Professor Layton and the Spectre’s Call | Principal Platforms: Nintendo DS | Developer: Level-5 | Publisher: Level-5, Nintendo | Genre: Puzzle | Year: 2009

Notwithstanding its stale and predictable plotting, Professor Layton and the Spectre's Call still delivers reliable entertainment for puzzle fanatics.
Professor Layton and the Spectre's Call Nintendo DS PAL Box Art

Professor Layton and the Spectre’s Call

Professor Layton and the Lost Future was a tough act to follow, so it’s not surprising to see its sequel so quickly establishing a new tradition of always having a dramatic intro movie!

Spectre’s Call indeed starts off with a bang, as we see Professor Layton (several years younger in this prequel role) witnessing a small town get violently devastated in the middle of the night, by what appears to be a giant ghost …

After rendezvousing with his new assistant, Emmeline “Emmy” Altava, and next being introduced to his future apprentice, Luke Triton, Layton begins unravelling the mystery of the “spectre”, with players once again solving various puzzles and story-related conundrums in order to progress the story.

No doubt Level-5 had a harder time freshening things up for Spectre’s Call, what with it being the fourth Professor Layton game and the beginning of a whole new series trilogy at that. But a clear effort has been made regardless. The memo pad has been touched up again; there’s a useful (as well as thematic) fast travel system; and the new puzzle music might be the best we’ve heard yet.

In terms of gameplay, Spectre’s Call remains identical to its predecessors. Story puzzles and mini games are still present and correct, and it’s nice that a believable new character like Emmy is around to help us solve the now familiar collection of brain-teasers. Another element that I quite like in this regard is the “word from the Professor”; that shows what Layton currently thinks about the mysteries at hand. It’s a small touch, but a nice one for giving players more insight on the investigation.

The pacing of the game has improved too. Several filler chapters feel more purposeful than most, with one of them sending players back to London to enjoy a change of scenery alongside some routine detective work. This ties in very nicely with the new “Episodes” feature, where players can unlock short vignettes that elaborate on certain aspects of the plot and its characters. These optional videos are always viewable from the in-game menu, so with fewer mandatory cutscenes to sit through, Spectre’s Call becomes a much leaner adventure than the bulky Lost Future.

Professor Layton and the Spectre's Call Gameplay Screenshot

Spectre’s Call has very few cameos or references to the previous games. It’s great to see the writers starting this prequel with the right mindset.

Unlike Lost Future, however, the story in this fourth game is nowhere near as inspired. The prequel format doesn’t bestow any meaningful insights that we were begging to know about Layton and his friends, and Luke’s gloomy subplot casts him in a perpetually miserable mood — to the point where I wanted Layton to ditch him!

The occasional recycling of voice actors is a little distracting; there are still silly diversions where Layton chases an animal across town; and it’s downright weird how many local inhabitants appear apathetic to the spectre’s rampage. You know, that calamity which is damaging property and endangering innocent lives!

I appreciated that the writers didn’t attempt to outdo the sheer craziness of Lost Future’s final mystery, but then I also found the latter half of Spectre’s Call to be less engrossing, especially since it reveals some radical twists without any real foreshadowing. Kind of similar to Curious Village that.

Completists will still have lots of bonuses to unlock, but it’s a crying shame that PAL owners don’t receive the “London Life” side attraction which introduces a brand new game mode reminiscent of Animal Crossing. The reason for this is apparently due to the huge translation effort that would have been needed to bring London Life to international markets, so it’s worth stressing the NTSC-U release as the definitive acquisition for diehard fans.

Overall Spectre’s Call is a fine fourquel, but one clearly overshadowed by the game that came before it. The hand-drawn artwork and tricky puzzling still casts an enthralling spell, but at this point in the series, it was becoming clear that the Nintendo DS could no longer contain Level 5’s ambition.