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'Professor Layton' and the Curious Compulsion Towards Improvement

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Wednesday, Oct 6, 2010
The experience of playing a Professor Layton game reminds me of the experience of playing Diablo. Seriously.
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Professor Layton and the Unwound Future

(Nintendo; US: 12 Sep 2010)

The product that this review is based on was provided by Nintendo of America.


The experience of playing a Professor Layton game reminds me of the experience of playing Diablo.


Seriously.
  
I know that on the face of it hacking one’s way through a horde of undead and demonic forces to eventually face off against the Lord of Hell himself seems inherently to be an experience quite far removed from steering a polite British gentlemen and his apprentice through the streets of London in order to solve puzzles involving the rearrangement of match sticks or figuring out how to get a dozen people across a river in the least amount of time possible while using only two leaky canoes as a means of conveyance.


However, while the premise and gameplay are extremely different, the response that I have to the material in both games is quite a similar experience.  I can’t easily tear myself away from either game, and I think for somewhat similar reasons.


Anyone who has been sucked into a fair amount of playtime with Diablo probably recognizes the problem with saving to exit or logging out of a game of Diablo.  The lure is the loot.  While Diablo is repetitious in its point-and-kill gameplay, especially because building a character to satisfaction requires that you continue to play after completing the game (once Diablo is dead, starting over at a higher difficulty is practically unavoidable assuming that you enjoy building up stats and accruing more weapons and spells), loot drives your motivation to repeat in the game because it promises perpetual progress, perpetual improvement. 


As soon as you kill that next skeleton or demon, there is always the chance that it will drop a better sword, a spell book that you need, or better stat modifying jewelry.  Sure, you just found a +4 Strength ring, but there is something that will drop a +6 strength ring if you just persist a little bit longer.


Strangely, Professor Layton has a similar appeal in its promise of perpetual progress and perpetual improvement, despite the fact that you aren’t improving the character (or characters) that you embody in the game. 


Like other Layton games, Unwound Future places you under the top hat of gentleman and professor of archeology, Hershel Layton, as well as under the newsboy cap of his scrappy apprentice, Luke.  Also, like the other games in the series, you guide Layton and Luke through a puzzle-laden environment, solving riddles and conundrums posed by various smartly illustrated characters as you go.


The lure of the game is the puzzles themselves.  While these vary a bit, perhaps, the most common shared quality among them is that they usually require flexing a bit of deductive mental muscle in order to solve them.  Resolving these puzzles is aided by a robust memo system that allows the player to jot down notes, draw pictures, or calculate mathematical problems across the face of the puzzles themselves.  Puzzles vary in difficulty, sometimes the answer is obvious given a little thought or observation.  Others, though, can cause the player to pause for long minutes at a time, working through the details or shifting elements in a puzzle around for a bit via the stylus.


A sense of progress is established in part by a numeric tabulation of puzzles (the game always lets you know which of over a hundred puzzles you are working on as you begin working it, “Puzzle 30.” for instance) but also simply through the drive to solution itself and the fact that if you get stumped, you can spend a few hint coins to get some advice on how to proceed in solving a puzzle.  Given the fairly rapid pace of confronting a problem, working on it or getting stalled a bit but having the chance to “buy your way” out of the stall, and finally working it out to completion, the game has a surprisingly rapid pace for a puzzler and leads to a sense of just solving “one more” before shutting the game off.  Like Diablo, it promises a kind of improvement.  In this case, it is the ability to improve the world for all of these characters that you can help by solving their puzzles that becomes so satisfying and addictive.


In this sense, both Diablo and Professor Layton feel like the video game equivalent of the literary “page turner.”  You know: that book that has such clear and rapid progression through chapters that seem to constantly and legitimately advance the plot that you constantly feel like reading “just one more chapter” before retiring for the night.  Such books have such a driving progression that you trust that the next chapter will likely be just as good if not better than the last.  Such trust is the same trust that Diablo is capable of building with the player (sure, the next loot drop might not specifically contain a better sword or better armor than you have, but the game provides enough of those things regularly that you just know that they are out there) and that Layton is capable of building as well.  In Layton’s case, the puzzles are generally good and even if you run into one that is just too easy or one that seems especially frustrating, there are just so many solid and satisfying solutions that the next one, again, is likely to be just as good if not better than the last one.  Trust in progression and improvement is built through the quality of the game’s content.


The other elements that one can trust a Layton game to contain is an appealing mood and tone in the overall experience and narrative.  Charming drawing and animations, humorous interactions with quirky characters, and a rather delightful couple of protagonists are staples of the series.  Unwound Future does not disappoint in any of these areas.  While the story is not going to change your life, it is smart, well voice acted (when scenes with dialogue that is spoken arise), and offers a number of interesting plot twists (the twist ending is especially satisfyingly clever here I think—again, it isn’t mind boggling, but it is definitely an example of smart plotting within the “science fiction” vibe of this particular game in the series that concerns time travel).


The game adds a few new twists on the gameplay, too.  Some rather annoying trial and error puzzles involving a parrot that makes deliveries (the pure trial and error quality of these puzzles are beneath Layton‘s generally more logical approach to puzzles, which might sometimes seem tricky and would seem to involve pure guess work but are actually solvable without guessing if one just takes some time to reason them out) and some “racetracks” that require the player to “program” a toy car to travel through checkpoints and reach a destination using a limited set of instructions, which I found considerably more fun are both additions to the normal puzzle solving business.  What is different about them is that these puzzles exist in a sense outside of the normal flow of play, which normally has Layton and Luke solving puzzles that are attached to certain individuals in the environment (so, an unsolved puzzle usually must be attempted again by returning to a specific place in the world).  Instead, in the case of the parrot and car puzzles, when Layton or Luke receive them these puzzles become “portable” as they is stored in a satchel and can be returned to regardless of what part of the world Layton and Luke are currently in.


None of these additions alter what is already a really well-honed portable game experience.  This newest Layton game is once again extremely accessible through its simple and elegant use of the stylus to navigate the world and interact with puzzles, and it also contains obstacles (the puzzles themselves, which are brief enough to play through while sitting on a bus or waiting for a friend to arrive at a coffee shop) that are extremely satisfying to overcome.  However, the best thing about the play is that you won’t want to play just one.  Layton continues to instill that response in its player of feeling enough satisfaction that one “needs” to just solve “one more.”


Rating:

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