Review: Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask
By Paul Hunter
The first Professor Layton game on Nintendo 3DS is a daring one which sees our habitual, puzzle-solving gentleman make his bold move into the third-dimension – bringing with him a familiar cast of characters and all-new puzzles that take advantage of this added dimension.
Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask has finally swept up on North American shores, after debuting in Japan more than a year and a half ago. The game was originally in development for Nintendo DS, but after Akihiro Hino, the CEO of Level-5, saw the capabilities of the Nintendo 3DS, he decided to rebuild the game for this new platform. It was an ambitious move, and the results are superb: Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask is the best game yet in this top-quality franchise.
Whenever a new Professor Layton game arrives on my desk I’m reminded of just how fantastic this long-standing series is. With all the glitz and glamour of AAA console releases it can be easy to forget how relaxing and enjoyable a Professor Layton game can be, but once you have one in-hand they’re too irresistible to put down. Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask is no exception.
The Professor Layton series has traditionally been among the most formulaic in the games industry, which makes the innovations in Miracle Mask seem all the more important. Sure the basic premise will feel instantly familiar: Professor Layton is summoned to a mysterious city to investigate the suspicious activities of a surly villain and must solve puzzles to unearth clues which lead to an inevitable revelation. From the get-go however, it’s clear that Level-5 re-envisioned what a Professor Layton game can be, as the game introduces many new elements such a full 3D polygonal characters, dazzling 3D environments to explore, the ability to search behind and around objects, and a redesigned interface. For a series has otherwise kept the status quo, Miracle Mask introduces many welcome improvements.
Joining Professor Layton on his latest “whodunit” adventure is his apprentice Luke and assistant Emma who all wind up in the city of Monte d’Or, a bedazzling European-inspired place filled with luxurious casinos and hotels, and surrounded by dessert, resembling a Los Vegas of sorts. Curiously, the bustling city is celebrating its 18th birthday and few of the cityfolks are able to explain how a fully developed tourist destination could have been built in such a short period of time – giving rise to the nickname of the “City of Miracles”. Upon arriving in Monte d’Or, the trio attend a celebratory parade which is soon interrupted by a rather dapper, masked individual who seemingly turns numerous tourists into stone. Referring to himself as the “Masked Gentleman”, the terrorizing villain miraculously sprouts wings and flies away, eventually escaping by vanishing in mid air. Unable to resist a good mystery, Professor Layton and pals quickly get on the case.
The story, as expected, is charming, witty and entertaining. Most dialogue sequences follow the usual character on the left-side, character on the right-side conversations seen in past Professor Layton games, however this time around gorgeous 3D cutscenes occur regularly with full voice acting (including the unmistakably demure Layton and boyish sounding Luke), and the more rare anime scenes incorporate a pseudo-3D effect which just looks great. Some of the character polygons are a bit jagged (especially their hair), so a few characters have a boxy look -- but otherwise the graphics are crisp and clean.
With the world map presented in full 3D on the upper screen of the Nintendo 3DS, the lower touch screen is used to navigate a magnify glass on the upper screen, via stylus controls. Investigating is done by dragging the magnify glass around the environment to locate points of interests, which are identified by the magnify glass turning orange. What’s interesting is that for the first time, you can shift the camera left/right and up/down as you explore, giving most environments a nice panoramic feel. Furthermore, there are points of interest where your magnify glass turns blue, which enable you to zoom-in for a closer inspection – a neat addition. It takes a bit of time to get used to this new way to navigate, but since it eliminates the need to repeatedly tap the on touch screen, exploring the city is quite enjoyable.
As usual, nearly every citizen of Monte d’Or favours solving puzzles as a means to interact, whether you’re trying to extract information, advance to new location, or simply as a way to build rapport. Puzzles are divided between those that are mandatory for the story to progress, and those which are optional, typically found by speaking with the cityfolks or tapping on an area of interest. If you’ve played past Professor Layton games, the puzzles, for the most part, will be quite familiar. There are 150 puzzles in the main quest, which vary from logic (e.g. “which one is telling the truth, A, B, C or D”?), simple arithmetic, sliding puzzles, checkerboard type, spot-the-difference and the type I dread the most: visualization (I’m a math guy, what can I say?) Each puzzle is worth a certain amount of “Picarats”, the in-game puzzle currency, and reflect the difficulty of the puzzle at-hand. While the majority of the puzzle types are not new, each one is presented, to some degree, in 3D, which is a nice added touch. There are some puzzles that seem specifically made for 3D, such as an interesting one where you have to reunite lost ladybugs that happen to be stuck on either side of a corncob maze. To help you solve puzzles, the abilities to write notes on an overlay of the puzzle or cash in Hint Coins once again return in Miracle Mask.
There are also your standard goodies to be found, such as hidden collectibles, and an array of mini-games found in Layton’s briefcase. The mini-games, of which there are three, include “Robot” where you have to guide a robot on a checkerboard around obstacles to an exit location, “Shop” where you have to strategically position shop items in such a way that a shopper will be motivated to purchase every item, and “Rabbit”, a Nintendogs-type game which has you train a rabbit to perform various actions such as "wiggle", "dig", "sulk", and "roll", and use these skills to act out a play for his trainer.
To add replayability to Miracle Mask beyond the main story, there are 365 free downloadable puzzles that will be available one per day since, for a full year. At time of writing, there 30 additional puzzles that are available, which vary from the types found in the main game, so they're a great added value to the overall package.
Like a hot cup of warm soup, the familiar, comforting Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask was a joy to indulge. The new 3D polygon characters are so well crafted, they appear hand-drawn. Add in the rich and colourful environments found in Monte d’Or and you have a beautiful, artsy game to look at. The puzzles rarely venture outside what we’ve seen before, but they are spaced out nicely and there are a few duplicate types. If you have some down time and are looking for a relaxing treat, Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask is your cup of tea.
Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask is out now for Nintendo 3DS and Nintendo 3DS XL. The game was developed by Level-5 and published by Nintendo.
Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask is rated E10+ by the ESRB.
[This article originally appeared on the Future Shop Tech Blog]