Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Professor Layton - A Man With a Top Hat

Professor Layton and the Curious Village is a recently-released game for the Nintendo DS from developer Level 5 that attempts to combine a big book full of logic puzzles with a gorgeous adventure game motif. It strays dangerously close to being artificial, hollow and stupid, but it manages to keep all of its wheels on the ground long enough for the whole endeavor to end up being pretty wonderful.

So, hey: most immediately striking to me was the game's art style, which, as a few friends of mine noted, strongly resembles that of The Triplets of Belleville. It's an immediately appealing aesthetic choice, especially considering how eagerly other developers seem to be gravitating towards horrible schlock when it comes to these kinds of things - that's a topic for another day, I think.

Our two protagonists are Professor Layton, who is a man with a top hat, and his ward, Luke. Layton isn't some kind of crime-fighting genius. He's just a smart guy with a reputation. Both he and Luke are big fans of puzzles, which is the important part, because the game takes place in St. Mystere - a town where everyone is obsessed with puzzles.

It's kind of a stupid conceit, because the result is that everyone in town is just a construct, serving only to relay another puzzle to Layton.

"Why not celebrate this fine weather with a puzzle?" says one of the fairly deformed inhabitants of St. Mystere, a man responsible for taking care of the town's long-abandoned amusement park. "Let me tell you one of my favorites."

You are then taken to a completely different screen, where you are told the number of the puzzle (No. 088 in this case), its name, and how many points it's worth when solved. This is the core problem of the game, but also, strangely, why it works so damn well. Even if the adventure game portion ends up being nothing more than window-dressing, the puzzles themselves work so well on their own that you accept the set-up voluntarily. As an example, here's No. 088 itself:
"A tennis ball has rolled its way down into a hole. This particular hole is extremely deep and has a sharp bend in the middle, making the ball impossible to retrieve by hand. To make matters worse, the ground around the hole is made of hard clay, so digging the ball out isn't an option.

However, you have something incredibly commonplace on hand that you can use to get the ball out. What do you use to get the ball out? Answer in five letters."

Feel free to answer in the comments if you think you know the answer!

In-game, you can ask for a hint if you get stuck - each problem has up to 3 that you can use as a last resort, but each hint requires that you use up a "hint coin." Unfortunately, the only way to find hint coins entails tapping every possible point on each screen with your stylus until you randomly find them. Oh, sure, they tried making this fairly reasonable, putting coins in the most visually interesting parts of each screen, but then there are the ones that are hidden in random pixels of floor tiling, and you groan. Even so, the fact that you have to pixel-hunt for objects which have no major influence on the rest of the game means that, even in its failures, Professor Layton and the Curious Village still manages to solve a cardinal flaw in point-and-click adventure games, which frequently required clicking all over a screen for objects required to advance.

Would this game work better as an unadorned series of puzzles? I'm not sure. The huge variety of puzzles (over 130, with a new downloadable puzzle every week) is staggering, and I have a feeling that it would be a little overwhelming without the adventure-game context to keep things moving along. It's flawed, sure, but there's no question that it makes the game significantly more compelling just by being there. Does that make any sense? This is a great game just by the nature of the puzzles themselves. That Level 5 bothered developing a gorgeous adventure game instead of lazily shoehorning all the puzzles into a menu and slapping Professor Emeritus Akira Tago's face on the cover (which, apparently, they were planning on doing originally) is kind of great.

Anyway, even if the characters who give you these puzzles are ridiculous and transparent, Level 5 founder Akihiro Hino promises in this Gametap interview that they totally realized it was retarded and tried to fix it in the sequel, which is already out in Japan and coming out here eventually. Unless the first game bombs miserably in the US, which won't happen because you are running out and buying it right now. If you aren't convinced, you can even go and play a flash demo over at the game's US web site! Yes! Please do this more often, developers!

1 comment:

Matt Brown said...

Hey, remember that DS cartridges are region free so get working on your Japanese and head over to your favorite import shop to play the sequel! It seems as though Level 5 has yet another awesome title to add to its arsenal of sweet games. As for the puzzle, I think I need to use a hint coin...