Mr Layton and I had yet to have been formally introduced until just recently. Not having a tremendous amount of time to game on my Nintendo DS (or now days, my 3DS), I have simply not had the opportunity to meet up with the esteemed Professor. He is known to me though, as I’ve spent a lot of time reading about his previous three adventures and how well the fans and critics have received them. So when the opportunity arose for me to assist Professor Layton in solving his latest case, I jumped. Would I be as enthralled and entertained as the rest of the fans?
Professor Layton and the Last Specter - just like the rest of the series - is essentially a mystery adventure a-la Sherlock Holmes layered over a puzzling brain teaser game. Think Monkey Island meets Brain Age with a Holmes aesthetic. Even though this is game number four, chronologically, The Last Specter is a prequel, taking place three years prior to the first one, The Curious Village (there’s also an animated film that takes place right after this one, which just arrived here Stateside this month). Things begin when Layton receives a letter from his good friend Clark, asking for his help. The town that Clark lives in, Misthallery, is being besieged by a mysterious Specter, and Clark hopes that Layton’s deep insight and deductive reasoning skills will help get to the bottom of things, and discover exactly where this wraith comes from, who’s behind it, and how to stop it.
The gameplay can be viewed in two different lights. First, the adventure side sees Layton and crew (his assistant Emmy Altava and a Clark’s son, Luke, someone long time Layton fans should be familiar with) journeying around Misthallery, talking to townsfolk, and piecing together the mystery behind the Specter and the legend that supports it. I don’t want to give too much away, as part of the fun comes from figuring everything out, but there is more to what’s happening than what can be gleaned at first glance. Movement is handled with a shoe icon in the bottom right corner of the screen, which then allows the player to pick from the available directional arrows. Each area is a static still shot, allowing the player to tap around looking for puzzles, hint coins, and collectible goodies, along with opening up dialog with the locals. This is the hub of the gameplay, as all the puzzles, mini-games, and extras, along with the unfolding of the narrative, are unlocked and accessed here.
The other half is the puzzling. Many denizens of Misthallery will need help solving various conundrums and puzzles. Some even going so far as to withhold information from Layton until he resolves their particular brain bender. The puzzles vary in difficulty, and cover a wide range of types including sliding puzzles, logic puzzles, peg solitaire, mazes, and more, with well over a hundred of them to be solved. As a reward, each one is worth a certain amount of points - or Picarats - that can be spent on special Bonus content. Should a puzzle prove difficult, hints are available in exchange for hint coins (found hidden in the environment throughout the journey). The hints get progressively more revealing, culminating in the fourth hint - costing two hint coins - which will reveal the solution. Each wrong answer will lower the value of the puzzle, meaning that if a puzzle is worth 60 Picarats, answering incorrectly will diminish the reward. The value of each puzzle is also indicative of difficulty. The higher the value, the harder it will be to complete. Do keep in mind that skipping puzzles isn’t a totally viable option. Progression through some parts of the story require a certain amount of the puzzles be completed. So if you plan to just nose your way through the narrative, you may be a bit turned off here.
"Its charming, quirky, fun, and the puzzling will put your brain meat to the test at times."
And really, those is just the primary components, but not the whole kit-n-caboodle. A couple of other mini-games are available, with new maps for each spread around the town. First is Luke’s toy train set. Presented in a style reminiscent of the 8-bit era, players are challenged with laying track from start to finish, while looping through each of the train stations. Sounds easy enough, right? The catch is there is only a certain amount of juice in the tank, so there are limitations as to how long the route can be. The second is a ricochet-like game, where proper placement of air bubbles will allow a fish to bounce around the environment to pick up coins. Both offer decent fun, while at the same time providing a great distraction from the main game.
The early 1900’s aesthetic is both gorgeous and charming. 2D still scenes and quirky, vibrant characters hearken to the high times of 2D animation, before 3D CGI became the go-to design philosophy. Fully voiced cut scenes and special events combined with fun and melodic score pair up well with the visuals, and suit the flippant and light-hearted world that Level 5 has put together.
But with all the happenings and goings on within Misthallery, fans of the series will feel like they just slid on their favorite pair of old slippers. As we are now on the fourth entry in the series, this isn’t exactly a marquee compliment. Sure, staying faithful to the original game is great. If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it, right? At the same time, Level 5 hasn’t done much to really evolve things either. The franchise presents a tremendous amount of untapped potential, especially in terms of facilitating user-generated content. Yet, we still aren’t seeing any indications of the series going in that direction. Don’t get me wrong, this is by and large the Professor’s most polished and well thought out adventure yet. Consider my comments more of an observation of further potential, not as a black mark against what comes in the box.
As a wholly separate experience altogether, The Last Specter has yet another game mode, in addition the the main campaign and all the mini-games. London Life is a self-described RPG, attempting to channel the our nostalgic love of role playing, 8-bit style. Set in Little London, this secondary adventure allows the player to create their own character and set out about the town, chatting it up and helping the townspeople. There’s just one minor problem: It’s dull. Really dull. Uber-fans may enjoy seeing another side of the Layton universe, but really, there’s little here to keep you glued to your DS for the “over 100 hours” the back of the box promises. More Animal Crossing than Final Fantasy or Earthbound, Little London is essentially a ‘bop about town’ kind of experience with no real meat on the bone. Fortunately, this is just a nifty bonus for Layton fans and nothing more. It doesn’t detract from The Last Specter in any way, as it is truly just an extra bullet point (and I’m using that term as loosely as possible).
Professor Layton and the Last Specter is another solid entry in the series. Minor tweaks and a top notch spit shine sets it up as the best designed Layton yet, even if it doesn’t really push the series forward or outside of its comfort zone. Its charming, quirky, fun, and the puzzling will put your brain meat to the test at times. The story, while not quite as interesting as previous entries, does a great job of showing players how the Layton super-team came together. If, for some reason, you haven’t taken the time to explore Level 5’s puzzling series, The Last Specter positions itself as a fantastic starting point, welcoming both newbies and veterans with open arms and an open notebook.
Release date : 2011-10-17
Publisher : Nintendo
Developer : Level-5
Gameplay : Puzzle
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