Like pumpkin pie and military shooters, Professor Layton has become something of a yearly fall tradition for American gamers. Over the past five years, the folks at Nintendo of America have released five entries in Level-5's delightful puzzle series.
These games have mostly blended together in my mind: ask me to tell you why intrepid heroine Emmy stars in the latest one but not the first few, for example, and I'll happily admit that I have no clue. But if Professor Layton games continue to be this much of a pleasure to play, if they keep giving us the sort of clever puzzles and sharp writing that the latest entry has to offer, to Level-5 I say this yearly tradition is A-OK.
The newest Professor Layton game is called Miracle Mask, and it's the first Professor Layton game for the Nintendo 3DS. (Previous games were all on its predecessor, the DS). In some ways Miracle Mask is the same as all of the games that came before it. In many ways it's very different.
The biggest and most apparent change involves the way you interact with Layton's mystery-packed world. While in previous games you used the DS's bottom screen to prod behind jars and open drawers, scouring the environment for puzzles and clues by touching each area you wanted to investigate, Miracle Mask switches this up entirely. You'll now drag your stylus along the system's bottom screen to move a cursor around the top, then tap when your cursor lands on something you want to look at. Environments on the top screen are no longer flat and static; as you navigate, you can see different angles of each room or street and you can even magnify suspicious areas to get a new perspective.
At first I found this irritating. Why change a system that worked perfectly before? Why do I have to slide my stylus around the screen instead of just tapping what I want to look at? Why is this making me so dizzy?
By the second chapter I had gotten over this. I don't know that this new interface is more intuitive or helpful than the old one, but it works. The camera can be a little sensitive, and the controls are kind of finicky, especially as you're starting to get adjusted to them, but the whole thing isn't too hard to get the hang of.
The second-biggest change is that everybody is now rendered in glorious 3D. The eponymous Professor Layton, his sidekick Luke, and everybody else in the world is presented in smooth, blocky, three-dimensional fashion when they're not participating in anime cut-scenes. It's a first for the series, and certainly not a bad one.
"The world is full of puzzles!" one exuberant character shouts near the beginning of Miracle Mask. In Layton, as you might already know, this is both figurative and literal. Puzzles are both challenge and currency, sometimes offered up as a reward to the Professor for helping a boy find his mother, other times hurled at you by a pair of crooks who want nothing more than to bleed Layton's wallet dry. Puzzles are the lifeblood of this world.
And the puzzles in Miracle Mask are some of the best I can remember in any Layton game. Some play around with the 3DS's three-dimensional screen, like one brain-teaser in which you have to count a number of people waiting in line for some store opening, but they are all obfuscated by a sign. You can turn on the 3D so that the sign pops to the foreground and the people behind it are easier to distinguish. It's one of the best uses of 3D—usually a vestigial feature—I've seen to date.
Many puzzles require you to interact with the system in unorthodox ways, but there are fewer trick answers than in previous Laytons. Some of the old standbys are still around—you might get very sick of dividing chess boards into sections, for example—but overall I was rather surprised by just how many new twists and types of puzzles there are in Miracle Mask. Pleasantly surprised.
And speaking of surprise, there's one chapter that changes everything up with an Indiana Jones-style adventure that... well, you know what—I won't spoil it for you. It's very cool.
So as you roam around the city of Monte d'Or, the glitzy desert oasis that takes center-stage for most of Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask, your goals are twofold: 1. To solve as many puzzles as humanly possible; 2. To figure out the mystery behind the Masked Gentleman.
The Masked Gentleman, you see, is a dapper, enigmatic, shrouded gentleman (or maybe lady?) who spends his spare time terrorizing the people of Monte d'Or with what he calls "dark miracles." Sometimes he'll turn a bunch of people into stone. Or fly above the city, making people levitate and disappear. Dark miracles! (If you are at all familiar with Layton, you are perhaps starting to suspect that these may not actually be acts of magic or miracle. Good instincts.)
Unraveling this mystery involves revisiting one particularly harrowing moment in Professor Layton's past, and a good chunk of Miracle Mask takes place 18 years before the game. For three chapters you get to play Hershel Layton the college student, as he smokes pot, binge drinks, and chases tail. Well, okay, that might not be true. He just solves puzzles. But it's fascinating to see the shaggy-haired, less confident version of the Professor, and the flashback chapters are just as good if not better than the normal ones.
If you've ever played a Professor Layton game, you pretty much know what you're getting with Miracle Mask: a tear-jerking story accessorized with beautiful music, clever dialogue, and oodles of puzzles both simple and baffling. Even when Miracle Mask shakes up the formula, it's still got that Layton feel.
This is not a bad thing. As far as video game comfort food goes, I'll take charming puzzlers over first-person shooters any day. Even after hours and hours of what seems to be an endless deluge of Layton games, I still get a rush from seeing that red exclamation point that means I'm about to discover a new puzzle. I'm still hooked on the "Holy shit, I'm smart!" moments that you can only really get by working out the answer to a tricky brain-teaser.
Nintendo also promises that Miracle Mask will get free downloadable puzzles every day for the next year. The next year! Everyone loves to throw around that infamous Reggie Fils-Aime quote-turned meme, "My body is ready." Between yearly Layton games and daily puzzle downloads, I think Reggie should give us a new version. My mind is ready.