Layton’s Mystery Journey

I’ve played all the Professor Layton games, and reviewed several of them on this blog.  In the abstract I think really highly of this series, but as I was putting together my thoughts on this one, I went back and read what I had written about the last three games in the series, including Professor Layton Vs Phoenix Wright, I realized that I had similar complaints about those games to the ones I have with this game.

I still don’t like the split between tapping the bottom screen and the cursor on the top screen, the game feels padded out, with puzzles spread far too thin, and I don’t think those puzzles are as good as the used to be.  The new complaint with Layton’s Mystery Journey is that now the story is purely episodic and of the game’s 12 episodes, only about three of them feel like they really matter. While I mostly enjoyed my time with the game, when I finished I was really ready to be done with it.  After a few days to cool off, I feel a little more fondness for the game, though I think that this is the first time my annoyances finally outweighed my enjoyment.

I’ve complained about my problems with the cursor before and I still have them.  It is makes me a little nauseous managing that split between top and bottom screens. I’ve complained about the length before.  I’ll have to go back and check the DS games, but this feels like a 12 hour game stretched out to take nearly 20.  With Layton v Wright, I complained about the puzzles, but I thought it was just because that game was a spin off. The puzzles here feel imprecise.  They aren’t perfectly crafted to make you think or mess with you assumptions, these just feel imprecise.  Sometimes the wording is so vague it nearly impossible to tell what the puzzle is.  There are still plenty of good puzzles, but there are way too many weak or simply bad ones.

The story is the other big problem.  The structure fails this game utterly.  If there was an initial mystery that lead to all the other cases it would have felt like a real story, but instead it just introduces a bunch of characters before moving to a toothless epic final showdown.  It does start with a pair of mysteries, one involving the disappearance of Professor Layton and the other having to do with Sherl, the talking dog that shows up at new protagonist Katrielle’s shop.  Those mysteries are not dealt with at all.  Professor Layton is gone, as are all the characters from the previous 6 games, and Katrielle has a talking dog. Instead of dealing with either of them, you spend most of the game solving non-mysteries for the police, with a few good ones mixed.

I don’t really have a problem with change in cast, it was time for a refresh, but other than changing out the cast, the only change this made to the series was a downgrade in puzzle quality. This is still largely the same game as the last few in the series, but the returns are really diminishing now. I hope the next game gets things back on track.

The Ace Attorney Against the Archaeologist

Professor Layton Versus Phoenix Wright is a crossover game that caters directly to me, featuring two of my favorite DS franchises, which makes me a somewhat sad that I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I had hoped to. All the elements that make both series great are there, but somehow it doesn’t come together quite as well as the games from either. This is not a peanut butter and chocolate situation of two great tastes going great together; these two distinct flavors do not mix as well as one would expect.

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It is less a natural failure of mixing these two game series, but a failure of this specific game’s attempt at comingling those two worlds. While it was written by Shu Takumi the creator of the Ace Attorney series, Phoenix and Maya’s inclusion almost seems an afterthought. The structure of the game is much more like the Layton series, but the puzzles aren’t really up to snuff. Outside of the protagonist duos, the game does nothing to leverage the rest of these games excellent cast to help fill out the story. Finally, when it comes down to it, often this game just isn’t all that well written; a big problem when the game is essentially a visual novel.

It starts with Professor Layton and Luke having a girl show up on their doorstep in some sort of trouble. It is the starting point of most Layton games. Trying to help her out, Layton and Luke get pulled into a deeper mystery. And they get pulled into a mysterious book. At the same time, Phoenix and Maya travel from Japan America to England to learn from their legal system. When he gets there, he discovers that he has been put in charge of a case, a case involving the girl that Layton and Luke were protecting. After winning the case, Nick and Maya also get sucked into the mystery.

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While there are several cases for Phoenix to try, they are mostly unsatisfying affairs. Mostly because the legal system in the witch trials is pointless. It is annoying to use logic when the system itself ignores it. The rules in a regular Ace Attorney game don’t exactly make sense, but they are consistent. Cases build up to their conclusions. Here they tend to just go on until someone else admits to the crime. No matter how effectively you prove your client innocent, unless you can pin the crime on someone else it doesn’t matter. Yes, they are witch hunts; they have to find someone to blame things on, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying experience.

My complaints about the Layton portions are less pronounced. A lot of the puzzles are less brainteasers and more trial and error. There are also fewer of them than the usual Layton game. They are actually tied into the game more organically than usual, but at the cost of some of the Layton’s series unique charm.

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Outside of a cameo by Inspector Chelmey and Constable Barton, the supporting cast is all new. In a lot of ways this is a good thing, it lets the game tell its own story and build an organic way for these characters to interact. Still, the crossover appeal would have been stronger if they would have dug just a little deeper. Why does Flora constantly get shoved aside? Why couldn’t Gumshoe have shown up to bumble around with Chelmey and Barton? Maybe a role for Miles Edgeworth? While they definitely should not have been allowed to take over the game, a few more familiar faces would have been appreciated. Another problem is that the investigation group expands to five people, all of which have to give their two cents at every opportunity. It slows the pace down, particularly since Maya and Luke don’t really have much to do for the bulk of the game.

There are plenty of good things, though. The overall scenario is solidly entertaining, with a suitably Layton-esque escalation near the end. Both Layton and Phoenix get their chances to shine; opportunities to bring their unique skills to the fore. Plenty of the new characters are highly entertaining. There are some interesting advancements to the trial system as well. While letting the player cross exam multiple witnesses at once is kind of ludicrous, allowing the player the use pieces of testimony to point out contradictions to other witnesses is a nice touch.

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The game is pure fan service for fans of both series. It doesn’t make either of is separate parts better, but it doesn’t diminish them enough to make them unenjoyable. Plus, there is a good chance that this is the last we see of either of these protagonists. The Layton series is headed off to the unexplored territory of Layton 7, which is not going to be like the previous games in the series. And the Ace Attorney series is heading into the past for Great Ace Attorney, with Sherlock Holmes as a supporting cast member as they try cases in Japan’s America’s Meiji Period. Professor Layton Versus Phoenix Wright is not a perfect game, but it is a fine send off for two of the best new video game characters of the last decade.

I’ve Done it, Professor!

The end has finally come.  Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy is the last Professor Layton game, according to developer Level 5. (Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright is coming to America later this year.)   They are continuing the Layton series with Layton 7, but it is going to be something significantly different. I am a little sad to see this change happen, but I recognize the need for change.  We have gotten six Layton games, plus a movie, in little more than seven years.   I love the characters and I love the puzzles, but I don’t feel like they have anywhere new to go with them that doesn’t change their fundamental relationship.  Honestly, that breakdown has already started with Azran Legacy.

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The puzzles have always been the first draw of this series.  Their appeal is still there.  As usual, there are 150 puzzles scattered throughout the game, very few of which must be completed to beat the game as long as the player beats enough to pass a couple of checkpoints.  I don’t see these sorts of brainteasers ever losing their appeal.  The interface problems I had with the previous game still exist.  These is an uncomfortable disconnect between nice looking diorama-like environments that Layton and company visit on their adventures and the tapping the player does to interact.  Most of that comes from having the touch screen on the bottom and the 3D area on the top, so the player is not actually tapping where they want to tap, they are using the bottom screen more like a mouse.  It just doesn’t work as well as it could.  I understand why they stuck with that, the 3D environments look too good to give up on, but at times it makes playing the game a bit of a chore. At least it looks good.  Outside of the environments, the characters look a whole lot better in this game than in the last one.  Last time, I found the newly 3D Layton and Luke to be somewhat off putting, but either I’ve just gotten used to how they look, or Level 5 cleaned things up considerably.

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The story, on the other hand, is a mixed bag.  It starts strong, and has all the elements to provide the same sort of entertainment that the rest of the series did.  The mysteries of Descole, Bronev and the Azran civilization that have been building for the last couple games are finally brought to a head.  This should be the grand culmination of all of that.  It starts well, with Layton meeting a colleague and finding a frozen magical girl.  After a brief detour in London, the game then jumps to a globe trotting search for hidden artifacts.  Unfortunately, during this part of the the adventure the mystery of Bronev and his organization Targent is largely sidelined.  They have a presence, but it is mostly in the form of a pair of bumbling lackeys. Still, the individual episodes at all of the stops are classic Layton, even if they don’t feel like they are contributing to the overall storyline very much.

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It is the final quarter of the game where the disappointment sets in. There are two causes for this disappointment.  The far lesser one is, spoilers, that the story hews very close to Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky.  It is not uncommon for video games to take cues from Castle in the Sky, but Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy’s homage is just a little too close to the real thing.  It brings little new to the familiar premise.  While this is somewhat disappointing, there are far worse things to do than steal from Miyazaki for your ending.  What I liked the least was a series of rapid fire revelations that were each ridiculous on their own way.  Any one of them would not have been so bad, but the entire mess of one on top of the other was unbearable.  The Layton series has been no stranger to stupid plots twists and asinine revelations, but usually they are at least interesting.  The ones here reek of fanfic.  The whole plot of Bronev and Descole ends in about the least satisfying way possible.

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So Professor Layton’s story ends with it least enjoyable adventure.  It is disappointing.  Of course, never say never with video game characters.  Level 5 seems eager to go a separate way with this series, but if Layton 7 bombs, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more games starring the top hat sporting archaeologist.  Even though I found The Azran Legacy to be disappointing, I can’t say I disliked it.  It has everything that made the series so enjoyable.  I just wanted, even expected the series to go out with a bang and instead got a whimper.

Top 10 Games of 2011

With 2011 coming to a close, I am looking back on the games that I played this year and like all great minds, I am making a top 10 list of my favorite games. Now, I am limited to only Wii and handheld games, since those are the only systems I own and I only played about 20 new games this year. Most of what I played was several years old at least. So this is a somewhat limited list. Let’s get on with it.

10. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
This is still a phenomenal game, even after 15 years. The only reason it isn’t higher on the list is that it is an only barely touched up port of a 15 year old game. Still, it is a good port of a great game. If you haven’t played Ocarina of Time, what is wrong with you?

9. Okamiden
If I had stopped this game halfway through, it would probably have been 4 or 5 spots higher on the list. Okamiden started out a delightful romp, but the longer it went on the less fun it was. It looks and sounds great, but the early simplicity is replaced not with increasingly complex difficulty but with sheer tedium. It is hard not to compare Okamiden to the DS Zelda games and find it lacking. It has a cohesive, explorable over world, but it stumbles nearly everywhere else in comparison. Still, it is a very good game, if not a great one like its predecessor.

8. Pokemon White
It is a new Pokemon game. There are a number of changes on the periphery, but the core gameplay remains unchanged. I plowed through to main game right as I got this, but haven’t felt the need to go back for the post game yet. Still, it’s a Pokemon game, you already know it you like it or not. I do like it.

7. Kirby: Return to Dreamland
This doesn’t quite reach the magical heights of Nintendo’s best games, but it is still a terrific co-op plat former. This is the game Kirby fans have been waiting for since Kirby 64 and it didn’t disappoint.

6. Professor Layton and the Last Spector
More Layton is always good. There is little new in this fourth entry (except for London Life, which I’ve barely touched) but as long as there are new puzzles, I’ll buy new Layton games. Plus, newcomer characters Emmy and Inspector Grosky are some of the best new characters of the year. Good, good stuff.

5. Solatorobo: Red the Hunter
Solatorobo is a game that whatever its faults, of which there are several, it is so earnest and heartfelt that is it hard to hold it against the game. It is a delightful romp through a charming, fantastical world. Sure, the game never really moves beyond picking up things and throwing them at enemies and the plot goes off the rails near the end but the bulk of the game is pure cheerful fun.

4. Kirby: Mass Attack
While Return to Dreamland was a classic Kirby platformer, Mass Attack is one of the pink blob’s experimental games. One that worked out better than most. It is a surprisingly intuitive combination of platformer and RTS that is simply a blast to play. If you own any sort of DS you should own this title.

3. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
This comes from the makers of Ace Attorney, and obviously so. It has the same wacky yet dark story and some top notch writing. The story is really great and the puzzle-y gameplay is nearly perfect.

2. Tactics Ogre
I love a good TRPG, and this remake of Tactics Ogre may be the best I’ve ever played. It comes from the same stock as the classic Final Fantasy Tactics and it shows. I put more than 60 hours on this thing and didn’t quite beat it. This game is nearly perfect.

1. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
This isn’t even close. I loved Skyward Sword. I loved every part of it. The new run button, the motion controller sword fighting, you name it. Plus, Groose is the best new character of the year. Every part of this game is great.

Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is No Mystery.

When video games become movies it is often not a good thing. Animated films seem to fare better than live action ones, but even then the crap far outweighs anything of quality. Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva, though it is far from perfect, falls pretty far up the quality side of the spectrum. Professor Layton is in some way the perfect game to make the jump to film, since it’s story and gameplay are wholly separate. For the most part it does work as a movie. Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is, for better or worse, a film that could have easily been the plot to the next game in the series.

For those unfamiliar with Professor Layton (first you should rectify that like now) the series follow the exploits of archaeology professor and puzzle enthusiast Hershel Layton and his trusty apprentice Luke as they travel across Europe (mostly the U.K, though) solving elaborate mysteries. Every game adds new characters, all rendered in the series ugly, lumpy, utterly charming style. Recent additions are Emmy, Inspector Grosky and Descole, all of whole play large roles in the movie. While the gameplay consists entirely of puzzles, the stories are fantastical and ridiculous adventure fare. Eternal Diva ramps up the ridiculousness even more than most of the game, eliciting as many eye rolls as delighted smiles.

In the film, the titular professor receives a letter from a former student, an opera singer, who asks him to come and investigate at her next performance. This turns into a contest to win the secret of immortality learned from the Atlantis-like civilization of Ambrosia. It gets crazier from there, with organ powered robot castles and whisky barrel helicopters. It does retain the charm of the game’s core cast; from the eager Luke to the excitable Emmy to the ever calm Layton the gang is just as likable as ever.

It is not a perfect movie. It is ridiculous, even for Layton. Enough so that it makes it hard to maintain suspension of disbelief. There are also some moments that draw attention to the series video game roots.

It isn’t a great introduction to the Professor’s adventures, but Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is a decent enough adventure movie in its own right. It is a treat for longtime fans and should entertain most newcomers, though they may not leave wowed with the franchise. In all, I’d call it a success.

Laaayyytooonnn!!!

Professor Layton has ruined me for adventure games. I know that Layton’s games aren’t quite classic adventure games, but the differences are why I love Layton and why I am indifferent to most of the genre.

In most adventure games, the developers have to go to extreme lengths to incorporate the puzzles into the game world. The games are intricately designed to give the player the tools needed to solve their problems and to make sure that each of those tools has a believable reason to be there. In the end, I find that it generally hamstrings both the puzzles and the stories the puzzles are propping up. The story is forced into situations that allow the player to solve puzzles and the puzzles are forced to fit into the general milieu. No puzzles involving ray guns, because ray guns don’t make sense. The story needs you to go in this storage closet because you have to have a screwdriver later. It may only be a problem to me, but the delicate blending of story and puzzle usually leaves both unsatisfying.

The Professor Layton series gets around this problem by flatly ignoring it. You solve puzzles because that is what the game is about. Brainteasers and the like. The story of is there because it is the most entertaining method of delivering those puzzles. The good Professor’s cases are always charming, at least somewhat due to his world’s fascination with puzzles. Instead of building the puzzles into the story, though the fourth game has done this a couple of times by the halfway point, Layton merely has characters offer them to the player as challenges. Sure, this crazy old bat has the information you need, but she’ll only give it to you if you solve her puzzle. What the puzzle is doesn’t matter at all to the story. The stories in Layton games are always charming pieces of fluff. They occasionally hit a strong, moving character moment, but rarely is there anything exceptional.

But the puzzles are invariably better than those I’ve encountered in actual adventure games. Solving a Layton puzzle is so satisfying. The game presented you with a challenge and you overcame it. In regular adventure games, when I finally stumble upon the solution, my reaction is usually vague anger. It is either so ridiculously circuitous a solution that I hate the game for thinking it up or stupidly easy, but frustratingly obtuse. Either way it is no fun.

I’ve played enough Layton games now that I know I can never go back to the old games. I’m sure I’ll try them out occasionally, because I can never leave well enough alone. I’m sure adventure game purists will scoff at my missing the point for hating adventure games for what makes them great. The only thing I’m not sure of is my continued access to future Layton games. I can only hope that unlike every other game I like, Professor Layton has been financially successful here in the states and they keep being made. But that is just me being grouchy and pessimistic. At least the Layton movie is being released here next month. I’ll have to buy that.