Professor Layton and the Last Specter
US: 17 Oct 2011
Professor Layton has become an icon, a physical embodiment of curiosity and the pursuit of calm rationality in the midst of the unexplained. Off on another adventure in Professor Layton and the Last Specter, the latest release from Level-5, the top-hatted professor investigates the appearance of a massive and ghostly creature that has been destroying the misty and aptly named village of Misthallery. Players familiar with the franchise can expect no significant departure from the tried and true puzzle-solving and storytelling formula. Mysteries big and small abound in Professor Layton, shuttling players through a compelling story, all in service to the puzzle-solving genre. Although the weakest entry into the franchise, The Last Specter still transports players to a charming, self-consistent, and beautiful world that exists as an ode to riddles.
Those with no affinity for Level-5’s well established aesthetic of strangely shaped citizens and rustic villages will find nothing new to inflate their shriveled hearts. Total strangers will confront the professor and his group with puzzles at every opportunity, slowing down the narrative pace of the game to see if players, for example, can move three mice, two cats, and a dog across a river safely. Even the large story-driven mysteries are imbued with a quirky sense of frivolity. Riddles also appear in the environment, rewarding the curious players who leave no stone, lantern, or window sill untouched. Superb voice acting and animation lay the foundation for a top-tier puzzle experience, surrounding the game’s riddles with a charming story imbued with care.
I admit that to some extent The Last Specter’s narrative is a vehicle for its puzzles. Seldom are riddles tied to the plot in any way. The few occasions that do connect puzzle solving with narrative action make for some surprisingly exciting storytelling. Heading into the game’s conclusion, the Professor even faces off against a multi-part enemy—a sort of puzzling boss-fight. Each puzzle that stands on its own fits within the same general category of puzzles that the series relies on, from the slide-block puzzle to riddles that require an eye for imagining shapes based on two-dimensional images. Any puzzle can be skipped save for those required to progress the story, and an ample supply of hint tokens can help players find the solutions to difficult puzzles without entirely ruining the ecstatic sensation of suddenly knowing the answer after minutes of hard thought.
Narratively, The Last Specter fails to entrance players as thoroughly as The Curious Village or any of its sequels. Set prior to Luke’s official apprenticeship with Professor Layton, the game offers up a compelling prequel, particularly for fans of the series, but never raises the stakes to the heights of its predecessors. Without a doubt, Level-5 excels at melding the jovial charm of the series with actual nail-biting curiosity and even suspense. Each Layton game prior to The Last Specter manages to shift suddenly and fluidly from a ludicrous and silly puzzle-solving adventure to an emotionally resonant story about loss, regret, and friendship. Rarely does The Last Specter approach serious subject matter with as much tenderness as Level-5 has shown in the past. Too often the game’s frivolity undermines its compelling moments.
That being said, Layton maintains its charm throughout the one hundred plus puzzle affair. Luke and Layton’s relationship remains adorable as ever, and Emmy Altava, Layton’s newest assistant, has just the right amount of spunk and tenacity to round-out the duo perfectly. Don Paul, the series’s traditional villain, makes no appearance in The Last Specter, creating a more earnest air of mystery than when the mustachioed villain is around. The town and its villagers are genuinely interesting, and provide more thematic puzzles this time around, keeping the game consistent within its aesthetic design.
Professor Layton has always essentially been a digital puzzle book. However, Level-5 consistently imbues the world and these characters in particular with a charisma all their own. Luke’s curiosity is contagious and Layton’s gentlemanly demeanor comfortably nostalgic. As an icon, or even hero, Layton is like no other. He prefers rationality over animosity and favors measured and gradual thought over rash action and assumptions. Professor Layton is the Bill Nye of video games. With a 3DS and iOS game on the horizon, Layton has many more adventure to share. The Last Specter continues the series’s ode to curiosity, maintaining a palpable sense of affection for puzzles and riddles in general. While not the sharpest entry in the franchise, The Last Specter remains a breath of fresh air in a market saturated with high-octane violence and hastily prepared sequels.
At one point in the game, Emmy tells Professor Layton “You see puzzles where others only see household objects.” The Last Specter, like its predecessors, beautifully shapes its aesthetic to put players into the same puzzling mindset. The game world, like our own, is full of mystery. Closely examining household objects—or even game reviews—may reveal something unusual, perhaps a puzzle, a learning opportunity, or a reminder that wonder is all around us.