The Professor Layton series showed how a myriad of puzzles and a good story can blend into a great game experience. The formula, seemingly unchanged, has been successful enough to spawn five different titles across two systems, with the fourth one releasing a few weeks ago. With that said, it's surprising that other developers haven't tried to emulate the formula. Surprisingly, the first attempt comes from a small developer and publisher. Despite a few flaws, May's Mystery: Forbidden Memories turns out to be a surprisingly good game.
The story starts out in typical fashion. May Stery and her brother, Tery, take off from their hometown on a balloon built by Tery and the balloon pilot. After running into massive storm clouds, the engine fails and the pilot falls overboard, leaving the two children adrift on the balloon. Moments later, May wakes up to a crashed balloon and a note from Tery, who has sought help in a nearby town. Upon reaching the town of Dragonville, Mary notices the graffiti denouncing the mayor, and the town seems to be overflowing with pipes. Sensing something is amiss, May tries to find her brother and get home safely.
From the moment you boot up the game, fans of Level-5's series will quickly recognize the similarities. Animated cut scenes begin the story and appear periodically to help drive it along. Players are always presented with static screens, and while they can click anywhere they want on-screen, movement only commences once the movement compass is hit and the player clicks on the arrow to indicate the next move. Just about every person you meet or situation you encounter requires a puzzle to be solved, and all puzzles come with a point total that decreases with each unsuccessful attempt. There's even the ability to spend coins on hints if you can't solve something. If you're familiar with Professor Layton, you'll be able to instantly jump into this game.
May's Mystery does a few things differently in a few areas. The plot may be good, but it can be a bit dark. Kids being kidnapped by lifeless guards and a museum dedicated to ballooning accident victims, for instance, aren't exactly things you expect to see in a somewhat lighthearted adventure title. The game offers over 270 puzzles, but don't expect any downloadable puzzles or minigames to be added.
Hint coins, for example, cannot be gained by simply clicking all over the environment until you find their hiding spot. Instead, players must solve extra puzzles that are available to play at any time from May's purse. Those bonus puzzles are also sorted out by category, so fans of a particular puzzle type can tackle those before going after the less desirable ones. All puzzles only give the player the ability to buy two hints instead of three, but the player can skip the puzzle altogether for the cost of 25 hint coins.
Speaking of puzzles, you have the basics such as matchstick puzzles, logic puzzles, shape-arranging puzzles, etc. Joining the group are math puzzles and puzzles that require you to write down your answers or make choices. Rhythmic games have been thrown into the mix as well as the classic hidden object puzzles, which are sometimes the focus of entire puzzle games. You'll see a wider swath of puzzle types here, but the most striking difference comes with the story-related puzzles. Most seem to be directly related to the story, and they all make contextual sense. For example, the puzzle dealing with an elderly shopkeeper has you trying to figure out the three best weights she would use instead of carrying more weights for the scale than necessary. Another has you trying to divide shop spaces equally and yet another has you trying to figure out a way across a piranha-filled moat.
There are a few sports where May's Mystery seems to stumble. While the game sports over 270 puzzles, you only encounter about 80 in the story, with the rest relegated to bonus puzzle status. It isn't so bad for those who want to quickly get to the end of the story, but players will skip over a tremendous amount of content unless they finish the bonus puzzles. The writing is another flawed area. The story is fine, but there are a few instances of incorrect punctuation or misspelled words. There are also a few instances where sentences are worded in a confusing manner. Had these grammatical infractions been addressed, some of the puzzles would've been more enjoyable.
The graphics are done well. The game goes for an animated look that has more of a European influence. Eyes show very little white to them, if at all, and the faces are more oval than round. Hardly anything is animated, and things that do move only have a few frames of animation. What makes this game worth looking at is the clarity of the visuals. The environments and puzzles seem tailor-made for the DS' screen size, but they scale nicely when placed on other DS configurations with larger screens. That clarity is readily apparent in the hidden object puzzles, which are clean and without graphical artifacts. It still becomes a challenge to find the objects, but now the difficulty isn't compounded by muddy visuals.
While the sound isn't as polished as the graphics, they still deliver on the quality front. The music, like parts of the plot, can be a bit dark, but the overall score makes for a calm and charming puzzle atmosphere. It fits well and doesn't feel annoying. The voice acting is good, though it isn't used very often. Unless it's a video cut scene, expect to read the character lines instead of hearing them spoken out loud. The voices are where the only critique lies since, at times, it sounds like the volume for voices is higher than intended, making for some brief static that can be heard in the dialogue.
May's Mystery: Forbidden Memories is a real surprise. The puzzles vary wildly in terms of difficulty and puzzle types, and the ability to skip entire puzzles does lessen the frustration. All of the story-related puzzles fit well with the situations instead of feeling like they were randomly thrown together. The art style is good, and while the sound work isn't as prevalent as one would expect, it performs rather well. The pacing could have been much better, though, and the number of grammatical mistakes and awkward sentences drives down the quality of the title. May's Mystery remains enjoyable and is a great debut effort from the developer. While the Professor Layton series comes highly recommended if you're in the market for a puzzle adventure game, don't pass up this one.
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