"Since we’ve now reached the fifth game in the series, it’s natural that not every puzzle is a winner, but the stuff that you’ll find here is mostly very good even if it mostly doesn’t utilize the 3DS hardware in any meaningful way. There are some challenges that do repeat a few times, including some irritating ones that ask you to divide a board into four pieces of the same size while gerrymandering your way around chess pawns, but a lot of the brain teasers are intuitive and creative enough to keep you absorbed even if you find yourself stumped for a few minutes at a time."
Throughout most of my childhood, I attended a one-room elementary school in rural Oregon. When I was in the third grade, my classmates and I were taught by a man who enjoyed word games, tests of logic, math problems, thinking outside the box, “Encyclopedia Brown” books and the Commodore 64, among many other things. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was in many ways the perfect teacher.
When I play a Professor Layton game, I remember that unconventional year from my early childhood. Level-5’s game series would surely have appealed to my teacher. Each puzzle that I solve reminds me how awesome it feels to finally pull aside the veil that obscured an elegant solution to a problem, whether I’m helping penguins hop over one another in a field of ice or pointing to the safest place to hide from a bunch of poisonous spiders or calculating the total distance a man traveled on his way from a house to a celebration. Thanks to its surprisingly compelling storyline and a collection of more than 130 puzzles, Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask is in most ways the perfect puzzle adventure.
If you’ve never played one of the previous installments in the franchise, you might have concerns about starting with Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask. I can understand why you might hesitate, but you needn’t worry. My only previous exposure to the series was Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (the second of four DS titles), and yet I was able to follow along with minimal difficulty. The ease with which this newest story burrowed its way into my consciousness also caught me by surprise, so I’m confident in saying that you should have no trouble catching up even if this is your first chance to sample the series.
The story this time around is that Professor Layton and his two assistants (a young teenage boy named Luke and an older girl named Emmy) have been called to the desert city of Monte d’Or by a childhood friend of the professor’s. Her name is Angela, and she is concerned because a mysterious masked man is performing “dark miracles” around the town while her distracted husband keeps his head buried in his research. Those sinister events have the potential to be bad for business if they are allowed to continue, so it’s up to Professor Layton and his friends to investigate the mystery. Along the way, they’ll be forced to remember painful and revealing events from their youth.
As is usual for the series, the story unfolds using a variety of narrative vehicles. Especially dramatic scenes are fully animated and voiced, but the bulk of the tale is told using in-game assets and character portraits, often with more of the excellent voice work that has been a series staple for years now. This time around, there are actually some surprisingly mature themes. Layton must reexamine his own role in a childhood tragedy while coming to terms with the impact that the passage of time seems to have had on people he once considered his closest friends, for instance. Unclear motivations keep things intriguing right up until the rather farcical home stretch, though younger or impatient gamers might find their attention wandering along the way.
I’m not usually someone who pays a lot of attention to the story in a game, especially when I’m stuck playing on a handheld, but I couldn’t ignore this one. In particular, the miracles were fantastic and I was curious to find out who the masked man was and what his motivations were for terrorizing the people of Monte d’Or. However, the real appeal for me was definitely the gameplay.
Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask expects you to solve a lot of puzzles if you want to see what happens next. When you’re quizzing locals for information, most of them will remain tight-lipped until you prove your worth by helping them with some sort of conundrum. Investigating the environments around you will often produce either a new puzzle or special coins that you can use to purchase hints when you are stumped sometime in the future. Though you can skip a lot of puzzles and return to them later, they’re clearly the primary reason that you would choose to play the game (plus skipping too many of them could produce a bottleneck when you find someone who won’t let you pass through a gate unless you have solved a certain number).
Since we’ve now reached the fifth game in the series, it’s natural that not every puzzle is a winner, but the stuff that you’ll find here is mostly very good even if it mostly doesn’t utilize the 3DS hardware in any meaningful way. There are some challenges that do repeat a few times, including some irritating ones that ask you to divide a board into four pieces of the same size while gerrymandering your way around chess pawns, but a lot of the brain teasers are intuitive and creative enough to keep you absorbed even if you find yourself stumped for a few minutes at a time. Sometimes there will be a bit of mild misdirection in the instructions that accompany a puzzle, but I found only four or five puzzles out of the lot that felt cheap even after I arrived at the solution. The rest of them were clever and often satisfying.
Unfortunately, the puzzles are supplemented by other content that I didn’t particularly enjoy. Around two thirds of the way through the adventure, you’ll have to navigate a dungeon area that is comprised of a series of recurring puzzles. They start to feel redundant well before you’ve seen the last of them, which could be the point where some people put the 3DS down for a bit and forget to return to the game. There also are mini-games that you can unlock. In one, you manage a store and must place merchandise so that it appeals to your potential consumers. In another, you have to teach a pet rabbit some tricks so that it can perform a play. You gain new episodes for each of those as you scour Monte d’Or in search of the masked gentleman, but I never felt compelled to spend much time with that extra content. Kids will probably appreciate such diversions as added value, but I was more than satisfied with the core offerings.
Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask doesn’t need much in the way of added value, anyway. When I first played through, I solved around 105 of the puzzles and reached the end credits with around 25 hours of play on the clock. Then I was able to go back through and access any puzzles I hadn’t found. As if that weren’t already enough, the developers are also offering new puzzles each day during the first year that follows the game’s release, which is a terrific touch.
Not everyone enjoys puzzles, but Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask is a treat for those of you who do. The game isn’t packed with conventional action, but it offers plenty to amuse people who prefer a more relaxed take on interactive entertainment. If you’d rather put your brain to the test than your reflexes, and especially if you like a good mystery, I have no trouble recommending that you join Professor Layton and his friends on their latest adventure, even if you’ve never played a previous installment. If you’re like me, you’ll come away from the whole experience with a renewed love for puzzles and an appetite for the next game in the series. When a game offers all of this and still leaves me wanting more, I figure that’s more than sufficient.
Staff review by Jason Venter (February 01, 2013)
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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