(Nintendo DS, 2007)
After I completed every Ace Attorney game available to me (Only omitting Investigations 2 and Grand Turnabout, neither of which got an English version), I became intrigued at the idea of playing Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright to continue my path through the Ace Attorney series. The problem was that I had never played a Professor Layton game and I wanted to have some of the story of Professor Layton understood somewhat before I played the game. There was a problem that Professor Layton is a long series (seven games in total, not counting the aforementioned crossover), but I decided to give it a shot, starting things at the very beginning with Curious Village. I was even a little giddy about starting it, hoping that I’d find another series on the DS that I’d be able to obsess over. Now that I’ve finally completed it, it’s time for my verdict. Was Curious Village a mystery worth delving into, or was this an open and shut case?
First impressions are everything, and Professor Layton had a fairly good start with a well-animated opening cutscene akin to those seen in Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies. Professor Layton’s voice is calming but a little flat, and his protégé Luke seems the energetic type, but his voice is overly high pitched and somewhat annoying. You only hear their voices in the ten or so cutscenes or at the end of the puzzles, however, so they don’t grate too much. Once the cutscene was over I was disappointed to discover that Curious Village is ugly. Like I say, I’m not one to harp on the graphics of a game (especially a handheld game), but the problem here isn’t that the technology isn’t up to snuff, but that the style is simply awful. The characters look like… well, if you haven’t seen the film The Triplets of Belleville, go google image search that movie. Curious Village looks a lot like that movie, except that the characters tend to be fatter in Curious Village. While it’s certainly a stylized look, it never appealed to me and I think it just looks ugly. The backgrounds aren’t much better and tend to be this dull mud color that doesn’t make you want to explore the details of each scene like in the Ace Attorney games. The music is forgettable, and I tended to keep the game muted for most of the time I played as a result.
The controls are good enough, but still lacking in some aspects. This is a game that primarily uses the touch screen, so get that stylus pen ready. One of my biggest complaints is that moving between each screen is kind of clumsy. You have to tap a little foot icon in the bottom right of the screen, and then tap one of the arrows somewhere on the screen to go to the next location. Ace Attorney at least let you use a shoulder button to access the move menu, and then also let you use the face buttons to choose on that menu. Professor Layton is one of those games that are so in love with the touch screen that it ends up hurting the game’s accessibility.
Now for the game’s story… Professor Layton makes itself out to be something of a mystery story akin to a Sherlock Holmes story. It’s so dedicated to this idea that it actually has a menu dedicated to “Mysteries.” This does help you keep track of what the hell is going on, but it reeks of the developers pushing their theme a little too hard. On a whole, “bland” is the word I would use to describe the story. I never felt myself very interested in figuring out what the mysteries were and it didn’t help that they were basically impossible to figure out. The hints they give you are so vague that it seems like the game just wants you to marvel at how neat its plot twists are when they come. They’re not neat, they’re not clever, and they’re honestly really convoluted and stupid. What’s worse is that most of these mysteries don’t even have a good reveal. No joke, in the final act Layton just kind of explains to Luke what all happened. Unlike in Phoenix Wright, you as a player don’t feel like you’ve accomplished anything. You don’t put the pieces together yourself; you have them put together for you because it’s so badly written. What’s worse is that I really expected the puzzles to be well-integrated into the story. A puzzle to figure out which way a suspect went, a puzzle to eliminate suspects as a possibility, ect. In reality, here’s how they justify all these puzzles. The primary export of the village that you’re in (called St. Mystere, because that’s how subtle this game is. Yes I realize that I liked the puns in Ace Attorney, but there they’re at least funny) is puzzles. Yes, friggin’ puzzles. These people just like puzzles so much that they constantly think up new puzzles. That means that something like 95% of the puzzles in the game have nothing to do with the story and are simply justified in ways like “Hey, I won’t tell you what I know until you solve this puzzle” or “I won’t let you into this building until you’ve solved X puzzles.” The puzzles should be a natural part of the game and flow with the story. Here, it’s as jarring of a jump as the average Family Guy skit. It’s a huge missed opportunity, and just disgusts me because of how pleased with itself the game seems. It loves its puzzles and seems to believe that it has a perfectly good justification for them within the series when it reality it’s just a reskinned Brain Age game.
The characters? All forgettable. Layton and Luke barely have a scrap of personality between the two of them, there’s a very token villain who’s so cartoonishly evil that he actually has an evil moustache, and I don’t think there’s anyone else even worth mentioning. The characters really are that bad. It’s downright embarrassing.
Now for the puzzles. Let me start out very unambiguously by saying fuck these puzzles. This game has three types of puzzles: laughably easy puzzles, trick questions, and so frustratingly difficult that you’re in danger of throwing your DS through the nearest wall. I am not joking when I say that these puzzles try so hard and fail so much that it’s honestly rather spectacular. Let me give you an example. I’ll give you the wording of the puzzle exactly so you know how idiotic these puzzles can get:
“From high in the sky, a pair of aliens observes humans using a bizarre object. Perplexed, one alien turns to the other and says: “How strange. The Earthling is opening a hole in a sheet of paper and marking it with a line to show the other Earthlings where the hole is. I’ve never seen anything like it!” What could these extraterrestrial visitors be talking about?
Got that? Got a good answer? No? Of course you didn’t! Don’t worry though, I brought the completely useless clues to help you:
Hint 1: Even something as common as paper can look bizarre to someone who’s never seen it before. What kind of device puts holes in paper? It must have a needle or sharp point on it.
Hint 2: The object uses a needle to punch a hole in a sheet of paper. Then it’s used to draw a solid line around the hole. Since it draws a line, it must have some sort of writing implement attached to it.
Hint 3: It’s safe to say that very few people ever use these once they grow up and join the working world. However, because of math class, a startling number of students probably have one in their bag or their desk at home.
Maybe, MAYBE with that last hint you got it just because they gave you as much as they could without outright saying it. But let me give you the answer: a compass. You know the kind you use in Geometry Class? That stupid fucking thing? That was the answer. I cannot imagine that anyone got that with either getting to hint 3 or looking it up on the internet (almost certainly the latter). That is just one of many convoluted puzzles. On top of that, this game has some sort of fetish for sliding puzzles, which I absolutely hate. They’re slow, boring, and so easy to mess up that you’ll end up repeating them dozens of times before just giving up. On top of that, they just feel lazy and poorly imagined.
These puzzles can be given by villagers or found in the environment (with some of them being hidden so well that you’ll need a walkthrough to find them, such as being hidden on a random brick on a random background). You can also find “hint coins” in the environment. You can spend these hint tokens to unlock up to three hints per puzzle, but the usefulness of these hints varies widely. You’ll have some hints that will almost outright tell you the answer and others that are some variation of “keep trying!” I cannot tell you how much those mocking hints angered me. I’ve already given examples of these above, so you can tell how worthless they can be. The game also has a series of collectables, which include parts for a robot dog that will help to point out hidden coins and puzzles once complete, pieces to a painting which you need to assemble, and various pieces of furniture for Layton’s and Luke’s rooms at the Inn where they’re staying. The object in that minigame is to figure out which pieces goes to which room to make both of them the happiest. Each of those collectables will eventually unlock another series of advanced puzzles for the end of the game. Those puzzles include some really difficult ones, though I can’t tell how difficult because by then I was so sick of the game that I was just looking up the answers. Yes, I was actually avoiding the game’s main feature because it was such a pain in the ass and so utterly unenjoyable. Did the game have some good puzzles? Yes, occasionally I would experience the “Ah-HAH!” moment that makes puzzle games so enjoyable, but it was very rarely, and sandwiched between such long stretches of misery that I just can’t forgive the game.
I’m really struggling on a score here. I’ve always said to myself that I reserve my lowest score for a game that’s not only bad, but for one that really offends me, and I’m kind of almost there for this game. At the same time there was some giddiness at first as I hunted for puzzles and some of the puzzles were legitimately well designed, so I’m feeling somewhat charitable. Still, its few strong moments won’t make up for an ultimately flawed game.
I give Professor Layton and the Curious Village a 2 out of 5.