The DS is in a period of uncertainty. As the handheld becomes more bottled up with quick collections of mini-games and other games geared towards the casual gamer (Imagine Babiez, anyone?), it’s becoming a little harder to find true quality games on the DS.
Thankfully, Professor Layton and the Curious Village is one of those titles, with appeal to both the casual and hardcore gamer. It’s just tough enough at points to appease long-time gamers and puzzle genre fans, but accessible enough for casual gamers like Mom and Dad (well… like my mom and dad, at least) to enjoy.
Handling the game is Dragon Quest VIII, Jeanne d’Arc and Rogue Galaxy developer Level 5 (not to be confused with Rogue Squadron and Lair developer Factor 5). Given there past history of producing quality titles, one should expect their first DS title to be just as solid.
It should be noted that this is the first game in the Layton series: a second title, Professor Layton and Pandora’s Box, has been released in Japan. The third game in the series, Professor Layton and The Last Time Travel, is set to hit the DS later this year alongside Level 5’s other DS titles, the soccer RPG Inazuma Eleven and Dragon Quest IX.
The game centers around the journeys of Professor Layton and his young sidekick Luke, called from London to the far-away village of St. Mystere., but this one puzzle quickly turns into another and another, leading Layton and Luke down a path far darker and deeper than they ever could have imagined. More hardcore gamers and fans of the mystery genre might pick up on some of the game’s big secrets long before they’re revealed, but the story is incredibly well-written for both a DS title and a game centering around puzzles.
Most of the game’s puzzles come from the Head Gymnastics series of puzzle books, developed by Professor Akira Tago of Chiba University in Japan. It should come as no surprise that Professor Tago was pretty involved in the process, coming up with new puzzles for the game alongside many others included from the Head Gymnastics series.
The puzzles themselves differ in their difficulty and style. Some are simple math problems, while others involve moving around matchsticks or solving riddles and optical illusions. Earlier in the game, the puzzles are pretty simple, but they do tend to get more difficult as the game progresses. Getting to the end of Professor Layton and the Curious Village is no easy task, but it is a bit fulfilling, at least.
Each puzzle also comes a “picarat” value, which is basically a fancy word for points. Solving a puzzle correctly gets you all the picarats. Fail, and you’ll get to try it again for a lower picarat value. All of the puzzles have no timer, meaning you can take your time. You can also opt out without penalty if you need to back out of a puzzle because your boss is coming by and you don’t want to get fired. Hints are available for each puzzle, but they’ll cost you one hint coin apiece. You start out with ten coins and can find more hidden throughout the village.
Unfortunately, for those with bright minds or access to GameFAQs, the experience is a short one. I completed more than half the game in just over two hours, and as a whole, you’ll get a minimum of five hours out of the title. There is a feature that lets you download a new weekly puzzle, as well as bonus puzzles to keep you entertained, but it still feels a bit short.
The game’s art style is rather unique in that it feels more like a European comic book, and with the novel-like adventure the story takes you on, along with the British setting of the series, it fits well. Some of the characters are indeed the kinds of stock characters you’ll find in the works of mystery novelists like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but at the same time, there are some rather unique characters in St. Mystere. There are cut scenes and voice acting in this title, and both are superb. Layton has some of the best cut scenes you’ve ever seen on the DS, and the voice-acting cast for this title really adds to the overall feel of the game. I have no qualms in this department.
I do, however, have a few issues with the actual controls themselves. Now, the in-game controls are all simple and use the touch screen at the bottom to tap on doors, people, etc., as this is a “point-and click”-style affair. But entering any of your answers in the game requires you to draw the numbers or letters out, apparently using the same recognition software that pissed me off in Brain Age. I literally could not write my name out at the beginning of the game because it wasn’t picking up the lower-case a in my first name as anything but a lower-case q. Thankfully, if you put a wrong answer in you can delete it, but this is still a bit infuriating.
All in all, a solid title on the DS at a time when Nintendo’s handheld needs solid titles to keep it relevant in the battle against the PSP. There’s a few things that need changing, but whether or not Level 5 addressed then in Professor Layton and Pandora’s Box remains to be seen. I enjoyed the game and look forward to seeing where the series goes in its next installment.
Don’t be surprised if Layton one day jumps to the Wii, though. It’s certainly the kind of franchise that could make Nintendo a lot of money and work well with the Wii remote.
Pros: A fun, engaging title from Level 5 that combines good design, a diversity of puzzles and decent use of the stylus make Layton a title worth looking into for all DS owners.
Cons: A bit shorter than I would have liked. Recognition software is sometimes a little infuriating.
Professor Layton and the Curious Village is rated E (Everyone) by the ESRB for Mild Violence.