Professor Layton and the Spectre’s Call
The Professor Layton series has become one of the most successful franchises to emerge from the Nintendo DS. Professor Layton and the Spectre’s Call (renamed from the Last Spectre in the US for reasons unfathomable) is the fourth entry in the series and the first to delve into its own past, presenting itself as a prequel to the first game, detailing how the Professor and Luke met and joined forces. It says a lot about the attention to story in these games that such a hook is actually a draw for this game; one of the master-strokes of the whole Layton series has been the marrying of traditional puzzle elements with strong narrative and characters, giving players more reason to keep playing than a simple desire to prove their mental acuity.
Set in the fictional town of Misthallery, the game opens with the Professor being called to investigate a series of incidents in which a mysterious spectre has been seen destroying areas of the town at night. With the village in the thrall of an old folk legend it is up to the great top-hatted one to solve the mystery and make his name. By setting the tale when they have, Level-5 have allowed some of Layton’s high-regard be lost, meaning that much of the game centres around him having to prove himself to the townsfolk and his associates. Of the host of new characters in the town, all as weird and wonderful as you might expect, it is Emmy Altava, Layton’s enthusiastic new assistant, who makes the biggest impact. She offers a welcome extra dimension to the Layton / Luke dynamic of previous games and proves herself to be a capable and strong female character, something that is sadly another rarity in many games these days.
Gameplay-wise you should know what you are getting with each new Layton instalment and this is no exception. The successful formula has barely been touched, making it play almost identically to each of its predecessors – how much this bothers you will largely come down to your personal feelings for the series and those on annualised franchises. The gameplay still works well, you talk to people around town, get presented with many a puzzle along the way whilst also uncovering some hidden extras and mini-games. It is here that one of the game’s biggest disappointment comes, you see in the US and Japan there was a whole separate mini-game called London Life, in which you played a 16-bit style RPG in a fictionalised London. The game itself is said to offer 100+ hours of gameplay, however due to the time and effort required for localisation for Europe, Nintendo does not offer the mode in the European release of the game. This is a real shame and its inclusion would have gone someway to assuaging the complaints regarding a lack of invention.
The new mini-games that are included are not especially engaging, there is a train-set simulator, a mad-libs style theatre mode and a fish-tank puzzle game but they are unlikely to divert your attention for long. Thankfully the main story is strong, if a little slow to start, but it picks up pace and is genuinely exciting by its conclusion. Despite being hung around the game puzzle-gameplay template, there is a level of care and attention that Level-5 apply to their characters and story (and to the gorgeously rendered cut-scenes) that do help the game stand out from the crowd. It is a shame then that much of the voice acting still grates as per the previous games in the series, thankfully not much of the game’s dialogue is spoken so it doesn’t really detract.
As for the puzzles themselves there seems to be a much greater variety this time around (not to mention more of them in general, over 170 throughout the game), ranging from typical brain teasers, to maths and science questions to tricks of logic or wordplay. Some are a bit unclear in terms of informing you exactly what it is you are supposed to be working out, and this can become frustrating, but the hint system works well with the usual abundance of coins scattered around so you should never really get stuck. Another thing Level-5 have done very well in this game is better integrate many of the puzzles into the story itself, these are usually some of the cleverest and most rewarding to solve and help you feel connected to the action on screen rather than just solving arbitrary, unrelated puzzles as you do for much of the rest of the game.
Overall the latest entry in the Professor Layton series in unlikely to convert those who haven’t enjoyed the other games in the series, but if you are a fan then this is a great entry with a good variety of puzzles and an intriguing and involving story that gets better as the game goes on. Add in the sheer amount of content for a handheld game and even without the London Life mini-game it’s hard not to recommend. For those unfamiliar with Layton this is a great jumping on point as well; no prior knowledge is really required and you will benefit from the streamlining that has been done around some of the more basic gameplay elements, making it the easiest Layton game yet to just pick up and play in small bursts.
The time will come when the Layton formula wears out. As of now it is getting a bit thin in places but holds up overall remarkably well, with a quality and variety in the puzzles that suggests a fair amount of life remains in the franchise. This is another worthy entry in the series and proof that, despite the release of the 3DS, there is life in the old DS yet.
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