I'm gonna be like you, Professor!
Ever the English gentleman, Professor Layton may be humbly taken aback by the word “Laytonesque” in the opening cut-scene, but that perfectly describes his latest adventure, Professor Layton and The Last Specter. Everything that fans want and expect from a Professor Layton title is here for all its worth in picarats—brainteasers steeped in verbal and mathematical trickery, a rustic town wrapped in a veil of secrecy, a mystery wrought with danger and disguise, static screens that entice players to tap every object for hint coins and hidden puzzles, and of course a lot of furious memo scribbling.
As advertised, The Last Specter explores the fateful meeting that paired the Professor with his still uncomfortably young boy apprentice Luke. Like his (soon-to-be) future excursions, this prequel begins with the Professor receiving an urgent letter to help a friend in need who claims that a gargantuan legendary specter is ransacking his hometown of Misthallery. Layton speeds toward the foggy hilltop town in his Laytonmobile—just how many Laytonesque portmanteaus can they make?—but not before being abruptly introduced to his new assistant, Emmy Altava, a camera-ready go-getter with a knack for puzzles and roundhouse kicks.
I won't spoil any more than that, though as it is with previous Layton titles, the puzzles usually have nothing to do with the mystery at hand; the story is the reward for solving puzzles, not the other way around. This time the game will occasionally throw multiple-choice questions to make sure the players are keeping up with the story, but they might as well be gimmes. Certainly, part of the fantastical charm of the Professor Layton brand is this suspension of disbelief that unriddling cryptograms and equations saves the world. Still, I hope that this disconnect will be rectified in the upcoming Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright crossover, perhaps with investigative logic-based questions.
How challenging the core 155 puzzles are largely depends on the player, though their difficulty has been raised compared to the other Layton titles, at least in how many picarats they're worth. Early on, there's a puzzle based on the geometric properties of equilateral triangles that may surprise a few people. Veterans of the series, though, will find most of them to be simple variations on familiar Layton concepts—turning the DS upside down, thinking in military time, converting food and people into algebraic variables, fiddling with L-shapes in a sliding block puzzle (they're the bane of my existence). So it may not be until the puzzles in the final showdown as well as Layton's Challenges, unlocked by completing the fish, train, and puppet theater mini-games, that experts will scratch their head with any seriousness.
The Layton formula has been improved somewhat by making certain functions more easily accessible. Players now have the ability to teleport to multiple waypoints in Misthallery once they're reached, and any puzzles that haven't been completed by certain checkpoints can be done not just at Granny Riddleton's shack but also whenever you see her pet. An added new mini-game called Mouse Alley is also entertaining, testing the player's hand-eye coordination with the stylus. I played it for two hours non-stop.
Layton's London Life, an Animal Crossing-style RPG based on the series, is included with the game and offers more than 100 hours of merriment, but it's only for players who don't expect any puzzle-solving involved and enjoy fetch quests to the point of dullness. The point is to earn Happiness and Wealth by completing quests and doing jobs, but both are easily obtained just by being good at being a juggler or a ticket agent (it's not hard) and then, contrary to the saying, spending Wealth to buy Happiness. Making a nice house and playing a few mini-games can be enjoyable, but after several hours, it just becomes a chore.
Professor Layton and The Last Specter doesn't mess with what has made the series popular. The charm, colorful art, orchestral soundtrack, and of course the puzzles remain intact. The discovery of the specter's true form might induce some eye-rolling and The Last Specter isn't going to change anyone's mind about the Layton series, but it's still one of the best titles on, well, you can figure it out.
Review is based on the DS version and played on a DS Lite. Nintendo supplied the review copy.