Monday, May 05, 2008

Professor Layton and the Curious Village

Professor Layton and the Curious Village is a game about puzzles. It's not even very good at puzzles. And yet, you can't help but like it. Not liking it would be like using a nail gun on a puppy.

This is a game for the Nintendo DS, so you'll need your stylus handy. Once equipped, you'll learn that the eponymous Professor Layton is an archaeologist and part-time detective who's been summoned to the village of St Mystere in order to resolve a mystifying inheritance riddle. The Baron of St Mystere has left his entire fortune to "whomsoever finds the Golden Apple".

Finding the Golden Apple translates to working your way through a metric buttload of puzzles. It seems that every inbred sod in the village is just brimming with half-baked brainteasers, which they're crack-addict-desperate to impart to you in their apalling cockney accents. "I say, Professor!" they'll opine, "your hat reminds me of a smashing puzzle!" Or, "Good day, Professor, would you care to solve a riddle I thought of on the loo this morning?" Sometimes, "What ho, Professor, the way you're pulping my irritating noggin with that metal bar has just made me recall a quite smashing problem that I think you'll really get a kick out of!"

I'm a fan of the puzzle, but it's more accurate to say that I am a fan of the clever puzzle, and that's not what's on offer here. I played PerplexCity - I'm ready for puzzles like this or this. I'm ready for puzzles that are willing to go up against Chuck Norris in a twenty-four-hour roundhouse-kicking marathon, and then defeat Hitler before bedtime. These are not those puzzles.

I've finished all 135 puzzles in the game and less than ten put up a fight. Of those, I brute forced one using a Python algorithm. For most puzzles the answer was obvious as soon as the puzzle came on screen. Sloppy wording and unhelpful pictures were really the biggest barriers to my progress.

(As an example of the difficulty curve, the game considers the fairly famous Eight Queens Puzzle (spoiler) as one of its hardest problems.)

From a different perspective, though, I'm a gamer who's been playing puzzle games since The 7th Guest (ah, the memories) and I know most of the classic puzzles backwards by now. A good slice of the audience for Professor Layton won't have seen these problems before and won't know how thoroughly they've been run into the ground.

And besides, Professor Layton and the Curious Village is just so full of personality that you'll be inclined to forgive most of its lamer puzzles on the strength of how engaging the game is. Professor Layton and his apprentice Luke come across as fully-fledged characters, thanks in part to some rather good voice work. (Warning: you'll constantly be expecting Luke to say "Shine yer shoes, guv'nor?") The remainder of the village are one dimensional, but still rather loveable.

The art throughout is rendered in a charming European style, including some fully animated cutscenes at key points. The music is good without being excellent, and consists of violin-heavy detective melodies which accompany your travel through the village.

The game is by Level 5, better known for titles such as Rogue Galaxy, Jeanne D'Arc, and their collaboration with Square-Enix on the recent Dragon Quest games. They're a developer who knows how to create engaging characters and tell a worthwhile story, and that comes across clearly here. The overarching mystery of St Mystere turns out to be wholly ludicrous, but you're unlikely to care too much, as the process of exploring the village and interacting with its citizens is delivered in a reasonably light-hearted manner and is thoroughly fun.

One major element of the game which could use revision is its scoring system. The game scores you on puzzle solutions by giving you "picarats". Each puzzle is worth a certain amount of picarats. Unsuccessful attempts at solving a problem lower the maximum picarat reward.

This is largely an attempt to stop players from brute-forcing the multiple-choice puzzles. However, as you can turn off the DS after a wrong guess and reload, there's really no reason not to walk away with full points. Facing a similar problem, PerplexCity implemented a mechanic whereby only three guesses could be made within a 24-hour period; a similar system, perhaps with your guesses refreshing every hour, would have worked well here.

In any case, Professor Layton is a fun and engaging game, and there's really nothing else like it available on DS, so if it sounds remotely like something you'll enjoy you should probably pick it up. There's apparently two sequels in the works, and despite my gripes I'm looking forward to them, so if you're hanging out for some puzzle-themed gaming then this is absolutely the game for you.


Chris said...

"...metric buttload of puzzles"

A metric buttload? It's not exactly a *classy* neologism, but it did amuse me immensely. :D

Best wishes!

Greg Tannahill said...

Well, in classical times, when the buttload was first used as a unit of volume, there was some considerable inaccuracy as butt sizes varied from individual to individual.

Thankfully in the 20th century we moved to metric measurements and the buttload became a standardised unit, which greatly facilitated international and inter-regional trade and led to the birth of the global economy we now know and love.