Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask | Principal Platforms: Nintendo 3DS | Developer: Level-5 | Publisher: Level-5, Nintendo | Genre: Puzzle | Year: 2011
The year was 2011. The Nintendo 3DS was releasing in Japan and I doubt anybody at that time could have foreseen a more fitting launch title for it than the fifth Professor Layton game. Aside from being one of the Nintendo DS’s most popular and influential titles, the fourth entry had begun a new trilogy and it only made sense for that tale to continue on a system better equipped to realise the franchise’s growing cinematic ambitions.
Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask makes good on that promise. The fullscreen FMV cutscenes look very nice on Nintendo 3DS, which alongside the new 3D character models and animated puzzles, lend a whole new atmosphere to the Prof’s continued adventures.
The UI has also received some welcome tweaks. Investigation works slightly differently, but the bonus in error free travel and clue hunting is very welcome, as is the slight improvement to the tips screen which allows players more space when solving puzzles.
The new animated challenges are used sparingly though, and it has to be said that the stereoscopic 3D settings don’t work so well when coupled with puzzles that ask players to manipulate the screen for a solution.
Still, there are more of those “live” puzzles that treat players to Layton’s thought process as he works out the motives and machinations behind each mystery. These beats match the structure of previous games in almost every sense. There are still a few puzzles that feel unfair or poorly explained; there are still those that are easy to brute force and a few others that are annoyingly obtuse. However, until the very late stages of the game at least, the difficulty actually feels quite soft, which gives the impression that the developers wanted an easier and more accessible experience for their first outing on the new hardware.
A major new wrinkle arrives in the form of flashback segments which lead to an expansive 3D dungeon crawl featuring a young Layton in full archaeologist mode. These topdown segments are somewhat reminiscent of Pokémon or even Mole Mania, with Layton traversing an underground ruin in search of his first big discovery. These sections may not be to every player’s taste, but they do represent a decent change of pace from your standard logic puzzle and the plot connections keep the prospect a relevant one at the very least.
The story of Miracle Mask begins when Layton and his posse arrive in the carnival city of Monte d’Or just in time to witness the debut of the “Masked Gentleman”. This new villain quickly causes widespread panic when he “magically” turns several carnival goers into stone and departs in a similarly impossible act of flight.
This hectic FMV introduction feels a bit premature considering the slower character development to come in the second chapter, but it does start things off in a much more dramatic way than older games like Curious Village did.
Mystique builds quite nicely from this story hook in the early going. The tale doesn’t become burdened with too many characters and we get some nice glimpses of Layton during his youth. The gameplay factors in well with the aforementioned 3D segments, with things feeling well paced thanks to the reduction in travel fatigue.
This pacing starts to falter towards the end when the focus switches quite heavily in the direction of the Masked Gentleman, with Professor Layton actually feeling a bit sidelined at one point. It all leads to an obvious and unsatisfying plot twist with little else to back it up. Thus the final act carries on in a very rote manner, eventually relapsing into even more stale twists and an ending that only continues to disappoint.
That sense of the epic that Lost Future achieved in its third act feels so far away as players complete a single underwhelming puzzle before handing over to the epilogue. A post credits teaser does manage to claw back a little intrigue because it marks the first solid connection between two Layton games, perhaps ever. Nevertheless, it is a revelation that comes very late and won’t be able to rescue the limp finale that players previously had to sit through.
Miracle Mask is still a solid debut for the Nintendo 3DS, albeit one saved by Professor Layton’s predictably strong gameplay, as the prequel saga’s storytelling calibre continues to fall short of the original trilogy.