For those of you who are still procrastinating on getting a gift for the gamer in your life, I've got a great suggestion: Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask!
But for this latest Layton series game, which was released Oct. 28, I'll skip my unofficial tradition of recounting how insane I went trying to get the game on release day (mostly because I didn't go as nuts this time around). I will say, however, that a certain store advertised it in its circular, I rushed to said store and got there before it opened, and there was one other customer actually trying to find the game along with me because it wasn't out on the shelves, so we had to bug two separate sales associates, and the store had only 5 in stock, and WE SNAGGED TWO OF THEM.
In Miracle Mask, the titular professor Hershel Layton once again receives a letter from an old friend, this time from one Angela Ledore, whom he hasn't heard from in many years. She talks about a personage calling himself the Masked Gentleman -- and he does indeed wear one -- who is terrorizing the desert oasis of Monte d'Or, a Las Vegas-type city that her husband, Henry, helped build from scratch into a haven of glitz and glamour in a mere 18 years. Angela, who was like a sister to Layton in his youth, asks the professor to investigate before these actions destroy the town.
The Gentleman has been performing what he terms "dark miracles" -- events that include the apparent transformation of people into horses, a cage full of Monte d'Or residents going up in flames but with those same people later found at home unharmed, and paintings suddenly coming to life with their subjects running out into the streets and wreaking injurious havoc. But what really clinches things for Layton is the mention of the Gentleman pulling off these stunts with the power of something called the Mask of Chaos -- a relic from an ancient civilization and one that has a very personal connection to the professor.
Miracle Mask is the second prequel game, coming after Last Specter and before the animated movie Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva. Layton's assistant from Last Specter, Emmy Altava, returns here along with his self-appointed apprentice, Luke Triton.
Within the first 15 minutes of the game, you're treated to a bevy of new controls and animation. In-game characters are now drawn in 3-D (without needing to use the 3DS's built-in ability), and although it's strange at first, it grows on you soon enough. Most cut scenes are still done in the old 2-D style, but some scenes using the 3-D figures do come later in the game. They're well done and the characters move as fluidly as in the regular 2-D animation, though they still give a sense of being slightly stiff marionettes.
Moving around town is a bit simpler. Instead of a Shoe icon as in previous games, a map of your current location and adjacent areas appears on the 3DS's touch screen. Places you can move to are marked as orange dots; touch the desired dot to move there, and the location will show up on the upper screen. In this way, you move through Monte d'Or.
However, exploring is a little more complicated than before. Along with the familiar Trunk icon on the touch screen is a magnifying glass, which is the Investigation icon. To check around an area, first you must tap that magnifying glass to enter Investigation mode, which causes a corresponding glass to appear on the upper screen. Instead of tapping madly, you now slide the stylus on the touch screen to move the magnifying glass over the area. The glass will turn orange when you land on something of interest; tapping on it then reveals a person with something to say (and very likely with a puzzle to throw your way); a distinct feature of the town, with commentary from Layton, Emmy and Luke (and all three of them WILL comment); a hidden puzzle or treasure; or a hint coin.
Sometimes the glass will turn blue, denoting a place to zoom into. Zooming in uncovers deeper areas, along with more people and treasures.
Adding to the complexity: Locations now extend beyond the dimensions of the 3DS's physical screen, so you need to move all around while in Investigation mode to see everything possible. This could prove slightly dizzying if you're like me, wiggling the magnifying glass all over everything to try to find every nook and cranny where the glass might turn orange or blue and reveal secret items.
The controls do take some getting used to. Because of the disconnect between the movement of the magnifying glass and your control of it, and because of the lag the 3DS has in responding to stylus movements, it can be hard to home in on points of interest if, like me, you slide the thing around rapidly and keep passing over the precise point where the glass turns orange. You now have to double-tap to grab hint coins, and it's difficult to keep the magnifying glass in the same place to do so. I also kept accidentally tapping the Trunk icon when I wanted to move to another area, as the Shoe icon was located in that spot in previous games.
Then there are the puzzles themselves. The mandatory, zero-picarat "puzzles" that must be solved to advance the game make a reappearance -- mostly in the form of multiple-choice questions as Layton and the police are dissecting the Masked Gentleman's "miracles" -- and there is no loss if you don't quite solve it the first time around. Other puzzles are standard Layton franchise fare, and none (that I've found so far) take advantage of the console's 3-D ability. What they have added are mostly aesthetics: The puzzle and the space to input your answer will be on the touchscreen, and some kind of animation will often be on the upper screen -- such as little statues of cats jumping over each other when trying to clear a board of all but one statue, or pizza slices flipping upside down and right side up as you try to get the entire pizza facing the correct way up.
Because of this, the text of the puzzle is hidden, though you can easily pull it up again by tapping on the arrow to make it appear on whichever screen you choose. It makes for a little extra work, but it's also handy to be able to write down answers as you might think of them.
But similar to investigating areas, there's a disconnect in the controls in some puzzles, such as one in which you must guide a ladybug around a corncob that has had pathways "eaten" into the corn. The corn and ladybug appear on the upper screen, while on the touch screen there is a "dial" that rotates 360 degrees and that is used to direct the ladybug's movements. Again, the lag in reaction time means you often find yourself smacking the bug against a wall of corn or missing the intersection you wanted to take. It's a good thing running into corn is harmless in this case, as opposed to, say, trying to maneuver the bug around a maze atop lava and trying not to fall off the edge into the lava below.
And, of course, there are the usual mini games found in the Professor's Trunk. This time, you have to train a lazy rabbit to perform actions in stories on stage so the circus ringmaster will allow him back into the circus. (After awhile, your rabbit becomes your hint-coin-finding helper, appearing every so often to warn you of coins that you missed in a particular scene. However, the rodent's more useless than animals in previous games because all it does is pop up in the corner and doesn't point out the exact location of the coin.) Another is a robot game in which you must guide a toy robot to land on a goal while avoiding enemies. The last is the one I had the most fun with: a shop game in which you arrange items on the shelves in such a way that the customer will be enticed into buying out the entire stock in one fell swoop. Successfully complete the mini games to unlock more difficult puzzles in the Bonus section.
But the most fascinating part of "Miracle Mask" is the Ruins Mode, which is more of an action-adventure that's easier to play using the D-pad and buttons. The Ruins are an integral part of the game, so without giving too much away, I will say that the first few rooms offer a tutorial into how to make your way through the Ruins, although the first room you come across with an obvious solution to veteran adventurers is painful as you watch Layton go through the motions of being at first unable to solve it.
Ruins Mode is where the game really gets exciting because it's so different from the usual puzzles. (Plus, those mummies are actually kind of scary. My heart was pounding when they closed in on me as I tried desperately to run to safety.) The concept is simple: Each room has a mixture of enemies, obstacles, switches and rocks, and you must use some things and avoid others to get to the door at the other end of the room to advance. Hint coins are occasionally buried in the ground, marked quite obviously by a glowing yellow light.
The Ruins are also a turning point in the story, when you discover exactly what happened that affected Layton -- and indeed his entire life -- so drastically.
And ah, the story. Perhaps I'm getting a bit desensitized to the plot lines in the Layton series, but in this regard the series seems to be failing. While uncovering the secrets within Monte d'Or is certainly engrossing, the denouement is more of a disappointment now than in previous games. Instead, they seem to be focusing on the larger, overarching story -- if you recall the end of Last Specter, you know there's something bigger going on, and the end of Miracle Mask advances that.
It's really the promise of how everything comes together in what's supposed to cap this second Layton trilogy that's making me look forward to the sixth game -- no longer is the prospect of solving more brain teasers as much of a draw as it was when I first discovered this series. In fact, I haven't downloaded a single daily puzzle -- oh yes, there are daily, rather than weekly, downloadable puzzles in Miracle Mask -- nor have I been as eager to go back and find all the hidden puzzles and solve all the 80-picarat brain-busters. I haven't even been tempted to enter the secret code from Last Specter to unlock the mystery goodies. The difficulty of the puzzles seems to be ramped up in this game -- I probably used more hint coins in this game than the previous five combined -- which might also explain my dampened enthusiasm for unlocking all of them.
Overall, I still enjoy the series. The great interactions between Layton, Emmy and Luke, the dialogue of other characters, and the excellent voice acting make "Miracle Mask" another worthy addition. But the series also seems to be wearing out its welcome. (For one thing, just how many depressing things can we believe the professor's gone through without snapping?) The fan in me is more than a little ready to move on after the sixth game ... or perhaps to Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney, Capcom? Level-5? Just a suggestion.