Sometimes you can never have too much of a good thing. Professor Layton and the Spectre’s Call, the fourth game in the series that arguably defines the Nintendo DS and last for the system with which it will forever be commonly associated with is every bit as enjoyable as you’d expect from this remarkably consistent series.
Spectre’s Call is a bit like Star Wars Episode I – The Phantom Menace in that it is the first in a trilogy of prequels to an existing trilogy except that it’s not a massive disappointment. When Layton receives a cryptic letter from his old friend Clark Triton that conceals a hidden cry for help he travels with his new assistant the peppy Emmy Altava to Misthallery a picturesque town hiding a dark secret. It turns out that the town is regularly being beset by a giant spectre that comes out at night wreaking havoc and destroying buildings. Fortunately no-one has been hurt by the strange apparition thanks to the seemingly clairvoyant warnings of Clark’s son Luke who can predict where and when the spectre will strike beforehand. The Professor, Emmy and Luke team up to investigate the truth behind the spectre.
What strikes you most about the story is how unambitious it is this time round particularly after the overblown and far-fetched Lost Future. This story is much closer in tone and structure to the original game in the series and while it’s not as emotionally involving or dramatic as certain previous entries it’s just as well-written and characterful and Misthallery is an appealing setting to spend time in. The most interesting thing for series fans is learning how Layton and Luke first meet and Luke is a slightly surprising prospect at first this time round. Emmy makes a bright and likeable addition to the cast even if she is utilised rather obviously to sidestep chronological paradoxes when dealing with a couple of returning characters.
Everything else about the game is exactly what you’d expect, high quality presentation, lovely, stylised design, soothing, vaguely melancholic music and, of course, brain-bending puzzles. Level-5 haven’t let their standards slide one bit nor have Production I.G. who again provide sumptuous animated FMVs. If anything the game is a little on the conservative side, offering few surprises or variations in what it offers – it’s nothing we haven’t experienced before and it feels like the series is starting to run out of steam on DS so it bodes well that this is its last outing on the system and now has a chance to reinvent itself for 3DS.
So what is new? Well, as you solve puzzles you will sometimes collect Episodes, short little skits you can watch at your leisure that give some background to some of the characters. Their inclusion is nice if you want to learn more about the colourful personalities you meet but they don’t really enhance the overall package much. Many have bemoaned the fact that the European version of the game was released minus London Life a reportedly hundred-hour RPG-sim side-game. This would no doubt have made the package stand out although without having played it it’s a little difficult to comment on how much of a loss it really is.
The three on-going minigames this time are hit and miss. The Toy Train challenges which involve laying tracks for a train to run on in which you must guide the locomotive through each station before reaching the goal whilst avoiding various hazards are excellent and demand plenty of thought. The Fish Tank game tasks you with placing bubbles strategically in a fish tank to bounce the fish in the right direction to collect coins and is fun if a bit trial and error. The Puppet Theatre game essentially has you inserting words you have collected into a script and is a chore to complete as you have to sit through the entire play each time to enter a new word and is best left until you’ve gathered them all.
Professor Layton and the Spectre’s Call feels less like the next step in a quality series and more of a continuation of what made it popular. It’s never dazzling but nor is it anything less than highly agreeable and fans have no reason not to revisit the top-hatted professor yet again.
Presentation – 9
Featuring a couple of new flourishes the game is as polished and appealing as its predecessors.
Design – 9
The style is predictably strong and the static location art is vivid and detailed.
Gameplay – 8
So simple anyone can understand and enjoy playing.
Graphics – 8
Colourful and clear but of course most of it doesn’t move.
Sound – 8
Another strong selection of atmospheric melodies and charmingly cartoonish voice acting.
Difficulty – 7
Not tremendously tough to beat by any means but a lot of the extra content is brutal.
Longevity – 7
Completing everything the game has to offer could take twenty hours but as usual replay value is very limited.
It may be more of the same but as we’ve established that’s not always a bad thing. Level-5 deliver the polish they are renowned for and the puzzles are as ingenious as ever.