The revolution of casual gaming that arrived with the intuitive and versatile design of Nintendo’s seventh generation machines, DS and Wii, has been rather divisive. Long-time fans, experienced gamers and the so-called ‘hardcore’ have been left disgruntled by the waves of casual titles released in the last few years, so much so that many have accused Nintendo of abandoning their fans. This created two very distinct camps of gamers that have scarcely been united in their appreciation of specific titles appealing to both sides. Most casual gamers balk at the kind of complex challenging titles favoured by the hardcore who routinely turn their noses up at the perceived shovelware bulking out the charts for both consoles. But Japanese dev Level 5 managed to bridge this parting with a little story driven gem all about brainteasers called Professor Layton and the Curious Village in 2008. The game quickly became one of the DS console’s biggest success stories inspiring two sequels and a spin-off movie with a further DS prequel as well as another entry and a crossover with Phoenix Wright on the way for the 3DS. It’s easy to see why these beautifully presented titles have won over both the casual and the hardcore as they all excel at the conventions of storytelling and audience engagement.
Professor Layton and the Curious Village is about an English University professor and his young assistant Luke who both happen to be fans of all kinds of brain bending puzzles and their adventure in St Mystere, a remote and enigmatic village whose recently deceased Baron Augustus Reinhold left a strange stipulation in his will that his fortune will be inherited by whoever locates the Golden Apple in St Mystere. Soon after their arrival a murder takes place, soon followed by various other strange goings on leading the pair to believe that there is a lot more to St Mystere and the mystery of the Golden Apple than there seems.
It’s not a tremendously complicated tale but it is extremely well told, the plot peppered with mystery and intrigue, perfectly paced, expertly written with some inventive twists along the way. The presentation of the story is superb in every way, the game boasting a number of gorgeously animated FMV cut scenes contributed by Japan’s Production I G, one of my personal favourite animation studios responsible for the Ghost in the Shell animation projects. These animated segments are fully voice-acted by a very capable cast and are presented in a classical plot-driven cartoon style, the sort you might expect from something like Tintin. The rest of the plot unfolds on static location screens with inanimate sprites and text boxes, but the strength of the writing more than carries it along without losing any immersion.
The game works rather like a point and click adventure but this is no Monkey Island. You tap the touch screen to move between areas, open doors and talk to NPCs but there’s no complex item hoarding or experimental tomfoolery, your objective is always clear and requires very little effort to carry it out. As you go, however, almost everybody you meet will challenge you to solve a puzzle, and this is the heart and soul of the gameplay. With every puzzle the game will take you way from the setting and into a puzzle scenario featuring static artwork to assist you. The puzzles are full of variety from sliding block puzzles that require you to use the touch screen to move objects to others that test you mathematical or logical skills. The instructions are always clear and give you all the information you need to solve the puzzle whilst ensuring you have some thinking to do. Hints are available if you get stuck but can only be viewed by spending hint coins which can be gained by tapping objects in the map environments. Every puzzle comes with a set number of ‘picarats’ in game points you can build up to unlock rewards later. If you guess incorrectly the number of picarats available for a correct guess will fall. It’s a smart way to discourage lazy guesswork and gives the player a sense of progress and building accomplishment.
Most of the puzzles are actually optional and will be offered up when conversing with characters you meet in passing but several will have to be solved to progress past certain points in the story. There are also a number of checkpoints that block your progress unless you’ve solved a certain number of puzzles. Many NPCs will have multiple puzzles to give you depending when during the story you talk to them. Any you miss be progressing too quickly will be gathered up in one location for you to browse through at leisure. Everything has been thought of for maximum convenience. Additionally there are three on-going minigames accessible from the pause menu that challenge you to assemble a collection of strange gizmos, piece together a torn painting and furnish the two protagonists hotel rooms using items gained from solving puzzles. Of these the deepest is the latter which allows you to experiment and judge which character should get what furnishing based on their reactions to them. They’re diverting rather than absorbing and offer a nice little change of pace but later entires in the series have offered better minigames.
The visual presentation is top notch featuring colourful, detailed location and character designs. Although Level 5’s inspiration for its characters is evidently British – Layton and Luke are from London – much of the artwork is more reminiscent of French animation. The atmospheric and appropriately melancholy soundtrack too has a distinctly French leaning but the Anglo-French styling never jars.
The difficulty level can fluctuate a little and those lacking a good grasp of logic, special awareness, visualisation or imagination will likely struggle with many puzzles, but the game was designed very much for gamers, and gamers of both camps. Puzzles are among the few things that unite the casual and the hardcore. Many casual gamers enjoy a good Sudoku or Crossword and puzzles have part and parcel of more advanced games for decades so either side of the divide can understand what Professor Layton is offering. Moreover everybody loves a good story and the game delivers on that score too.
The only real downfall of Professor Layton and the Curious Village is that once you’ve completed it, aside from a few extras the incentive to keep playing is fairly limited. The nature of the game game discourages frequent repeat playthroughs since the puzzles are only fun when you don’t already know the answer. If, however, you can wait long enough to forget most of the puzzles then experiencing the story again is worthwhile and if you’re eager for more upon completion there are more titles available and further more still to come.
Displaying a winning mixture of storytelling and head-scratchers the first game in Level 5’s popular series is worthy of the praise it has received. A rare example of a game that both casual and hardcore gamers agree is worth spending time with.