The Layton games are a bit like hot fudge sundaes. Not only can they both cause brain freeze if consumed to excess, but rather than mix their seemingly disparate elements together into one cohesive whole, they distinctly layer them one on top of the other. Instead of ice cream, sauce, and whipped cream, of course, here it’s story, puzzles, and exploration. These aren’t always the most unifying of ingredients at the best of times, so forget all that blending nonsense. Never mind trying to integrate puzzles into the story, and vice versa. (Exploration is the whipped cream equivalent here; it’s so light you barely notice it, but serves its purpose in smoothing the transition between the two stronger flavours.) Just keep scooping ‘em both in until the dish is overflowing, then hand players a spoon to sort it out for themselves.
It’s a recipe that really shouldn’t work nearly as well as it does, and yet for nearly a decade, Level-5’s puzzle-centric detective series has immersed gamers worldwide with its abundance of brainteasers, gorgeous presentation, charming characters, and enough intriguing mystery to hold it all together. Surprisingly, though its unabashedly casual approach to gameplay is tailor-made for the mobile experience, the franchise hadn’t previously made its way to tablets and phones (other than the Layton-in-name-only Layton Brothers: Mystery Room). Now, however, LAYTON’S MYSTERY JOURNEY: Katrielle and the Millionaires’ Conspiracy introduces the series to a whole new generation of conundrum fans, both in-game and out. This latest confection is still an acquired taste, mind you, and very similar to what came before. It’s not quite as tasty as its predecessors, and its serving sizes are smaller, but as usual it’s got a whole parlour full of goodies and a host of extra toppings to offer.
If a food analogy seems like a strange way to introduce a game, blame it on the protagonist. The top-hatted gentleman archeologist is nowhere to be found this time around, having disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Instead, it’s the professor’s daughter Katrielle (Kat) taking up the family mantle of mystery-solving with the opening of the Layton Detective Agency. Bright, eager, and perpetually optimistic, if a little prim and proper, ditzy at times and frequently distracted by edible treats, Kat is joined in her new venture by the gangly, love-struck unpaid assistant Ernest, and a talking dog named Sherl… Wait, what? Yes, the company’s first-ever customer has been turned into a Basset Hound, lost his memory, and now seeks help in regaining his identity. (Infuriatingly, he’s the only client whose case is NOT solved by game’s end. That’s not a spoiler, because they never even try.) Far more cynical and world-weary than his human companions, this pup (named after the famed Mr. Holmes) is mainly here for comic relief, but he too has a nose for puzzles when circumstances dictate.
Where previous games were centered around a larger mystery, LAYTON’S MYSTERY JOURNEY is instead broken into a dozen individual cases. There is something of a broader story arc involving the “Seven Dragons” (the titular millionaires representing London’s elite) that is tied up in the final episode, but for the most part each case is a standalone investigation. These range from a missing clock hand at Elizabeth Tower to a legend of lost lovers to a potentially haunted house. Some are even more whimsical in nature, like helping Inspector Hastings find a last-minute anniversary gift for his wife or deducing the culprit behind a lost Titanic-spoof film reel. Even the protagonists find themselves in the crosshairs of the law at one point, with both Ernest and Kat being fingered for crimes they surely didn’t commit. (Right?) On the one hand, I’m disappointed to see the series’ more ambitious storytelling disappear; on the other, these smaller cases are actually far better suited to mobile platforms and casual gameplay that lends itself to shorter sessions.
In keeping with the more piecemeal approach, you’ll never venture very far from the office, making trips to such places as the banks of the Thames (day and night), Scotland Yard, the London Bridge, a ritzy movie theatre, quaint shops along Chancer Lane, and a number of posh mansions on Millionaire’s Row, with the odd minor detour to a luxury cruise ship or the shadier part of town along the way. Each case tends to introduce a couple new areas to explore, while also frequently recycling those you’ve already visited. You’ll encounter many of the same people numerous times as well, giving the game an increasingly repetitive feel over time, a feeling reinforced by the soundtrack, which is a pleasant backdrop of strings, woodwind, and accordion the first time around that may as well be nails on a blackboard by the tenth.
But what stunning locales they are! As always, the artwork has a Studio Ghibli vibe, with backgrounds gorgeously hand-painted in a soft pastel palette with an impressive amount of detail, from the many cat-related ornaments in a wealthy socialite’s house to the yummy pastry-lined shelves of the local bakery. Cinematics are generously sprinkled in and are just as lushly animated, though by default they’re shown in landscape view, forcing you to turn your device whenever one begins and ends. (There is a setting to switch to portrait, though of course that means a loss of display size.)
Speaking of portraits, the character models are all delightfully stylized with slightly caricatured features, from pronounced square jaws to oversized heads to toothpick legs to massively rotund bellies. Sherl tends to float unnaturally at people’s feet, but you can’t help but be amused by the man in a rabbit costume onesie or the rhyme-talking superhero Ratman. As is common with Japanese anime, Kat and Ernest look more like twelve-year-olds playing dress-up than actual adults, and often act as such, which helps underline the fact that Miss Layton is usually looked down upon for her youth and inexperience. Overall it’s a nicely eclectic group – at least until you start to get sick of seeing the same faces over and over. As a lover of wordplay, I got a kick out of the shamelessly pun-filled names, whether the bank’s Bianca Teller and Grant Sloanes or the newspaper’s Douglas Dert and Taboras Lloyd. Yet even that wasn’t enough to stem the gentle tide of resentment each subsequent time one appeared.
Voice acting is largely limited to cutscenes and key interactions, and it’s all superbly done. The remaining conversation – in an extremely dialogue-heavy game – occurs purely through subtitles that trill distinctively for each person as they scroll across the screen (which happens fairly quickly but can be clicked through to speed up further). The text is littered with accents and speech affectations, further helping to immediate differentiate the person speaking at any given time. The writing itself is nothing special, however. I never felt particularly attached to any of the characters, and even the comedic barbs from a sarcastic Sherl are more cute than actually funny.
Much like any good sundae, the game is divided into two distinct elements (well, three if you count map clicks on the next clearly marked location, but let’s not). The… for lack of a better word, let’s call them… “investigation” sequences don’t really involve any detective work. Sure, you visit crime scenes to look for clues – in fact, there are six crucial clues per case to help you measure your progress – but really this means nothing more than clicking on the relevant characters present to begin lengthy conversations, and sweeping the screen for hotspots.
You’re not simply looking for necessary triggers to move the entirely linear story along, but also hint coins and hidden bonuses like optional puzzles and minigame recipes. These can be anywhere (including the actual clues), so expect to be viewing the game through a lot of smudged fingerprints. In keeping with the series’ Nintendo DS roots, the screen is divided into top and bottom halves, the bottom serving as a kind of trackpad for the cursor on the top. But if you prefer, you can simply tap things (at least on the iPad) directly in the environment instead.Continued on the next page...