Not many games have been able to successfully marry puzzles with a well-thought-out story, but the Professor Layton series has proven to be the exception. The series brought in some pretty clever puzzles with a dash of mystery, and the formula has worked for a while. Gamers have been waiting for the 3DS version to hit North America, but the publishers decided to release the last game for the DS instead. Professor Layton and the Last Specter provides more of the same, but it's the extra bonus that prevents this iteration from feeling tired.
Despite being the fourth game in the series as far as North America is concerned, Last Specter is really the prequel to the series. Three years before the events in Professor Layton and the Curious Village, the town of Misthallery is being plagued by a specter. Though specters had once been deemed protectors of the town, this particular one has been destroying the town and sending the townsfolk into a panic. Without any other course of action, the mayor of the town calls upon his old friend, Professor Hershel Layton for help. With the help of his new assistant, Emmy, and the mayor's son, Luke (your assistant in the previous three titles), it's up to the professor to stop the specter and find out who is behind the mischief.
The story may be different, but it still retains the charm of previous entries. The characters, both minor and major, each have a quirk that makes them endearing, whether it be Layton's cool demeanor, Emmy's spunk or the constant laughter from a man who just had his house demolished. The pacing feels similar to a classic animated movie, and the plot follows suit. It may be a typical video game story in the sense that we've seen mysteries like this before, but the delivery makes it feel like an animated family movie.
For those unfamiliar with the game, it is both point-and-click adventure and puzzle game wrapped into one package. Each scene is static, with minimal movements reserved for the characters. You can click around to find hint coins (a maximum of three per scene), but movement only happens when you click on a shoe icon and a desired direction, preventing any accidental moves. Clicking on people or certain objects will either get you more information regarding the plot or a puzzle to solve. Some puzzles are directly related to the situation at hand, while others exist without context.
The puzzles also vary by type. Some are simple, such as finding the hidden message in a letter or getting a ball to the end of a two-sided maze. Others get more complicated, like trying to find the true exit out of a mirrored room or placing oddly shaped pieces in a way that fits snugly in a box. There are over 100 puzzles, and most of them are rated using picarats. Each puzzle has a picarat value, and while there is no penalty for using hints (aside from the loss of hint coins), there are penalties for guessing incorrectly. Wrong guesses have you trying to solve the puzzle again but with fewer picarats at stake. Solving the puzzle gets you those picarats, which act as currency for obtaining extras in the game.
As before, Last Specter comes with a few minigames that are playable at any time. There is a train game, where you have to use all of the track pieces to ensure the train passes by each station and successfully reaches the end. There's also a fishing minigame and one where you play a controlled version of Mad Libs with two stage puppets. If your system is online, you can also download a new puzzle each week and, for the series faithful, there's the opportunity to unlock even more puzzles should you obtain the next entry in the series.
Graphically, nothing has changed. The game employs a look to its background and characters that resembles a Studio Ghibli production. Colors are watered down, but they have a hand-painted look and a muted color scheme. Character proportions vary from well proportioned to those with rather thin limbs, but no one looks out of place. The puzzles vary wildly in style but keep with simplicity as opposed to going for an immediately stunning look. Except for the video cut scenes, the animations are minimal but good enough for this genre.
By comparison, the sound in the game is more robust. The music has an old-world feel and features the heavy use of the accordion, but it fits the setting wonderfully. The music that plays during puzzles isn't annoying and doesn't make the player feel rushed. The voice work is still impressive, but what continues to amaze is the amount of spoken lines. About one-third of the game has dialogue that is merely typed out. The rest of that time, you hear characters speaking, whether it's in full-motion video scenes or simple dialogue screens. It isn't that big of a deal for most games, but for something on a portable, especially the Nintendo DS, it's something you don't see too often.
For the faithful, the story and puzzles alone would make this a complete Layton title. With the technical aspects remaining the same, you wouldn't be getting much criticism from longtime fans who want to see nothing change, and it would be enough of a reason to purchase it right away. However, Level-5 enlisted some help in making this the most well-rounded package yet. Co-developed by Brownie Brown, makers of the Mother series of RPGs in Japan (Earthbound in the U.S.), Professor Layton's London Life has you taking on the role of a person who just moved into the town of Little London looking to start over in life. After moving into an apartment and acquiring a job, you're free to go about your business.
To be honest, calling it an RPG is a stretch but not entirely untrue. The game features no battles. There is no antagonist or any character leveling. There isn't even any situation where puzzles must be solved. Instead, the game is a "lite" version of Animal Crossing, where you simply live how you want to live. You can decorate your house and buy any clothes you want. To get the money to buy such things, you either get a job and work or complete tasks for the inhabitants of Little London. All of this is done at your own pace, with no real penalties for not completing a task in time. As long as the tasks get completed, everything will remain fine, but you can expect plenty of tasks since the developers have billed this as a 100-hour undertaking.
There are a few things that Last Specter does differently that add some depth to the minigame. For starters, your character has a happiness meter. Performing tasks raises it while getting hit with bad things, like bats, decreases it. Also, while you don't have any stats of your own, both your furniture and clothes increase different meters, which act as gateways for you to access new buildings and parts of the world. This, in turn, gives you access to more jobs and tasks and leaves you with a sense of progression as you go about your business in the game.
The change in game type and mechanics don't take away from the fact that this is still the Layton universe. While there might not be puzzles, you still have characters from the Layton games populating the world. You also have some pretty famous places, such as the university that Layton teaches in as well as characters who mention the professor often. There's even some humor thrown in from time to time that fits in line with the dry humor of the main games. The bunny that you meet that explains the troubles in his daily life is a good example of the game's somewhat unusual sense of humor. Newcomers will appreciate what's here, but it'll be the longtime fans who will appreciate the cameos and details the most.
London Life takes a dramatic graphical change from the rest of the games in the series. The look mirrors that of Brownie Brown's previous works, where the sprite-based characters were simple but small. With only a few pixels afforded to each character, it becomes surprising to see any facial expressions on characters, let alone clothing details. The environments also share that same, simple look. Black lines run heavy and colors are bright, but the look is adorable enough that you don't mind it once it starts running.
Sonically, the minigame sticks to the same themes as the main games. The old-world score resonates well here, and the soundtrack is pleasant enough — even when you enter a semidangerous place. It does so without resorting to MIDI, though, so it doesn't perfectly match the throwback look. While there is a ton of dialogue in this minigame, none of it is voiced, making the game feel like it's missing something. What you have here is pleasing enough to the ears that you won't turn down the volume.
Professor Layton and the Last Specter is a very solid game, especially for those who prefer thinking over reflexes in their games. The formula may be getting a little worn by now, but it can still be engaging for those who love challenge. The plot and characters are endearing enough that you want to pay attention to the story instead of skip it in favor of another puzzle to solve. The regular helping of extra games are still nice, but the inclusion of London Life, while simple, gives the game much more value than one would have anticipated. Longtime fans need no goading to pick up this title, but those who have been meaning to try a Professor Layton game would do well to pick up this entry.
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