A true gentleman never turns down a good puzzle game
Step on up! Come and see the man of amazing mental fortitude use his twin blades of logic and manners to uncover the latest mystery! He’s been called the Prince of Puzzles, the Stovetop Hatted Sherlock, and the Polite Professor. The one, the only… Professor Hershel Layton! *cheers*
Now marvel as he tackles his greatest challenge yet. You’ve seen him handle two screens at once, but now watch as he wrestles with not one, not two, but three dimensions!
Yep. It’s late October in the United States so you know what that means. Well, yeah, Halloween, but also a new Professor Layton game. Layton fans living outside of Japan have had to get used to waiting for the long localization process. This wait was tougher than normal because Japan got this game as a launch title for the 3DS back in 2011. They got a 3D Layton and we got … Steel Diver. Yeah, that's fair. Thankfully the waiting is behind us and English speaking Layton fans can dive into the fifth installment of the franchise, Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask, as long as they have upgraded to a 3DS that is.
Professor Layton plots truly do follow the Sherlock Holmes formula. A British genius stumbles upon a seemingly mystical force and tasks himself with uncovering the truth. Quite unlike Sherlock, Layton is through and through a gentleman capable of carrying on a conversation with human beings without making them hate him. Plus his hat is pretty fly for a white guy.
This time the quartet (Layton, his assistant Emmy, his apprentice Luke, and aforementioned dope hat) travel to the not an actual real town of Monte d’Or (Town of Rising Gold). While there they witness a guy called the Masked Gentleman (I guess he gives away the secrets known only to gentlemen?) who does some seemingly mystical stuff that’s kind of evil or something all while wearing this mask which I guess is pretty evil itself. So Team Layton must go around the town and talk to the very colorful villagers in order to solve this mystery and the roughly eleven dozen puzzles they have for him. This time the story is told both in the present as well as the pre-hatted Layton days. Following the plot along these two timelines means the game takes a little longer to get up to speed but, before you know it, you'll be glad you went on this ride through Layton's past.
Yes, the game is pretty much a series of puzzles in a quaint wrapper. However, the puzzle design is excellent. The challenge ramps up evenly and I never found myself stuck on any puzzle for too long, nor did I find them so insultingly easy I wonder why I'd ever bother. The variety of puzzles is staggering with: logic, word problems, sliding blocks, memory, pattern recognition, lateral thinking, spatial relations, riddles, and good old common sense. The focus on numerical equations is toned way down from previous installments, making the game feel less like math class and more like a balanced brain building session.
Meaning if you don't see the 17 - 2 you are trying too hard
Through it all the charming art style and relaxing music helps to alleviate frustration, and there are always hints you can use if need be. This has always been a part of the series but is nice to see was not lost in the shift to the new system.
What is lost, however, are the 2D character stills that would show up during the in-game dialogue. To take advantage of the 3DS’ fancy top screen, 3D models are used now. This is both a good and a bad thing in my eyes.
But mostly bad.
Good news first? The 3D models allow for the characters to be more animated while the dialogues take place. This does give them a sort of living personality over the still images of the past. The bad news? The 3D models are not anywhere near as charming as the 2D drawings were. Amazing 2D animations are still used during the cinematics. These animations are stunning and show a level of detail you would expect to see in a feature length film. They look especially amazing with the 3D turned on. You go from that to stiff digital puppets that flap their mouths without lip syncing while their arms pivot back and forth much like a robot. I got flashbacks to the 64 bit era of gaming when the first baby steps of the industry towards using 3D models never matched up to how the opening cinematics looked. It has gotten a lot better to the point where this aesthetic whiplash is much less jarring in modern games. Miracle Mask, for me, never stopped being a little awkward visually. I never stopped wanting the more on-model 2D drawings to come back. Just my personal tastes, but then again this is my own personal review… so it counts.
Which does bring me to the discussion of the use of glasses-free 3D in this game. There is the rare puzzle where using the 3D can assist you, though it is never necessary. The look of the game is fine off or on, the issue is still with the device itself. I played the game on the 3DS XL and even with the larger sweet spot area, it was still difficult to stay in it for long time periods. Layton is a relaxing franchise that is fully stylus controlled. Trying to keep the system at a set angle with one hand, while tapping with the other, while also holding your head at the other perfect angle … bah. Not relaxing. My advice? Flick the 3D on when a cinematic is playing or when you come upon a puzzle that involves observing the top screen. Otherwise, just play in 2D. It is more relaxing and saves battery life.
According to this ancient text ... you look like a tool, Pinkshirt McOrange Kerchief.
The other major adjustment you will have to get used to with this shift to the 3DS is in how you control the game. Layton games have always had you focus on the touchscreen with additional info on the top. Now they want you to focus on the top screen, but it’s not a touchscreen. How then do you tap a bucket to get a hint coin?
Now you must activate the magnifying glass mode and drag the stylus around on the bottom to shift your focus on the top. This gives the game a bit more of the feel of moving a cursor around with a mouse, so it really doesn’t take long at all to get used to. I did enjoy that the cursor would change color to highlight which areas you could interact with. Instead of tapping every square inch of the touch screen to find all the hidden coins and puzzles, just slide the cursor around until it lights up and tap. Much faster and much easier to not accidentally activate a puzzle before you have found all the hint coins in a region. I don’t really use the coins all that much; must be that my gamer training that compels me to find all the collectibles.
It’s a good thing then that this game has a nice amount of extra content to go along with the main adventure. These side mini-games are nice diversions and feel just as rewarding when you solve them. You have one where you must guide a robot around obstacle covered levels in a set number of moves. A shop mini-game that teaches you the power of planning how items are arranged on a shelf in order to effect sales. There is also a mini-game that has you training a rabbit to put on plays (it makes sense in context). Along with these mini-games Miracle Mask follows the tradition of downloading a free daily puzzle over wi-fi with new ones showing up every day for a year.
I drink when I play so I may be recalling the Masked Gentleman wrong.
Really, this is just another excellent installment in the franchise. The puzzles are balanced and have significantly fewer tricky wordings. Either that or I’ve just gotten smarter from playing the last four titles. Nah … it’s probably that first thing I said. The story is the best in the series yet (yeah, I went there) and the amount of content and collectibles is quite beefy for a portable game.
So I’ve a puzzle for you:
Q: You like puzzle games, especially the Professor Layton franchise. You also own a 3DS. How long should you wait until you buy it?
A: You should not wait and buy it now.
Yeah! Here, have some picarats.
This review is based on a 3DS copy of Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask.