Professor Layton and the Curious Village | Principal Platforms: Nintendo DS | Developer: Level-5 | Publisher: Level-5, Nintendo | Genre: Puzzle | Year: 2007
A smash hit from the very beginning, the Professor Layton blend of brain-teasers and absurd mysteries attracted a new kind of audience that was emerging in the mid two-thousands. The first in its series, Professor Layton and the Curious Village became so influential it would quickly spawn a franchise capable of enthralling the mainstream market.
It all begins when renowned archaeologist Professor Hershel Layton, along with his young apprentice Luke Triton, arrive in the village of St. Mystere (ho-ho) to solve the enigma behind something called the Golden Apple. A grand fortune supposedly awaits anyone who can do so, though it seems all previous attempts have failed, with Layton’s efforts being undermined by strange occurrences.
This is a more gameplay-driven affair than Ace Attorney; the focus being on abstract puzzles rather than witty dialogue. Both titles maintain their quirky Japanese roots though, with Layton’s characters being wonderfully realised in several fully voiced FMV cutscenes.
Layton himself is supremely likeable as the passive sleuth living by an unshakable gentlemen’s code, but the overall story and supporting cast won’t be strong enough to recapture those who don’t enjoy the game’s rather sedate pace.
This is because the central mystery underpinning Layton’s journey is a bit lacklustre. It’s nice that the creators dreamt big when crafting their colourful and altogether ludicrous yarn. A shame then that Layton must wander around so much before the story really takes off, and whilst it’s a pleasure to step into the shoes of the polite Englishman, other characters are not quite so attractive.
Curious Village isn’t entirely devoid of fun moments — one high point involves Layton and Luke being attacked by a rampaging ferris wheel! — though there is a serious problem where certain character motivations are treated as being sincere when in actuality they’re nothing short of despicable. This, as well as the fact that Layton solves all the big mysteries without any input from the player, creates a disconnect that’s unassisted by related twists that feel like they come out of nowhere.
The main attraction in Curious Village though is its vast collection of puzzles that players must solve in order to advance the plot. This abstraction feels arbitrary in truth, but the intelligent collection of conundrums and mini games is sure to entertain those who would enjoy the quiz page in the back of a Sunday newspaper.
The number of puzzles is impressive, but their variety is less so. Some are rather dry; often involving complex mathematics or careful sorting of true/false statements. The maths problems can be taxing too, so it’s fortunate to have a hint system that can unlock vital clues.
The Nintendo DS touch screen makes interacting with most puzzles easy and intuitive, though the lack of scribble space is a glaring problem. One puzzle asks you to identify an unpacked cube from a set of 2D graphics; something that’s really hard to do without a notepad handy to help visualise its construction.
This is especially annoying because otherwise Curious Village is very well suited to the handheld format. It’s a dreadfully easy game to pull out and play in short bursts, with any missed puzzles being helpfully retrieved following a story chapter.
Less welcome in this sense is the presence of several challenges that were pointlessly locked behind a Wi-Fi gate. Now that the servers for this feature are down, it feels aggravating to know that content on the cartridge can’t be accessed because of some petty marketing gimmick.
Nevertheless, the majority of Professor Layton and the Curious Village is charmingly presented. It’s a casual experience with a surprisingly decent length, and it marks a promising start to a franchise that would ultimately become much better.