Specter of disappointment loomed large
As the scheduled October release date approaches for the fifth game in the much-heralded "Professor Layton" series, subtitled "Miracle Mask," let us have a little retrospective on the previous game, "Professor Layton and the Last Specter" for the Nintendo DS.
I think every time a new game in the "Layton" series comes out, I also hit a new low in terms of desperation and sanity loss.
For "Last Specter," I actually started an intermittent countdown to its release date on my Twitter feed. The only reason it was intermittent was because the surrounding days also happened to be chock full of personal stuff that prevented my fangirl mind from drooling over the impending "Layton" release every second.
Two nights before the scheduled release, my mind slowly started whirring. Very slowly, because the aforementioned personal stuff was still in full swing and still taking up the majority of my brain power. But apparently my hysteria takes an amazingly short time to spool up to sky-high levels, as evidenced by the fact that I was already trolling the website of the particular store that I bowled into last year to get the previous "Layton" game, hoping to find that store's new Sunday ad to check if they'd have the game on the day of release. Keep in mind that I was frantically trying to get this information on Saturday night. I figured that hey, it was already midnight on the East Coast by this time, surely the latest flyer would be posted!
I found the ad and rapidly flipped through the digital pages. Much to my disappointment, the game was not listed. I then decided to check certain other likely stores' websites, hoping for a glimmer of hope in once again getting the game two hours earlier, as with what happened with "Unwound Future." Still nothing. My despair was growing.
Being that "Last Specter" was released nearly a year ago, I can no longer remember the exact sequence of events that led up to me eventually getting the game in my hands on the afternoon of the release date -- which, as tag-team-partner-in-fandom Jason Y. tells me, was a moving target, with the date having been changed several times. I do not remember any of that, so I can no longer write about it. Which is probably just as well, considering the already pathetic state of my mind as evidenced by previous paragraphs. I do remember that Jason managed to snag me a copy on the morning of release at a certain big-box store that we never thought about checking originally, which hopefully means that I have more options this year for getting "Miracle Mask" early in the morning. I cannot remember how my feverish fangirl self managed to survive that ENTIRE MORNING knowing that "Last Specter" was available on the mainland but might very well not exist here on our little island in the Pacific. I can only barely remember reading the instruction book and then popping the game in my Nintendo DS.
So anyway. "Last Specter" is the first of a prequel trilogy to the "Professor Layton" games in which we see how the good professor and his young apprentice Luke first met. The game opens with Layton at his office at Gressenheller University, where he receives a certain letter that causes him to drop everything and rush out -- although not, of course, without first having a spot of tea freshly brewed by his housekeeper, Rosa.
As Layton drives away, he runs into -- or more appropriately, is chased down by -- a young woman named Emmy Altava, who was hired by the dean to be the professor's new assistant. He has Emmy read the letter, which is from his old friend Clark Triton, the mayor of the town of Misthallery. The town is being destroyed by a mysterious giant, and Clark asks his friend to investigate. But there's also a hidden message in the letter that makes Layton think there's much more going on. Emmy accompanies him to Misthallery and they meet with Clark.
The mayor is glad to see Layton, but he denies sending the letter that brought the professor into town. Eventually they discover that Clark's son, Luke, was the one who sent the message. The boy has become somewhat of a recluse since the specter arrived; he desperately needs to talk someone to about the incidents, which is why he enlisted Layton's help. Turns out that Luke is able to predict the specter's attacks, and according to his calculations, one is scheduled that night. Layton, Emmy and Luke hurry off to the North Ely part of town to uncover what they can about this destructive giant.
"Last Specter" has all the familiar aspects. Anyone who's played previous games will immediately fall into the well-worn routine of tapping madly around each scene to find hint coins. It was worse for me in this game after I discovered that the availability of hint coins within each screen is triggered by certain events -- not all the hint coins will be there the first time you visit, so it will take several visits to grab all the coins in one scene. This causes some funny breaks in the storyline:
- "Oh, there's the door. Let's knock!" -- But first, let me tap around for hint coins.
- "Look, there's a bell on the counter. Let's ring it and see what happens!" -- Yeah, after I tap around for hint coins.
- "Come on, we need to hurry to North Ely before the specter appears!" -- Wait, I have to tap around for hint coins!
Again, "Last Specter" includes some improvements over the previous game -- or perhaps "twists" is a better word. Characters once again move animatedly onscreen in the same manner I noticed in "Unwound Future," but now the environment itself is much more interactive -- signs at a rope bridge tilt or twist when you tap on them, mailboxes open and shut, sunlight fades in and out of a shady forest, a woman's luggage falls off a cart. (I tried to tap on that last one to replace it on the wagon after being alarmed by its unexpected falling-off, but to no avail.)
Some of the puzzles are more dynamic, as well. One brain teaser requiring you to fill buckets at water fountains shows the containers being filled and makes splashing noises when you trace your path near the fountains. Another, in which you must lead a cat out of a maze by using fish as bait, shows the tiny kitty running to each fish and quickly devouring it until nothing but bones are left.
Something else new are mandatory puzzles that, unlike regular ones that are preceded by the well-known "Puzzle!" marker, are introduced with the "Layton" logo and are built directly into the storyline without necessarily having to initiate conversation with a villager. They must be solved to advance the story, but are worth zero picarats and are usually more interactive than normal puzzles.
One thing I'm not particularly pleased with is the increase in the number of puzzles that require you to rotate pieces before putting them into place. As I noted in "Unwound Future," the game and/or touch screen isn't often sensitive enough, or perhaps it's too picky -- a lot of times I found myself rotating a piece when I wanted to slide it into place, and vice versa, causing a lot of frustration.
One neat new feature is you can now move around the shoe and suitcase icons to wherever you want them to sit on the screen. Now left-handers will no longer have to bear the indignity of blocking their screens when moving to tap on the respective icons. Although a caveat is the location of hint coins -- you might inadvertently be obstructing your way to a coin by moving the icons, so I choose to leave them in their default placements.
Another thing that's been changed -- at least after you solve a certain small number of puzzles -- is the screen that comes up after you input your answer, in which you see one of the game's characters reacting to whether your answer was correct. It's now a kind of sliding puzzle rather than showing the person's plain expression, so you can't tell which way your answer is going until the last second. It's not something that matters much in the long run, but it was nice to have a little more forewarning as to whether you'll be doing the puzzle again.
The conversation that comes up when tapping items is also kind of annoying -- the dialogue appears the first time you tap on something when you enter a screen, no matter HOW many times you've visited the screen before -- but I guess it's slightly less irritating than previous games, which would bring up the same dialogue EVERY SINGLE TIME you tapped a particular item.
But the biggest change is the fact that "Last Specter" is not just one game. It's TWO games: Included on the same DS card is a role-playing game called "London Life."
As a fan of "Layton," I was, of course, drawn to "Last Specter" for the simple fact that it was another game in the series. The addition of "London Life" was just a bonus for me, aside from the usual in-game secrets to find and mini games to complete and weekly downloadable puzzles. And as I am generally an anti-spoiler person, I didn't try to look up any details of what this "London Life" was supposed to encompass, although the title alone is pretty much a dead giveaway.
And "dead" is certainly what it sounds like. Despite my determination to not follow news of the game, I couldn't help but pick up bits and pieces. It seemed as though the RPG consists mainly of Layton and Luke walking around and, well, doing everyday stuff. Now while this might sound like an incredibly dull premise, one must remember the wild success of Nintendo's "Animal Crossing" -- a game in which all you do is gather fruit and lumber and whatnot, ride the train, visit friends in neighboring towns, comb for seashells and fossils, all in the name of stashing up cash to buy cute stuff to decorate your home. In other words, Life.
"London Life" sets the tone for cuteness and a bit of surprise, with one introductory screen cautioning of the tiny populace, clothing, and plants within, and another warning: "This game is played with the Control Pad and buttons. Put away your stylus!" It was a concept that admittedly was rather foreign on the touch-screen DS, as I kept tapping the screen intermittently during the character creation portion to make my choices. I quickly got the hang of this strange "D-pad and buttons only" scheme, however, and I was on my way to picking various appearance and personality traits and playing some ordinary, brown-haired, punk-styling female with a sweet tooth in Little London.
You'll meet some familiar characters -- Sammy the rock-n-rolling conductor and the Molentary Express from "Diabolical Box" are the first you'll encounter -- along with plenty of ordinary townspeople.
I got a kick out of seeing what stuff is available for you to do in this game, just by checking out your stats in the menu. Among other things are counters for Flowers Picked and Fish Caught, and options for the (rather mysterious) Livelihood and Newspaper (both of which are locked at the beginning of the game but I'm sure will be made clear later).
Aside from that, this really does start off as "Life." Check all your surroundings by simply going up to an item and pressing A, and you'll get descriptions that are funny in their ordinary-ness. You go around completing "requests" that the townspeople give, which start off pretty mundane at the beginning: The first "request" you get is to see your new landlady, who then gives you another "request" to register your address at City Hall, and then "requests" that you visit the department store. It's not all worthless, at least: All these manini tasks add to your Happiness score.
One extremely useful control to remember: Press the B button while walking to walk faster. It will relieve most of the boredom that comes from strolling about Little London when you want your promenade to be more brisk than leisurely.
It's all somehow entertaining in its simplicity and stupidity. At one point I put my DS to sleep and recounted to my ever-patient fiance the first few moments of life in Little London, with these constant and rather silly "requests" that aren't really anything such.
"See," my fiance responded. "I told you it was going to be a quest-based game. And you keep doing them again and again, so they're 're-quests'!"
My fiance is one of the kings of bad puns.
Don't knock "London Life," though. I found it strangely addicting, but it's perhaps because I have an affliction for exploring and discovering things, as Nintendo's "Legend of Zelda" series has ingrained in me. Echoes of the DS game "Hotel Dusk" (which I previously reviewed) by the late, lamented Cing are here as well, with the silly descriptons of plants, furniture, and other ordinary objects almost as fun to read as Kyle Hyde's comments are in "Hotel Dusk."
Overall, though? There's a reason why this review is coming nearly a year after "Last Specter" was released. There was just something about the game's story that didn't hold my attention as much as previous ones. The first "Layton" game, "Curious Village," certainly set the series' precedent for off-the-wall explanations, but I was already tired of that implausibility by the second game, "Diabolical Box." The secret behind this game's titular specter could be seen from a mile away, although the secrets beyond THAT were a little more engaging, at least.
Still, I'm a fan and I fully intend to immerse myself in the next game, "Miracle Mask." I'm interested in seeing how they incorporate 3-D into the puzzles, if at all. At the same time, I'm hoping that 3-D won't be essential in too many of them, given how easily it strains the eyes, and when a puzzle stumps me, I can be staring at the screen for hours.
And, of course, here's hoping that I'll actually find a copy of the game on the scheduled release date of Oct. 28.