Pottering Around With Professor Layton

True to form, I’ve arrived at this particular gaming party long after the other guests have left. Five years after it was first released, and four (count ’em!) sequels down the line, I’ve finally, FINALLY, got round to playing a Professor Layton game. And it was … well … all right.

If, like me until very recently, you’ve never played a Professor Layton game, they’re basically a series of puzzles like you’d find in the back end of a Sunday newspaper, but somehow the designers have contrived to fit them into a quaint adventure story featuring a plummy English professor and his … err … young chum Luke. Actually, I was a bit confused about the relationship between those two, it all seemed a bit odd to me. I’m guessing Luke is his grandson or something, right? Right?

Anyway, in Professor Layton and The Curious Village, the professor and his (… er ward? Let’s go with ward…) ward rock up to the decidedly curious village of St Mystere, which is shrouded in … you guessed it … mystery. Bizarrely, every person they meet is all too eager to thrust one of the aforementioned Sunday newspaper puzzles into their hands to solve, which seems decidedly at odds with the main thrust of the plot, which begins as a treasure hunt and quickly becomes a murder investigation. Yet still those villagers keep demanding to know “which is the odd card out?” and “which matchstick should I move to make the dog lie down?”. It’s all a bit bizarre really, like they decided to make a puzzle game and then tacked on an adventure story that just plays out in the background (you have no real impact on what happens, besides solving the requisite number of puzzles).

“Luke, cover your eyes.”

Despite the odd juxtaposition though, it sort of works purely because the characters and artwork are so charming. The art style is gorgeous – sort of Belgian comic book meets animé – and there’s a real imagination to the character designs as well. Special mention has to go to the voicework for Professor Layton too, which I thought was excellent, although Luke’s voice began to grate after a short while. In fact, Luke’s unspecified presence was an annoyance throughout – I’m surprised the Professor bothered to bring him along for all the good he does throughout the adventure. His main contribution seemed to be an unsuccessful attempt to speak to a cat.

And while we’re on the subject of annoyances, the main ‘mystery’ of the village became painfully obvious less than halfway through the game, which rather spoiled it somewhat – like working out who the killer is halfway through an episode of Miss Marple, which gives the rest of your time spent watching it a certain weight of inevitability. I suppose they made it so obvious because the game is aimed at children, which seems apparent from the Saturday-morning-cartoonness of it all, but on the other hand the central puzzle element seems to appeal more to adults. It’s an odd mix: too kiddy for adults and too adult for kids.

Ah, the wolf/chick/river/raft puzzle – a classic. Trust me though, after you’ve done a hundred or so of these, they start to get a bit dull.

I quite enjoyed playing through The Curious Village, but I’ll admit that by the end I’d more than had my fill of brain teasers – I don’t think I’ll be returning for one of the many sequels. The characters and artwork are top notch, but all those maths and playing card puzzles… it brought back memories of being stuck in a caravan on a rainy family holiday to Swanage with no entertainment save for a copy of Take A Break’s Puzzle Selection and a pack of crayons. Thank god they invented video games.

[As puzzled over by Lucius Merriweather. See The Mantelpiece for more of Lucius’s backlog of games.]