Layton Brothers: Mystery Room review
Despite its misleading title, Layton Brothers stands on its own as an addictive, quirky and refreshing mystery adventure that can be the start of a solid new investigation series.
There are not many games like the Professor Layton adventures. Although the series consists of a collection of puzzles that are only loosely related to the plot, both the story and gameplay elements have proven themselves to be endearing enough to capture a wide audience and spawn numerous sequels. The latest addition to the family, however, has very little in common with its namesake and seems to be more like a distant cousin than a direct descendant. This could be a disappointment for fans of the main series without proper expectations going in, but when given the opportunity, Layton Brothers: Mystery Room proves to be a refreshing iOS experience in its own right.
In 2009, Japanese developer Level-5 announced a third branch for their Atamania series of puzzles games. In Mystery Room, players would be solving crimes as two American detectives through the evidence collected from crime scenes. The game went through development hell for years before eventually being rebranded as Layton Brothers: Mystery Room. The premise remained the same, but with a few notable changes: The setting would now be London and the protagonists swapped from Poccho and Sly to the young and enthusiastic detective Lucy Baker and her mentor, Alfendi Layton, son of Hershel Layton. The game was also changed from a DS release to an iOS exclusive.
It's important to understand this last minute marketing move, because it explains why Layton Brothers doesn't actually play like a "Layton" game. In fact, it has more similarities with the Ace Attorney adventures, including their focus on interrogation and crime scene investigations. You'll scarcely find any mind-bending logic puzzles here, as the focus shifts toward situational mystery solving instead. Every chapter is a new case that Lucy and Alfendi must tackle, and the structure is always the same. You're first requested to solve a murder by an interested party and are shown the main suspects and their statements. Playing as Lucy, you're given a brief chance to poke around the case and take your best guess at the culprit, but it's Alfendi who ultimately determines the most likely murderer, before the two of you reconstruct the crime scene in his lab through some kind of fantastic machine we never get to see in order to test his theory.
The crime scene is where most of the action happens. You'll inspect these 3D spaces by rotating, zooming and panning the area in your search for evidence, which you can compare to the statements of the suspects in search of inconsistencies. A series of memo cards with questions that need answering about the crime determine what you’re looking for in the scene. It may be something as simple as the location of a piece of evidence or finding how the suspect broke into a room, but it could also be anything Layton finds odd. For instance, he may think the suspect is lying about how much time he spent in the crime room. You must then scour for evidence in the scene and their statement in your database that together prove Alfendi is right and create a new "deduction". The investigation mechanics are quite different from anything I’ve seen before and are very engaging once you get the hang of them, but it’s a shame you’re bound to the course that Layton chooses for you. It would be even more fun if you could come up with your own deductions.
Once the first round of deductions is established, the suspected killer is called in for confrontation in an amusing interrogation process that is represented as a mask shielding their heart being shattered by your witty conclusions. You'll typically have to go back and do more investigating in order to answer new questions that crop up, but eventually you'll have all the evidence you need to make your breakthrough. The murderer may be the person that Alfendi has correctly identified, but that’s not always the case, introducing at least a little element of surprise.
When questioning, you can select from several accusations to answer a specific problem, and although only one of the options is correct, it doesn't really matter if you choose the wrong one. Layton Brothers is very forgiving and doesn't punish you or take into account how many times you get something wrong, giving you the chance to clear up pretty much any doubt by ruling out all other possibilities. This makes the game considerably less difficult than any other Layton game. Not only aren't you faced with challenging brain teasers, it's even easier than the Phoenix Wright games, where you have a limited number of chances that you can afford to screw up. If anything, Layton Brothers feels too easy in the beginning, creating a rather casual vibe. In later cases, however, the amount of evidence gets too high to simply guess your way through, and you would spend a very long time randomly going through all your assets to hit the right answers if you don't use your brain. If you do need some help, there's a hint feature available when examining the evidence.
The game is at its best when things are not as straightforward as they seem. Unfortunately, the initial chapters (especially the two free ones) are rather lacking in this regard and don't live up to the full Mystery Room experience the later cases provide. At first, Alfendi seems to be right about everything. You're basically handheld though the whole investigation, simply tapping on what Alfendi asks Lucy to find. These cases don't present any surprises, and they feel more like an extensive tutorial filled with endless prompts. Then there's the whole story arc relating to Alfendi's background, which doesn't progress until later in the game. Early on you will learn that Alfendi sometimes has suspicious mood swings, transforming his rather calm demeanour into a snappier one. The reason for this is explored more thoroughly as you progress, and is intimately connected with some of the cases. The last few cases have their own story arc that ties up all the loose ends about Alfendi’s past into a tidy conclusion. It's an interesting plot overall, which is really the only thing reminiscent of the traditional Layton games, and even then they're slightly darker.
During the course of your investigation you will find many unusual characters, both as suspects and other partners from the agency. They're usually caricatures of certain stereotypes, but they keep things entertaining with their exaggerated expressions and extravagant personalities. For example, one of your friends from forensics is a rather fragile girl named Florence Sich. She's not only constantly sneezing when talking, she's always connected to an IV drip as well, which I guess could be either very funny or sad – but is mostly just weird. Things get a little more potentially offensive when the portrayals rely too much on cultural stereotypes. One of the suspects is a boy from South America named Chico Careta (Boy Mask). Chico barely speaks any English, doesn't know how to write or read, inserts a Spanish word in all his phrases and uses masks to express his emotions instead of facial expressions.
One troublesome habit this game displays is fully translating into text the many different accents. I understood most of what Chico was saying because I'm from South America myself, but if I hadn't asked an Irish person about some of the other accents I would never have guessed they were from Yorkshire or Liverpool. More importantly, the strict translation of the dialects makes some of the text somewhat hard to understand. In most cases, however, this is only a minor annoyance and the varied cast are distinctive and memorable overall.
Layton Brothers has a very appealing look. Ironically, some of the concept art from when it was only called Mystery Room reveals that it was once more similar to the Professor Layton aesthetic than the finished version. It’s now a little more colourful and modern, but still managed to remind me of the movie The Triplets of Belleville at times. Interrogations consist of 2D characters in front of static but detailed hand-painted backgrounds. The characters have a limited set of poses that they change between according to the topic of conversation. Animation is almost non-existent, but it doesn't really matter at all thanks to the high quality of the illustrations.
There's also the 3D mode of the crime scenes. Whether inside a castle, on the balcony of a hotel or in a remote jungle cottage, you can zoom into specific points or orbit around these locations by sliding one or two fingers respectively on the screen. I found the camera to be unobtrusive thanks to the zoom and rotation options being limited to avoid overlapping. The objects in this mode are not incredibly detailed, but they get the job done and remain faithful to the cartoony style of the game.
Legendary videogame composer Yuzo Kushiro was in charge of the music, so not surprisingly the jazzy songs are really catchy and as quirky as the game itself. They also work as leitmotifs for the different steps of the investigation, but for this very reason they can get quite repetitive in no time. There is no voice acting even in cutscenes, while sound effects are minimal and are mostly used to give impact to character dialogue or sudden displays of emotion.
It is easy to be tricked by the title of the game, as other than Alfendi being referenced as Hershel Layton's son a couple of times, there's almost no other connection to the Professor Layton series. In none of the Layton games is there any mention of Hershel ever having a son, and they don't look alike in any way. At the end of the game a particular dialogue suggests that more effort will be made to better connect both characters and universe in future, and I do hope that happens. Alfendi is already a very enigmatic figure in his own right, so there is lots of potential to develop the series as a proper spin-off.
If you can get past the pre-conceived expectations that come with the name, you'll find Layton Brothers: Mystery Room to be a very entertaining game that stands just fine on its own. Despite its initial shortcomings, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience as a fledgling detective guided by the genius mind of Alfendi. Searching around crime scenes is oddly addictive, building curiosity about these strange scenarios: Why did the victim have her hand in a sandwich? How could the witness see a corpse stand up and walk? And eventually watching the suspect break down under overwhelming evidence compelled me to keep moving forward and try new cases. The first two chapters are free from the App Store (unfortunately, these are among the least interesting cases), while the remaining in-app purchase packs offer seven additional cases for a total of $5. All in all, I think it's a very good value for at least six hours of gameplay, and you don't need to be a professor to do the math.