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Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (DS) artwork

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (DS) review

"Since the best puzzles are only interesting when you're engaged in solving them yourself, it's almost doing the game a disservice to rave about their simplistic excellence. A description like "skate across a pond while bumping against barriers" doesn't sound like much on paper, for instance, but actually doing it gets a person thinking. Likewise, talking about calculating distance between folds in a slip of paper or guessing the value of components within a set of weights could leave a person yawning... yet it's a great deal of fun when you're actually playing the game."

Hershel Layton is a world-renowned professor with a love for puzzles and gentlemanly conduct. Those two interests didn't spring into existence overnight; they were cultivated through a life of adventure and occasional tutelage from wise mentors such as Andrew Schrader.

One day, Professor Layton receives a troubling message from his former instructor that describes something known as the Elysian Box. Feared by many, the treasured artifact has a high price tag: those who open it wind up dead. Schrader writes to say that after years of searching, he has finally procured the mysterious trinket and plans to solve its mystery for himself. He writes now only so that there will be a record of his actions in the event that his curiosity proves fatal as it did for the curious old men before him.

Professor Layton is concerned. With his young apprentice Luke in tow, he hops a train and heads immediately for the apartment complex where Schrader lives. Upon arrival, the two friends find the door to the residence locked. After breaking it down, they find Schrader lying in a lifeless heap on the floor. The Elysian Box he wrote about has gone missing. Was this a simple case of robbery and murder, or is the box truly cursed?

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box begins with that mystery, then adds others to the mixture as the tale progresses. What may come as a surprise to those who didn't play the first game, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, is that the production values throughout the process feel as if they could have been ripped from a favorite anime feature. Several minutes of high-quality animation pack the tiny DS cartridge, and those are joined by plenty of polished voice acting and numerous artistic sketches that lend each plot twist, each new environment and every puzzle a sense of flair seldom seen on the platform. Immersion is the natural result.

Narrative's role in the overall quality with which Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box is imbued can hardly be overstated--or described without venturing into spoiler territory--but that's only one side of the coin. The other side is the host of puzzles that you'll be tasked with solving as you work your way through a primary adventure that should last a perfectly reasonable 12 to 15 hours even if you pay little attention to the assortment of bonus mini-games. If you're the sort that absolutely must solve every last riddle, you'll need to seek out and decipher 138 puzzles in the main adventure alone, with downloadable and unlockable bonus content waiting to expand the experience beyond even that. By nearly anyone's standards, that's an awful lot of content. Lesser games would be satisfied with a few menus--polished or otherwise--to connect the puzzles by theme or perhaps difficulty rating, but Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box has the added incentive of a mystery worthy of even the great Sherlock Holmes.

As for the puzzles that pad that mystery, they were developed with assistance from Professor Akira Tago of Chiba University (an author of bestselling puzzle books in Japan) and range from the moderately interesting to the downright devious. Most can eventually be solved if you're willing to guess a lot, but that's no way to rack up reward points. Your first few answers can dramatically affect your score. Even if they didn't, what's the fun in guessing? Instead, you'll want to pay close attention to clues. These can be visual or text-based and often contain a few red herrings to provide misdirection. Often you'll be stumped for awhile, then have a sudden epiphany as the pieces fall into place and you wonder how you didn't arrive at the solution sooner.

One frustration when attempting to explain the value in a game like Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box is the difficulty in providing examples of those excellent puzzles that make everything worthwhile. Since the best puzzles are only interesting when you're engaged in solving them yourself, it's almost doing the game a disservice to rave about their simplistic excellence. A description like "skate across a pond while bumping against barriers" doesn't sound like much on paper, for instance, but actually doing it gets a person thinking. Likewise, talking about calculating distance between folds in a slip of paper or guessing the value of components within a set of weights could leave a person yawning... yet it's a great deal of fun when you're actually playing the game.

There's also a certain challenge in providing proper assurance that everything is well-executed. Obtuse puzzle games can be a chore to play, rather than serving as a rewarding time waster. No one wants to stumble into a mess of sloppy or obscure gibberish. Fortunately, this game avoids those potential issues by providing you with all of the tools that you need to solve each mystery. As you wander the streets of several towns, or the halls of a long train, you'll be able to investigate and find special coins that grant you access to hints. Each puzzle has three tips you can unlock if needed--for the cost of a coin apiece--and these start out vague but hone in on the meat of each challenge as you spend more of your virtual currency. The system works by preventing you from taking a shortcut straight to the solution, yet it doesn't leave you unable to advance if you're stumped by a clumsy phrase or vague directive. The fact that hints even exist also provides motivation of a sort, since it's fun to triumph over a particularly devious challenge and say "I solved it without any help!"

Hints aren't your only resource, either. You can also tap the "Memo" button and then scribble all over the screen with the stylus, something that for the most part eliminates the need for scrap paper. This is a welcome feature. It's nice to have an endless supply of virtual paper, since many of the tougher puzzles involve the use of math or visual aids if you want to complete them without losing your sanity. Another nice touch is that it's easy to wipe away any notes or doodles that prove useless, and to toggle between puzzle solving and annotations.

As long as they enjoy puzzles and aren't bored by the generally non-violent nature of the mystery that Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box reveals, you probably won't have any issues with either the plot or the puzzles. The actual marriage of the two is the only area where the game could have perhaps been improved, since sometimes it seems like every two or three steps taken through a new setting trigger another puzzle that could require anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes to solve. Such delays can be frustrating if you just want to advance the story, but only around two thirds of the available challenges absolutely must be completed when you're just making an anxious dash for the closing credits. Then you can go back and tend to many of the puzzles that you may have skipped.

In the end, what makes Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box such a triumph is its refusal to compromise. Featuring more distinct puzzles than its competition, an intuitive interface, a fascinating story and spectacular production values that seem almost out of place on a handheld gaming system, the title absolutely deserves your attention if the notion of putting your gray matter through its paces intrigues you even a little bit. Though there are minor pacing issues that hold the overall package back depending on your particular tastes, it's difficult to argue with the persistent quality and polish that allow the game to stand head and shoulders above the bulk of its peers. The only mystery left in the end is how it took so long for the game development community to produce a puzzle franchise this excellent.


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (September 10, 2009)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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aschultz posted September 14, 2009:

I enjoyed this review but especially the observation about scratch paper in a puzzle game. I've spent so much time and so many pieces of paper on the final level of action puzzlers that the stylus seems so obvious when I look at it & it does allow for more thoughtful puzzles without forcing someone to overload their brain. It's stuff like this that makes me that much more interested in getting a Wii or DS, noting that the peripherals save time for playing the game instead of forcing you to learn one more control.

From what I've seen of the Layton puzzles through FAQs--and from the promotional puzzles on public transportation ads--they seem like the old Interplanetary Spy gamebooks I liked so much, but there's potential for much more complex challenges--as you can make lots of wrong choices/approaches--and if they are not as horrendously difficult as I sometimes like my puzzles to be, the reward is more than just "You win! Next level!"
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honestgamer posted September 15, 2009:

Thanks for the feedback! I have a feeling that this game and series would really appeal to you, Andrew. I still need to go back and play the first one, but I know that the second one is full of devious puzzles. It has enough content to be a great value if you're the sort that's willing to pay for your games. My wife saw me enjoying it and tried playing, but she didn't get far into it at all before giving up. I don't think the game actually skews as casual as the polished presentation and commercials would have some believe. That was okay with me, though!

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