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Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box

(Nintendo; US: 24 Aug 2009)

Professor Layton is a brilliant excuse to solve puzzles and brain teasers for those who would normally turn their noses up at such a pastime. On the surface, it’s a fairly typical adventure game, where new characters, areas, and plot are discovered through the solving of almost completely arbitrary puzzles. It doesn’t really matter why they’re there, but they’re fun to solve, so why ask?


The first Professor Layton was fresh and fun in so many ways. Not only were its puzzles fun and tricky, but the meta-game, the bizarre Agatha Christie-like search for a suspected kidnapper and for a mythical treasure, were outlandishly persuading. It helped that the game was incredibly well-made: the animation and art were beautiful, the voice-work was as appropriately outrageous and faux-European as the story, and the puzzles were (for the most part) worth the price of the game.


Its sequel, the direly named Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, delivers what you’d expect from such a sequel: more puzzles, more over-the-top gentlemanly puzzle solving from the indefatigable Professor Layton, and more “sinister” plots.


As before, the game’s art and music are incredibly produced. The music may get a bit boring and annoying after you’ve heard the same ditty (set to a particularly difficult puzzle) a hundred times, but it’s still quirky and catchy in the right ways.


The animation is just as beautiful as it was the first time around. In fact, the game is, aside from its plot and puzzles being exactly the same as it used to be, more or less the same. There are some minor gameplay changes and some new minigames, but nothing (that was perfectly made before) has been broken or changed.


Thus, Layton and his faithful, high-pitched companion, Luke, set forth into the vaguely European countryside bound for adventure and perhaps a small dash of peril. The plot is mostly the same kind of terribly complicated, confused fluff that the first game produced: Layton has received word by way of post that an old colleague plans on exploring the myth of the “Diabolical Box.” This mysterious case is rumored to bring misfortune and death upon those who probe too deeply into its true nature. Layton and Luke, ever curious, decide to visit the Professor to learn of his findings.


Unsurprisingly, when they arrive, the Professor is quite mysteriously dead. The hangdog Inspector Chelmey suspects natural causes are at the root of the old man’s death, but Layton and Luke quickly deduce that something darker occurred. In due time, they follow a trail of clues to the Molentary Express, the game’s stand-in for the Orient Express.


There they solve puzzles, rescue children and dogs, and generally act like helpful, puzzle-solving Good Samaritans. The game begins to pick up narrative speed when the duo are waylaid in a small town, whose elders and inhabitants may be connected to the titular “Box” in more ways than one.


The plot gets murkier and sillier from there. Suffice it to sa that nothing is as it seems, and random people in every scene will force Layton and Luke to solve random puzzles. Thankfully, the designers have realized that every person shouldn’t necessarily dole out puzzles. As a result, you’ll now have the strange pleasure of unlocking puzzles by looking at innocuous objects. For instance after examining a plant or tree, Layton or Luke will turn to one another and talk about how they “just remembered” a puzzle which has nothing to do with trees or plants.


It’s all strangely enticing and endearing, and there are enough barely new bits of gameplay to keep the game from feeling like an exact copy of the original. Instead of decorating Layton and Luke’s hotel rooms, you now have to rebuild a broken camera, help an overweight hamster get in shape (and no, I am not making that up), and, most hilariously of all, brew tea for your thirsty puzzle solvers.


As far as puzzle solving goes, it’s not as if there are any amazing new advances in puzzle solving technology for you to marvel at. This time around players can draw (and thankfully save) notes and diagrams over any puzzle screen. This is incredibly useful (and was only sporadically available in the original game) as it allows players to keep track of variables, names, patterns and much more. It may seem like cheating to some, but to the rest of us, it just makes the already fun task of solving riddles a bit less of a hassle.


It’s hard to know how to recommend Diabolical Box. It’s a great game, and it’s different from most other puzzle games on the DS or any other system. It’s also the spitting image of its predecessor, and it feels just a little tired. In fact, this review reads exactly as a review for the previous game might have. For newcomers to the franchise, this is the slightly more player friendly iteration (although not all of the puzzles are up to the first game’s standards).


Regardless of the ground that it retreads, this is a game that will enchant gamers and non-gamers alike. It’s universally appealing, and it allows for as much or as little involvement as a player might wish. If only more puzzle games decided to immerse their brain teasers in cute, amusing back stories and characters, I might actually play puzzle games that didn’t say Professor Layton on them.

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