Travelling through the space/time continuum one puzzle at a time.
Level-5 is continuing to grow as one of my more recent favorite developers. From their hit productions on the PS2 (Dragon Quest VIII, Rogue Galaxy, Dark Cloud 2) to their more recent endeavors on the DS (Dragon Quest IX, Professor Layton series), it seems that the games they create simply ooze personality. With top notch presentation and gameplay in all of the titles they create, I must say that the Professor Layton series holds a special place in my heart. From its enjoyable puzzle solving gameplay to its cartoon/graphic novel appearance, Layton is by far one of my favorite original genres in the modern era of gaming. And, though I did only finish the 2nd game in the series just recently (I hard-cored it less than a month ago due to my ever growing list of backlogged titles), I quickly came up to speed on the game’s improvements from the first to second installations and loved every minute of them.
The other interesting part of the Professor Layton series is that it not only appeals to the seasoned gamer but also has a wider following of casual gamers backing it. Take my girlfriend, for instance: I don’t know if I was more excited to review this title than she was (for the fact that she would be able to play through it once I’m finished). Thus, though it certainly has appeal to a lifetime gamer such as myself, its much welcomed simplicity in a world full of overly complicated games allows it to have a broader following. Now with the third installment on the horizon, Professor Layton and the Unwound Future, can they continue to produce a top-notch product with an enthralling story and enough improvements to warrant a third purchase for fans?
As with any sequel, in most cases it is important for developers to keep the original feel of previous titles while improving upon the features enough to further enthrall fans. Though the original Professor Layton and the Curious Village had few glaring problems, its sequel, Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box needed to have an equally enthralling story along with appropriate changes to the gameplay where necessary. Thus, Level-5 created another hit with a unique story, improved mini-games, and more expansive scenery to explore (as well as other minor aesthetical improvements). Even still, there are some portions of the Diabolical Box that I would have liked to see improved in this iteration including a more rapidly developing storyline, easier backtracking (and transportation) and more story elements/cut scenes dispersed throughout the usual gameplay.
Luckily, the developers saw fit to these improvements as well and provided further enhancements to the overall formula producing yet another hit. Professor Layton and the Unwound Future begins by immediately throwing you into the story (where the first two games took a few hours or more to get into the meat of the adventure). The first playable portion of gameplay is a flashback with the first key plot development happening almost immediately. Only within an hour or so do players really jump into the story and feel enthralled, which is much quicker than in the previous first games.
The story begins with Layton and Luke en route to a local clock shop in London. Directed by the requests of a letter supposedly written 10 years in the future, the two are going to meet Luke’s future self to discuss the fate of London within the next 10 years (and a grave one at that according to the letter). A playable flashback of events happening a few days before reveals the first mystery of the game in which the prime minister along with several lab assistants and a scientist vanish amidst the awry explosion of his newly created time travel machine. Before long, Luke and Layton arrive in London, move quickly through town to the clock shop, and almost immediately after are transported into the future (or so it seems). From here, the story only divulges further into my favorite story of the series yet.
Character development is another area that sees improvement in this latest edition. Not only do we get to see a little more of Layton’s back-story, but the game’s other characters seem to have blossomed further into their roles as mainstays to the series. For instance, Stachenscrafen (the guy who usually tells you about hint coins) is particularly enjoyable in this game (and made me laugh a few times throughout the game) while Granny Riddleton sees a few twists to her character as well. Other characters such as Inspector Chelmey and Flora seem to show more personality, and even Layton and Luke have their own spells of comical banter from time to time. Overall, the homage to fans of the series is strong in this game and anyone who’s played previous games will enjoy the fan service.
Another area where Level-5 improved the overall experience in this game is that the world seems much more expansive this time around than in previous experiences. Sure, Layton and Luke become stranded in an unknown environment as with the previous two games, but this time the scenery is more apt to change (there is a time in the game when you go to visit Scotland Yard as well as Professor Layton’s university). Also, though backtracking is encouraged in this game as well, the process is mitigated by the introduction of a subway system, allowing you to quickly move between parts of town.
The puzzles also seem to be dispersed more evenly throughout story elements/cut scenes/voice acting to make the experience further enthralling. Where I felt backtracking to find the latest puzzle renditions in the previous two games was more pronounced, this game seems to have a more coherent flow to the plot along with more elements overall. The game isn’t any longer than the previous two experiences but the story just seems to be bigger than ever before.
As for the mini-games, they’re completely different and a little lengthier still. The Toy Car mini-game has 10 different courses that are unlocked throughout the story. Playing similar to the puzzle mode in Chu Chu Rocket (if you’re familiar with this Dreamcast/Game Boy Advance classic), your goal is to move the car to pick up all of the items and arrive at the destination, by placing differently directed arrows on the course. The Parrot mini-game is lengthier than previous pet mini-games, containing 12 levels (unlocked throughout the story) in which you must guide the parrot to his destination within a certain amount of time by drawing lines between posts to create perches/trampolines. Finally, the storybook mini-game consists of 3 different storybooks, each with its own set of stickers that you acquire throughout the story, and your goal is to place these stickers/missing story elements onto the correct spots to create a coherent story.
Minor aesthetic/functional improvements are always welcomed, in my opinion and they show that the developer has paid attention to the faults/needs of previous games in the series. In Professor Layton and the Unwound Future, there are a few important improvements that are worth mentioning. First of all, the memo pad for solving puzzles is much improved in this game, giving gamers access to more features. Now you can change the size of the pen (to be able to fit more on the screen at once), choose from 8 pen colors (good for organizing individual thoughts), and use an eraser to individually erase portions of your notes (rather than merely erasing your entire canvas.
Another minor improvement is the inclusion of an extra Super Hint that can be unlocked if the first three hints aren’t enough. The Super Hint costs 2 hint coins (so a total of 5 to unlock one Super Hint in a puzzle) and gives enough information to solve/ruin the puzzle if you’re stumped for too long (use these sparingly, though, because you wouldn’t want to ruin some of those particularly enlightening puzzles :-)