It's certainly been a long time coming. Since its release in March last year, the 3DS has impressed many with its line-up of games, but to us, it's always felt like there's been something missing - on these shores, at least. To us, what the 3DS really needed was a game that would keep you up at night. Something with a good story. Something puzzley. Something you could show your family and friends. Something with a top hat. That something, it seems, was Professor Layton.
Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask marks the series debut on the 3DS, and a slightly different change of pace for the point and click/puzzle cross, at least in terms of the storyline. More hard hitting than in the previous games, the plot here revolves around a strange town in the desert, where a mysterious, suited and booted villain known as the Masked Gentleman has everyone living in fear. Appearing from time to time in crowded areas, the so-called Gentlemen performs tricks, spectacles, and “miracles” on his captive crowd – causing paintings to come to life and run amok in the streets, turning people into horses, and even setting fire to a group on stage. Called into help find some logic into an increasingly illogical situation is the real gentleman, and renowned puzzle-solver Professor Layton, with his assistant Emmy, and young apprentice Luke.
But taking advantage of the larger, 3D capable screen has brought with it a few headaches in terms of how you actually play the game – not least that it’s now that little bit trickier to look around. Whereas before, the scene was located on the Touch Screen, which meant you could simply poke anything that took your fancy, now, you have to touch a magnifying glass icon on the Touch Screen, which then turns the bottom screen into a sort of mouse pad. Moving your stylus across the Touch Screen will move your magnifying glass icon around on the top screen – and all you have to do is tap the screen to inspect whatever your glass is hovering over as you search for clues, hint coins (we’ll come to them later), puzzles, and people to talk to. It’s a little bit more awkward than before, but it works well enough - which is good, because exploring is one of the main things you'll be doing.
Having been drafted in to solve this bizarre series of events, it’s up to you to scour the town of Monte d’Or, chatting to the various townsfolk, and solving any puzzles you come across. Despite the somewhat serious undertones of its story, though, Professor Layton isn’t a game that takes itself all that seriously. If people you meet have something particularly interesting to tell you, they’ll usually ask you to solve a puzzle first, with an increasingly awkward series of explanations why – from the blatant “I can’t concentrate until I’ve solved this puzzle”, to the weirder “Nothing in life is free. You’ll need to solve this puzzle if I’m going to help you”.
Other puzzles rely more on observation than solving riddles - although neither type is particularly more or less challenging than another. Another early puzzle shows you a queue in a shop, but most if the image is obscured by posters on the shop window. It’s up to you to work out how many people are standing in the queue - but as you may expect, just counting feet won’t help. It’s a case of matching the feet up with the haircuts, the arms with the legs, and basically looking for any body part out of place in order to figure out how many people there actually are. Other puzzles take a slightly more practical approach, and ask you to get that little bit more hands on. One asks you to slide penguins around a grid (with the knowledge that penguins stop when they hit another penguin), with the intention of ending up with the emperor penguin in the middle, while another asks you to complete a slide-puzzle of a fossil – with the twist being that you can only slide the pieces when they’re in a row of three.
While things start out easy enough, the further you progress through the game, the harder the puzzles will get. One particularly tricky one, that had us stumped for a while, asks you to arrange a group of number tiles in a three by three grid, so that the numbers all add up to the same total diagonally, horizontally, and vertically. To make things that much more complex, the tiles can also flip over, with a different number located on the back. It's a puzzle that had us stumped for a while – but luckily, the game has a handy feature you can call on should you ever come up against a puzzling brick wall. As you progress through your adventure, and scour the landscapes, you’ll come across hint coins, which are added to your collection. Should you get stuck on a particularly tricky puzzle, you can exchange these coins for a hint. Each puzzle has up to five available, and each costs a single coin, with the clues initially pointing you in the right direction, before eventually, pretty much solving the puzzle for you, come the fifth hint. Get a puzzle right first time, and you’ll collect a number of picarats, which work kind of like Professor Layton’s currency, although they don’t really serve much of a purpose bar giving you an ongoing score, which in turn lets you unlock artwork, extras, and other bits of trivia once you’ve amassed enough. Get a puzzle wrong, and the only real penalty is that the puzzle will be worth less picarats when you eventually get it right – although there is a floor to how low it can go, so your puzzles will never be worth nothing. Disappointingly, though, there are still a few awkwardly worded questions that end up tripping you up, through no fault of your own, and costing you picarats in the process. We understand that they’re meant to be riddles, and so some vagueness is par for the course, but sometimes things can be a little bit too obscure for their own good...
But back to Monte d’Or, and the riddle of the Masked Gentleman. When you first start to explore the desert town, it doesn't take long before you start uncovering new leads, and what starts as a bizarre series events turns into a mystery that seems to instigate several key players in the town - and even the city may be hiding some secrets. Monte d'Or itself is something of a miracle, having grown from a single building to a bustling metropolis in the space of a few short years. To make things even more confusing, the city was founded by Henry Ledore, the husband of one of Layton’s old friends, Angela Ledore, whose said husband seems to have had a mysterious amount of luck since starting the city. But then things get a little bit darker. As the plot develops, you’ll discover that this is a mystery that has connections to an event from Layton’s past, when he and his friend, Henry's brother Randall, a keen young archaeologist, embarked on an expedition to find a lost relic known as the Miracle Mask. Sadly, the trip ended in tragedy – but the events of the past seem to have been stirred up in the present, and found a way to bring Layton and his friends back together in Monte d’Or...
As the story progresses, you’ll help the police pin together exactly what happened in each of the Masked Gentleman’s miracles, deducing whether they were genuine magical acts, or, as seems more likely, mere tricks performed with a great deal of deception, all while gradually moving towards figuring out who-dunnit – but not without plenty of false leads first. It’s as involving, winding, and engaging a storyline as ever, and one that’ll keep you playing for as long as your 3DS’s battery lasts – and well after.
Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask is a pretty lengthy game, too. While big name first person shooters get away with charging nigh-on £50 for a single player that lasts five hours, Layton and the Miracle Mask lasts a lot longer, for less money. Of course, how long it'll last you will depend in large part on how long you spend deciphering the trickier puzzles, but we did our best to speed through the game, and still clocked in at over twenty hours – which is impressive enough. More impressive still is that the game is set to be supported with a year's worth of free downloadable puzzles With no awkward code to put in, and no limitations, you’ll be able to download 365 puzzles over 365 days, completely free of charge – which is an incentive we wish other developers would pick up on too.
Although the jump to the 3DS threw plenty of obstacles in its way, Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask has come out gleaming. While things may be that little bit more awkward than before, it’s never enough to put a downer on things, and with a gripping story, interesting characters, and countless puzzles that’ll stick in your mind day and night until you figure them out, Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask will be a must buy if you’re picking up a 3DS this Christmas. While it may have had a quiet year so far, Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask puts the 3DS back on the map, and is easiest the 3DS's greatest game so far. We'll have to wait and see if Paper Mario: Sticker Star can topple it later this year.