Adventure Gamers Awards
With every sequel in a successful franchise, there is typically an expectation to innovate and reinvent. It’s not an entirely unfounded request—we’d all love to re-experience something fantastic but with a fresh coat of paint. However, with something like the Professor Layton games—a series that’s all about comfort and reliable formulas—keeping things the same may be part of what adds to its charm. Maybe innovation isn’t necessary so long as the experience itself remains enjoyable.
The latest game in the popular Nintendo DS puzzling franchise, Professor Layton and the Last Specter (or the Spectre’s Call in Europe), is all about adding more of a good thing. Here is a game that features more puzzles than any previous entry (170 total), and also includes a 100-hour lite RPG “bonus” game. But is more actually better? Turns out, not really. If anything, the “but wait, there’s more!” direction is robbing new installments of some of their appeal rather than adding to the overall experience.
Luckily, this fourth entry certainly doesn’t change what worked in the previous three Layton games. It’s full of the same ever-so-satisfying logic puzzles, pleasant meandering around quaint little towns, charming-yet-borderline-insane townsfolk, cartoon-quality cutscenes and quirky minigames. And make no mistake: this is all fantastic. It’s still one of the best casual-yet-challenging series in existence (you can take it at your own pace, coming back to puzzles at your leisure), and this installment is better than some of the others, putting a tighter focus on its quality, engaging story.
The Last Specter is billed as a prequel, sending players back in time to the moment our hero/archeologist/master-puzzler Professor Layton meets his young apprentice, Luke. Aside from the start of this relationship, however (which unfortunately barely develops over the course of the game), it hardly feels any different from the other three games. Layton seems to be his usual humble, gentlemanly self (albeit younger), and Luke, while more reserved, is the same high-pitched, plucky cohort he’s always been. Their interactions are all the brighter with the addition of Emmy, a confident young photographer who joins Luke and Layton on their quest. With her martial arts skills and proactive nature, she makes for a welcome change from Layton and Luke’s more reserved, thoughtful approaches to situations.
If anything’s really different, it’s the nature of the story. This is a much darker tale of a small canal-filled town called Misthallery and a strange phantom that’s been destroying it, causing families to flee their homes. Layton receives a letter (as always), drawing him there to solve the mystery. More than any previous entry, this premise marks a turn for the somber and the macabre; there is a feeling of distrust with most of the town’s residents, and the constant fog and sad, eerie violins give the game a more creepy, melancholy vibe than ever before (well, “creepy” for a cartoony game about cutesy English puzzlers). While it’s still not overly compelling in its own right, there’s just enough campy mystery and reason to care about the odd characters, providing a nice narrative push to finish the game.
Aside from these changes, more of the same classic puzzly goodness can be expected. There’s the usual relaxing combination of exploring the environment (though Emmy’s take on things adds a chatty dynamic that wasn’t there before), talking to townsfolk, and searching for hint coins. Then it’s rinse and repeat until you see a red exclamation mark pop up, meaning it’s time for a logic puzzle that can involve words, sliding things around, making shapes, or analyzing pictures.
The puzzles, as always, are the real crux of the game. Designed by Japanese puzzle master Akira Tago, they often find a way to catch you off guard; rarely is the answer as clear as you’d think. Because of this, the feeling of elation when the seemingly impossible puzzle “clicks” is really quite something. Approach the puzzles as Layton himself would suggest—“with a clear mind”—and you’ll be rewarded by finding the answer has been right in front of you all along. If you’ve been playing the series from the beginning, you may experience a little déjà vu with the familiar look and feel of many puzzles, but that doesn’t make the answers any more obvious.
The puzzle difficulty often presents a huge challenge, especially compared to the last game. But thanks to the ever-present hint coins, which you can use on any puzzle to get as many as four tips (the last one practically giving the puzzle away), the demands never feel too daunting or impossible. And in The Last Specter these coins appear to be given out more generously than ever. When I finished the game, I had over 50 hint coins left after using plenty.
While the previous games each seemed to add something new, this game sticks incredibly closely to the mechanics and formula of its immediate predecessor. Everything—including the minigames and extras—follow to a T the path paved by Unwound/Lost Future. For example, the three minigames involve guiding a toy train to its goal (as opposed to a toy car), moving a fish by strategically placing bubbles (last time it was a parrot), and staging a play with puppets by carefully selecting actions from a script (instead of children’s books). And that is fine. The minigames are fun and are introduced early in the game (after the fish minigame, you’ll find yourself with a little helper to locate extra hint coins)—always giving you the option to do something else if you need a break from the main adventure.
One notable addition to the multitude of extras is the inclusion of little cinematics called “episodes.” These are brief vignettes that attempt to flesh out characters and fill in backstory. It’s nice to have the option to view them as they become accessible, but typically these characters—such as a man who laughs away his problems and a man-obsessed woman—are so dull and one-dimensional that viewing them adds little to nothing to the Layton canon. Another example of wasted filler is the new warp system via the city’s canals. A humble overall-wearing gent named Bucky offers you rides through the canals, transporting you to previous areas within seconds. This is a nice touch, but for a game that has no backtracking and hands you the puzzles you missed on a regular basis, I never found a reason to use him.
Despite its darker tone, there are hints at humor in The Last Specter. There are tongue-in-cheek references to how silly the gameplay is—particularly the way the puzzles are a little shoehorned into the story, with villagers making random excuses to bring up a puzzle. There’s a moment where the professor enters a tunnel and Luke recommends he take off his hat just for a moment, but Layton’s not having it. These glimpses at characterization are nice—so welcome, in fact, that they actually make the rest of the dialogue seem rather trivial.
It should also be noted that the North American release comes with yet another game—a “100-hour RPG” called “London Life”. This standalone game features the charming bird’s-eye visuals of a traditional Japanese RPG, but with a distinctly European feel, including a waltzy, accordion-laden soundtrack and dapper, chatty townsfolk. While you don’t play as the archeologist himself, you create a character that fits very much into the Layton world. Beyond that, though, it’s a very dry social game similar to those on Facebook and mobile phones, in which you create a character, find an apartment, and do tasks for others in town to gain “happiness points.” I found the experience extremely bland, as it seemed to involve merely traveling from one side of town to the next, and occasionally buying a new piece of clothing or some furniture. Granted, I only spent an hour with the game, but it did little to encourage me to see what the other 99 hours might offer.
Aside from some of the underwhelming additions, Professor Layton and the Last Specter is yet another extremely competent puzzle-adventure game. Given its briskly-paced, interesting plot and the fact that it’s a prequel to the other games, this may just be the very best place to start for newcomers. For series veterans it’s a bit of a shame that it continues the tendency to add, add, add instead of hone, hone, hone. Then again, the formula really doesn’t need much honing to succeed at this point, and the fourth Layton entry has just enough spunk and intrigue to keep both new and returning players happily puzzling for many long hours.