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Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box

The Elysian Box is cursed. That’s what everyone thinks, anyway. It’s an evil container capable of killing anyone who opens it. Just imagine owning such a thing. You could spend hours gazing at its superb craftsmanship and ornate design, trying to figure out some inkling of its true nature. How can something so beautiful be so deadly? How did it get its powers? Where did it come from? It wouldn’t take long for your questions to consume you; curiosity is a powerful motivator, even if it leads to death. Dr. Schrader learned that the hard way. Not only is he dead, but the box is missing as well. Armed with nothing more than a few clues left by the late doctor, Professor Layton must now uncover the circumstances of the death of his former mentor and discover the secrets behind the box.

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That’s how it starts, anyway. Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box might seem like a standard murder investigation at first, but it quickly evolves into something far more compelling. The clues lead Professor Layton (and his child prodigy/sidekick Luke) along a high-class train ride and into the heart of a mysterious town. While some of the plot twists are kind of predictable, the majority the story is superbly written. While this game is basically a test of your critical thinking skills, you might be motivated to solve the puzzles for the sake of getting to the next plot point. The effort pays off, too. The truth about the Elysian Box – and a few revelations about the supporting cast – is not fully revealed until the end of the game. Those who skipped out on The Curious Village (and shame on you if you’re one of them!) need not worry about missing anything significant. Despite being a sequel, only a few references, returning characters, and a glorified cameo keep this game’s story linked to that of the previous title.

The rest of the game, however, remains unaltered. You’ll have to wander around the given setting, searching for information and talking to people. Everything is done with the stylus; you tap on objects to interact with them and press on-screen arrows to move to different areas. Exploring is crucial to the progression of the game; you might not come across some important hint until you’ve had the necessary conversation or obtained the right item. While it might seem tedious at first, scouring an entire screen has its benefits; anything in the background, from a billboard to a lantern and everything in between, could trigger something important. The NPCs aren’t as forthcoming with their information, though. Rather than giving you the leads you need, they’ll usually challenge you to a some sort of puzzle before helping you. Solve it, get your information, and move on. Rinse and repeat several dozen times, and you’ll eventually stumble across the next major plot point.

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That’s assuming that you can make it that far, though. While solving puzzles to get information might seem like a pretty basic concept, actually completing them is something else entirely. You’ll be faced with all kinds of brain teasers. Some are fairly simple, like reassembling a photo from torn pieces, or choosing the right person or item based on a quick description. Others require far more logic; you might have to rearrange blocks in an enclosed space, uncover hidden patterns in a seemingly random picture, or position items in certain places or angles. The variety is impressive; despite having over 150 puzzles, few of them are repeats. If you do come across any similar questions, they’re usually just bonus versions of the original. If you’re stuck, you can spend hint coins (hidden currency you can find by tapping on random items in the town) to unlock clues that lead to the solution. There’s no shame in using them, considering what’s at stake. Every puzzle is worth a certain amount of bonus points; if you screw up, the amount of your reward goes down. Since these points are what you spend to unlock the bonus content of the game, you’ll want to make the effort of getting stuff right. You could always just reset the game until you get the right answer (you know, the cheap way), but it could prove too tedious a process.

Besides, you‘ll have enough trouble finding all of the puzzles. As you walk around town, you’ll see some of the NPCs sweating. If you serve them the right flavor of tea (you have to acquire and brew your own ingredients, by the way), they’ll give you extra items or puzzles to solve. While that’s all well and good, the encounters are completely random; you might have to visit the same screen several times before you see a character itching for a drink. You don’t have to unlock every puzzle in order to beat the game – some of them aren’t even available until you complete the story – but the process could have been far more streamlined. Considering how you can only access some of the puzzles using this flawed system, obsessive completionists aren’t going to be happy. Instead, they might find some solace in the extra features; you can track down spare parts and reassemble a camera, which then unlocks a challenge that lets you spot differences between backgrounds and photos you’ve taken. You’ll also come across a morbidly obese hamster that, thanks to your strict exercise regimen via a cleverly-designed mini-game, can slim down over the course of the adventure. None of these features will help you finish the story, but they are an entertaining diversion.

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That’s aside from the all the other extras being offered. You won’t be able to access much at first – you won’t have enough bonus points to purchase them, after all – but you’ll eventually gain access to art galleries, music, character profiles, and other features. By fulfilling specific requirements in the story mode, you’ll unlock a series of bonus puzzles called Layton’s Challenges. These are for the hardcore enthusiasts; if you had trouble with the stuff in the adventure, you’re going to be sent reeling by these. Not to mention the Weekly Puzzles, which can be downloaded via WiFi. But if you prefer to keep things simple (or you want to show off your critical thinking prowess) every puzzle you’ve come across in the game is listed and replayable as well. Though you can beat the story in less than ten hours, completing every last puzzle and feature will require far more time. Needless to say, the variety of features is extensive and well-rounded.

The same goes for the presentation. The art style has a quaint charm; there’s nothing mind-blowing when it comes to the 2D drawings, but it works well. It’s the little details that make the difference. As you wander down the cobblestone streets, you might notice the muted glow of the streetlamps, or the colored flags hanging from the buildings. The characters have that same kind of low-key quality, though their designs are based more on their personalities; despite being a genius, Layton presents himself as a mere gentleman with a suit and top hat. Detective Chemley, on the other hand, has a perpetual scowl and a moustache the size of his ego. While the characters are at their finest during the conversations and cutscenes, the interactions themselves are a mixed bag. Sometimes you’ll get some gorgeous fully-animated scenes, and other times you’ll just get the 2D characters looking at each other with text boxes filling the bottom of the screen. The voice acting is stunning and emotional, but there’s just not enough of it; there’s only so much that be crammed into a single DS game. At least the designers got their priorities right; while the voices are limited, the stellar soundtrack makes up for it. The instrumentals are what make the setting perfect; from the charming piano and accordion tracks to an amazing ending theme song, few handheld games have such awesome music.

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Look, folks. If you have any interest in puzzles or brain teasers, you need to get this. It doesn’t matter if you missed out on the first title; this game stands alone just fine. It’s got everything you’d ever want from a text-based adventure. The story, while having a few predictable twists, is superbly told and entertaining. It’s the puzzles that steal the show, though. The sheer amount, variety, and difficulty level of the challenges tests your analytical and critical thinking skills. Considering all the extra content you can get, figuring everything out is well worth the effort. Between the bonus puzzles, unlockables, and other features, you’re going to have your hands full. Finding some of the stuff might be a little too tedious, though; the random NPC encounters can prove frustrating when you’re trying to uncover another puzzle. The well-crafted presentation makes up for it; between the awesome cutscenes and the soundtrack, you’ll be too distracted to notice any flaws. No, the game is not perfect. Nor is it for everyone. But it’s worth trying. Professor Layton is back, and he’s never looked better.

9 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2005.

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