to the game’s 150+ puzzles), it has its fair share of twists and turns. It’s all reminiscent of a Saturday afternoon animated movie, which will be enjoyable for some, but impatient puzzle people may find the dialogue and cutscenes to be the narrative pie-crust that gets in the way of the meaty puzzle based filling.
GRAPHICS: With this being the Prof’s Nintendo 3DS debut, you would expect the game to take advantage of the system’s 3D display. You would be right in your assumptions, as every aspect of the game is presented in the glorious third dimension. The series’ simple rustic artstyle looks beautiful in 3D both in-game and in the animated cutscenes. The puzzles themselves once again rely on a mixture of 2D hand drawn artwork and the occasional 3D asset, but the 3D display gives them far more depth. It’s nothing that defines the gameplay, but it is one of the better-looking 3DS titles out there.
It’s also worth mentioning that the game uses cel-shaded polygonal characters for dialogue sequences, as opposed to the 2D artwork of old. These sequences look even better now, and the new assets are very faithful to the original artwork. The 3DS’s screen might not match the PlayStation Vita’s, but it really does the series’ simple hand-drawn artwork justice.
SOUND: It sounds like I’m repeating myself (and I’m aware that I am), but if you’ve played the previous Layton titles then you know what expect. Decent voice acting and serene music come together to give the game the feeling of a European animated cartoon. It all fits with the slow-paced events of the game, and while not memorable it does give the game its own uniqueness, although if you hate the sound of accordions then this is your own personal hell.
GAMEPLAY: While Miracle Mask offers the same structure as previous games in the series, Level 5 have tried to change things up a little bit. The areas you investigate are now much larger and require you to scroll around them with your stylus, as opposed to tapping the scenery, objects and people for items and puzzles.
I found the difficulty curve of the game’s many puzzles to be spot on. Earlier puzzles can be solved with relative ease, but you can definitely start to see where the difficulty begins to ramp up. There’s also a good variety to the puzzles, requiring many different skills of the player.
Of course, there will be times when puzzles are simply too difficult but are required to progress through the game, however, luckily it is once again possible to find coins during your investigation that can be exchanged for puzzle hints if you get too stuck. Compared to my experience with previous Layton titles, it definitely feels like there are more coins available; a welcome concession to the easily puzzled.
LONGEVITY: Level 5 have fit a lot of content into this release, with an investigation lasting at least 15 hours. On top of that, you have several mini-games that open up over the course of your adventure, giving you the opportunity to train a rabbit for a life in the theatre, stack shelves in a shop to ensure that customers buy as many items as possible by placing similar objects together, and help a toy robot get to a particular location in a tiled grid before his batteries run out. These fun diversions are almost as tough as the main puzzles.
However, that’s not all! It is also possible to download a Daily Puzzle every day for a year. That’s an extra 365 puzzles on top of of the 150+ main puzzles and extra mini-games. That’s an incredible amount of value for a portable title; it may even be too much for some people.
VERDICT: While the narrative elements could be seen as an obstruction to the game’s content, Miracle Mask would be a shallow and lifeless experience without them. Easy to pick up for a few minutes, or delve into for an hour or more, this is definitely one of the best games on the Nintendo 3DS, and one I heartily recommend to both casual and core gamers of a cerebral nature. The amount of content here is absolutely massive, and could easily tide you over until the next game in the series is localised.
You’d think that after five entries, the puzzle-based exploits of Hershel Layton might have worn thin, but the riddles are as taxing as ever, and the struggle to work them all out is as fun as it’s always been. It may be more of the same, but the quality still shines through even if it doesn’t feel as fresh as before.
The next instalment in the series is billed as the last to feature the top-hatted one; here’s hoping that Level 5 really shake things up for Layton’s sendoff.