A mystery that needs solving, puzzles with hidden solutions, challenges and secrets that hide behind every corner. These are the tasks that lie before our intrepid investigator and his trusty and eager assistant as they explore a classical European city. This, in short, is the world of Doctor Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights, Konami’s new puzzle-adventure title for the Nintendo 3DS. Now, before you say ‘Hey this is just another May’s Mystery Professor Layton rip off’, let me tell you that there's much more to Doctor Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights than a clone of Nintendo’s brain teasing series…
…Lautrec is a doctor and Layton is a professor, they’re completely different.
The puzzles, for example, never become as complex as those in the Professor Layton titles. The game promises ‘over 250 different puzzles’, but most fall into the same basic categories, all of which you'll probably have encountered before in similar titles. The exploration elements also fall short, relying solely on the same formula from start to finish (get clues as to your next objective, go find your goal, and then explore a small dungeon-like area). What’s even worse is that if you happen to leave one of these labyrinths before you complete everything in it, you have to completely restart that labyrinth, which makes absolutely no sense. In the end, horrible design choices aside, what it all boils down to is an experience that is far too shallow and repetitive to be enjoyable for very long.
In fact, the most interesting and engaging part of the game ends up being the Pokémon-style battles. Unfortunately, these battles, while definitely the ‘meatiest’ portion of Doctor Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights, still fall short in a number of ways. Whilst you can gain experience, grow your creatures, and to some extent customize your team, you never really feel in control during the battles; all you do is select an appropriate type of creature and hope for the best, spamming attacks in the hopes of winning.
As well as numerous gameplay styles, there are also several different visual styles. It seems that for each unique gameplay feature there's also a unique art style to go along with it, from traditional 3D cutscenes to more Layton-esque 2D ones, and from fully explorable 3D environments to 2D puzzles. They're fairly well presented, but it's all a bit too much, as if the game is maniacally throwing different things at you just to try and hold your attention. Graphically it's a mixed bag. The cut scenes, for example, are all very well presented (the 2D ones in particular even rival what our good friend in the top hat is capable of producing), but then other elements simply look unfinished, such as the character designs and identikit dungeons.
The 3D effect is also rather hit and miss. At times it looks fantastic, adding a real sense of depth to the whole experience, but often - notably during the battles and 3D gameplay - it just seems to exist simply for the sake of it. And I wholeheartedly recommend turning off the 3D completely when entering an area with an isometric viewpoint, as the combination of the two results in an odd view where the nearest edge of the world to you is popping out at you and the rest of the world is in the distance.
Doctor Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights is set in late 19th century Paris. The thrill of the world fair is in the air and the sense of a new beginning (following the revolution) is setting in. The reason I know all this? Because the game seems to want to base its entire story around history lessons from post-revolution France, teaching you everything you need to know about this period in French history. A game that tries to teach you some real-world knowledge along the way is a great thing, but having nearly every character in the game constantly spout facts about the French monarchy just adds to the sense of tedium. It's worth noting that a large portion of the game actually features full voice acting, which is fantastic (since the game has such a large amount of dialogue), though the overdone British accents are highly out of place given the game's setting, and the slow pace at which the text scrolls is frustrating.
The good Doctor's quest lasts a solid 40-50 hours (depending on how many of the sidequests you’re willing to tackle and how often you have to repeat some of the dungeons); an impressive amount of content, all for the budget price of $29.99 (act now and receive a free brown top hat, just like the world famous Professor Layton’s Doctor Lautrec’s!). Not a bad deal, if you can look past the game’s numerous flaws.
Over the course of this review I've spent a lot of time raining on Doctor Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights’ parade, but there's enjoyment to be had here. A more focused sequel, which eschews the melting pot of gameplay styles present in Doctor Lautrec and the Forgotten Knights would indeed be a solid rival to the Professor Layton series. For now, though, this is a series whose main rival is a minor sleeping aid.