Professor Layton and the Curious Village
Here’s a puzzle for you: I have one ballpoint pen (black), five sheets of A4 paper and the calculator application from my mobile phone open. What am I doing? Am I taking a maths exam? Physics or chemistry perchance? Maybe I’m organising my bills the night before I’m supposed to send them off. Or possibly working out measurements for a new bathroom sink? None of the above: I’m playing Professor Layton and the Curious Village on my Nintendo DS. Actually, “playing” is the wrong word; it implies some kind of choice and control. No: I’m completely and helplessly hooked to Professor Layton and the world that surrounds him and me.
On the surface, it’s probably hard to see what the allure of the game is. As the excellent cover explains, it’s essentially a series of brainteasers and riddles. This is something the DS has certainly not been starved of this year especially, but Professor Layton has a story up its sleeve to tie everything together, y’see, in an attempt to give the puzzles relevance and context. The narrative revolves around brain-box archaeologist Professor Layton and his exasperating protégé, Luke, who have been alerted to the death of a wealthy baron that has spoken of a hidden treasure known only as the Golden Apple in his will. Not one to shy away from a challenge, Professor Layton and whiny sidekick set off for a village called St Mystere in search of the prize. It’s not long however, until this seemingly innocent foray into the relative unknown takes a turn for the worse when a murder arises. Someone is dead and people have gone missing. Cue the player being tasked with finding out just what is going on in this more than curious village. Oh, and that Golden Apple.
The cut scenes explaining the story are very well animated and almost too pretty to be on a handheld device. They have a Ghibli quality about them, and the characters are well designed and voiced smartly with the exception of Luke, who sounds like an exaggerated imitation of a child from the Charles Chaplin era. He’s by far the game’s weak link but like any annoyance, it’s easy to just close your eyes and pretend he’s not there. The story is arguably a bit by the books too, but it’s filled with so much charm you’ll happily invest yourself in everything that’s happening around you and the Professor. This charm is spawned not only from the sharp dialogue, but from the visuals that follow the high quality of the cut scenes effortlessly, presenting itself as a series of stills of all the village’s characters, shops, homes, gardens, street corners and alleyways to name just a few.
But as good as the story is, it can only take you so far and thankfully the puzzles are there to string you along to the end brilliantly. They are – of course – the meat of the game and it seems you’ve stumbled upon a village where brainteasers are the inhabitants’ religion. You can’t interact with anyone without them trying to test your mental capacity. Even Professor Layton gets in on the act; at just the site of something like a candle, he’ll have a Vietnam-style flashback to a puzzle of yore. There are a wide variety of puzzles on show, ranging from algebraic equations to devilishly obscure riddles. There’s something quite soul-destroying about seeing a numerical question you vaguely recall doing in year six, but just not lucidly enough to remember it off the bat. Professor Layton and the Curious Village has a habit of making you feel like an idiot one minute, and a puzzle-solving prodigy the very next. I remember one particular challenge involving a mouse and how many babies she will produce after ten months. A challenge so simple, and the game never pretends it’s anything other than straightforward, but my innate disposition to make things more complicated than they are brought my progress to a standstill.
And this is such a breath of fresh air, because it’s been a long while since a game has had me frantically scribbling down incoherent blabber to anyone other than myself on pieces of paper. I can recall literally hours of game time spent pacing up and down my room with my DS on the table in front of me. Looking at the current puzzle in play like it was a collection of hieroglyphics. If it all gets too much then the game does let you use hint coins that you find all over the village to guide you along the right path. But when you finally get it right on your own – and with a little persistence, eventually will - you simply won’t care that a particular puzzle has resulted in some severe hair loss from the pulling, because all the heartache, blood, sweat and tears will feel totally worth it by the end. Hair will grow back.
Admittedly, there’s not much else to do in St Mystere apart from tackling puzzles, although the game never pretends to have anything more to offer. There are numerous puzzle pieces to gather; collecting them all and of course, piecing them together successfully will result in a prize for the player. There are bits of furniture to be found for the player to decorate both protagonists’ rooms; I gave Luke just a teddy bear to grasp onto during those cold winter nights, whilst spoiling Professor Layton with all the luxuries and amenities needed to get a pleasant sleep. You can also earn a special reward by finding every Gizmo in the village, as well as earning enough picarats. These are points you attain by completing challenges and they’re also an indication of how hard a brainteaser is going to be. In addition, they serve as a sort of “guessing until you’re right” cap, because the number of picarats available is reduced for every time you answer incorrectly. So players are very much encouraged to think before they stick their hand up.
When you sit and think, there’s really not a whole lot wrong with Professor Layton and the Curious Village. It takes the player by the hand frequently then throws them in at the deep end with what can feel like lead boots. But then you use your brain for what it’s intended and it soon becomes apparent that the game is just being cruel to be kind – and you’ll almost want to thank Level 5 for it. Any niggling flaws are just that: niggling - at the very most. In the grand scheme of things, they mean so very little because every waking moment spent in St Mystere is an absolute joy to behold.
Nine out of ten