To say I love puzzles is an understatement. From the early years in my life of solving the latest Dell puzzle magazine (not the computer company, look it up if you’re confused) to enjoying a graph theory class I took while getting my math degree (we did some of the coolest stuff in that class, not to mention learning many theorems and proofs about puzzles very similar to the ones seen in Layton). To help fill the void of puzzle-solving gameplay, Professor Layton has been my latest portable annual anticipation, a role that Castlevania used to fill (before Order of Ecclesia ended its run of handheld glory).
Like Castlevania and many other sequel driven series, Professor Layton does a great job of sticking to a tried and true formula without wearing out the gameplay from title to title. Ever since the original game in the series, Professor Layton & the Curious Village, Layton games have given us a cartoon series of enthralling adventure stories strung together by a slew of classic puzzles along the way and each sequel has been received with as much or more acclaim than the previous ones. The third installment in the series, The Unwound Future, stands as the best in the series, in my opinion, due to the fact that the story enthralls you from the very beginning and continues to evolve throughout your experience, rather than taking time to build up after a slow start.
Just over a year The Unwound Future, Professor Layton and the Last Specter has finally arrived and DS gamers have yet another mystery novel to play this holiday season. I expected from the start that this latest installment would certainly interest me throughout the experience, but the trick that must be maintained is keeping the charm of the series as well as providing strong puzzles and a strong story to keep the series on a high note. Nonetheless, I was ready to get my top hat on and solve some puzzles in as gentlemanly of a manner as possible.
Professor Layton and the Last Specter plays as a prequel to the other three games in the series, cataloguing the events that led to the good professor meeting up with his trusty assistant, Luke. Diving into the pasts of the characters helped me to feel a stronger connection between all of the games as opposed to playing through a different episode with each game, so I certainly found this to be a strong storytelling addition to the series.
If you’re familiar with the series, you’ll know that a few of the games can start slow in terms of overall story elements. The first game, for instance, takes quite some time before you can even make some hypotheses about the actual story. The second game, The Diabolical Box, takes several hours before you even reach the town of question and I found the beginning to drag a little. However, what I loved about The Unwound Future was that the game was filled with events right from the beginning of the game and one of the game’s main plot points, the perception of the group travelling to the future, is placed into your initial assumptions right about 1 hour into the game. The story just started off so fast and continued to evolve throughout the game to lead to its exciting conclusion.
The Last Specter certainly starts in a similar fashion, at least in terms of giving players a flash-back/flash-forward moment full of cut scenes to help introduce the story. After a brief cut scene at the beginning, the game fast forwards to a moment a few hours in where Layton, Luke, and his assistant Emmy are awaiting the arrival of the Specter from the game’s title, and the gamer gets to witness his brief attack on the city surrounding the building they’re in (without any previous knowledge about the whereabouts or the circumstances). Next, the game cuts back to a previous time when Layton and Emmy meet up and set out on the current investigation (which eventually leads up to the previously viewed cut scene).
I found these beginning sequences to be effective in developing the story but afterward, I found the story to drag a bit, at least in terms of plot elements. Not until around 8 hours in did I really become enthralled in the story (though the puzzles along the way certainly made the 8 hours enjoyable nonetheless). Thus, when comparing the game to its predecessor, I must say that The Unwound Future still succeeds as the best in the series to keep you hooked on the story from the first hour. After time, I did find the story in The Last Specter to be quite enjoyable though a few of the plot points were a little too obvious for my tastes.
One of the best parts of the Layton series is the different types of puzzles introduced throughout the series and that each new game has a new gauntlet of challenges along the way. Though a few of the most memorable puzzles still remain in the first game, there have been many great ones, some complex, others misleadingly simple, along the way. The Last Specter continues the run of great puzzles, with more of an emphasis on math and geometry this time around (or at least it seemed that way). My only issue was that there were a few puzzles along the way that were difficult merely because of vague directions; it wasn’t just a part of the puzzle, just that a few of the puzzles were extremely difficult to understand the ground rules and after the fact, I realized there was a lack of understanding imparted by the directions.
Every Layton game features a few different mini-games in which subsequent levels are unlocked throughout the gameplay. In The Last Specter, the same is true, with 3 different mini-games within the story mode. The first of the mini-games is a train game similar to the car game from The Unwound Future, where you must place down a set number of tracks in order to direct a train through a course, visiting all of the stations along the way before arriving at your destination. Along the way, you can pick up fuel to increase the amount of track pieces available, and you’ll also have to cross railroads and roads without being hit by oncoming trains and cars.
The second mini-game, a fish game, requires you to place bubbles throughout each course to direct your fish to collect all of the coins. Finally, the third mini-game is similar to the storybook from The Unwound Future, where you play through three different episodes that evolve around a mad-gab sort of gameplay; according to the different words and actions you place in the blanks, the story will either make sense or go down a pathway of nonsense.
In addition to these mini-games, The Last Specter also features the typical set of bonuses, which include weekly downloadable puzzles, a set of 15 additional challenge puzzles that are unlocked as you complete different portions of the story, and a top secret section that provides character profiles, the ability to view cut scenes & art, and listen to music and voice clips from the game. Finally, there is also the Hidden Door, which can only be unlocked by purchasing the upcoming fifth game in the series.
However, the biggest ticket that makes The Last Specter unique and is not in any of the previous games is an entirely separate mode called London Life, which can be played at any time. This game is a fully fledged game that was originally supposed to be included as an unlockable in Mother 3, which never came stateside. Luckily, the game was included in The Last Specter, and it holds up as a strong, charming game with several hours of gameplay to be had (the game boasts over 100 hours of gameplay but this is describing the series of events that occur throughout a year’s length, similar to that of Animal Crossing).
London Life begins by allowing you to create a character and customize his/her appearance. Afterward, the game begins with your character arriving in Little London upon the Molentary Express into the world of mini-Layton characters. The game plays much like a 2D Animal Crossing with several different characters to meet along the way, a variety of houses and buildings to commute to, clothing and furniture to collect, and multiplayer to allow you to play alongside others with the game.
The interesting part about London Life, though, is that it is in some ways more robust than Animal Crossing due to its mini-games and RPG elements. The two main forms of accomplishment in the game are wealth and happiness (each of which is tracked in terms of a quantitative value). It’s your goal whether you decide to amass wealth or happiness and there are links between the two that lead you towards a pursuit of both (buying things leads to more happiness and obviously you need money to buy something, whereas higher happiness nets you more money for the jobs you work).
Also, there are several different jobs that you can do in order to earn money. In my experience with the game, I picked up trash, bell hopped at a hotel, and even juggled to earn cold hard cash (though I must say the juggling mini-game was an easy one to exploit since skill could earn you huge sums of money in a quick amount of time without a cap on the amount of times you can play the game). And, if you’re into high/low gambling, you can also risk your money at the local casino.
Your character not only can change his/her appearance by collecting different items, but these items also change your three individual stats (Coolness, Impression, and Formality) accordingly. Each of these stats has a different effect on your character and impacts your overall experience. For instance, a higher Coolness stat helps to prevent events from negatively affecting your happiness. Impression is important because a higher impression makes others more likely to ask you for favors (earning you money or items). Finally, you won’t be able to enter many places in the game until you have a high enough Formality.
There are also stats based on the items decorating your room. Décor affects the likelihood that your roommate is happy, and Atmosphere improves the rate your happiness recovers while in your room. Like Animal Crossing, the game has a calendar and clock that dictates the locations and actions of the townsfolk. If you’re in the mood for connectivity, you can also put your DS in Tag Mode to trade items with other players (similar to StreetPass but not nearly as effective). Finally, you can hook up with your friends via friend code.