Saturday, 12 July 2014

Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask Review

There's a puzzle that faces the developers of the Professor Layton games (and apparently the creators of Mad Men), how you can build on and improve a series whose first installment arguably achieved everything it set out to do, that would tax even the Professor's puzzle solving skills1. The Curious Village may have had some slight issues with the interface that were ironed out in later games, but it had a charming story that (slight spoilers) actually ties in with the concept of everyone asking Layton to solve puzzles. The other great advantage The Curious Village had was that as the first in what would be a series, it had its pick of the puzzle library of Akira Tago. With the spectre of the dissapointing Spectre's Call hanging over the series, there was a lot of pressure on Miracle Mask to deliver a game that would keep me interested in the series and on this it delivered.

What really elevated this game above some of the others in the series was the plot and its sense of pace. The story concerns a recently founded city in the desert called Monte d'Or that is being terrorised by the miracle's of a rather camp individual calling himself the Masked Gentleman. The Gentleman wears the Mask of Chaos, an archaeological artifact that was once the symbol of the city and ties in from an important event in the Professor's teenage years. Throughout the course of the game there are flashbacks to these events and multiple performances by the Gentleman. Crucially all but a few of the objectives clearly tie into the investigation. Gone is the rambling narrative of Spectre's Call with it's obvious fetch quests. While on the one hand, this does mean that many of the tasks in the game boil down to "go to the city hall", "return to the crime scene" "go accuse Henry again" these tasks all result in a fresh twist or plot point whose significance is clear to the player.

England is of course famous for its deserts.
That the player can understand the importance of these twists rather than simply coming along for the ride and waiting for Layton to tie and the strings together at the end reflects another difference between this game and those that came before. The plot of this game is arguably the most guessable yet, with only one or two instances of classic "Layton logic" (where solutions involve outlandish, needlessly complex and incredibly expensive schemes or twists no rational mind could see coming). This allows for an entertaining section about mid way through the game where Layton is asked to explain how many of the Gentleman's miracles were done (is it really a spoiler to say that they don't involve magic?) and the player must choose his answers. It's not possible to get wrong, but is still a nice inclusion. That being said, the game does fall back on old habits later on when Layton disappears for a while to gather crucial evidence in private but it's hard to say if this trick for setting up a dramatic reveal is a bad thing (might not want to admit that as a reviewer you're sometimes unable to form opinions ~ed). One final thought on the pacing: while Monte d'Or is the first true city seen in a Layton game (London doesn't count), it actually feels smaller, with only a few key locations and minimal filler streets. In addition, with the exception of an utterly forgettable bunch of clowns, the cast feels quite small. Again this works out for the best, as I found myself better able to remember character name and traits.
With the plot talk out of the way, it's time to discuss mechanics. The move to 3DS and the desire to take advantage of the new screen has brought in several changes, the most obvious of which is that the city is now a 3D space viewed on the top screen, while the cursor is moved by dragging the stylus over the top screen, a change which reduces the amount of screen tapping to find hint coins. Another, more contestable change is that during puzzles, the puzzle question is not displayed on the top screen by default, but appears on a tile that can be positioned on either screen. In some puzzles this is quite useful, in others it just slows things down.

On the subject of puzzles, there's a pleasant variety in this installment, without the usual reliance on block moving conundrums but on the opposite side of the (hint) coin this means many of the early puzzles need tutorial screens. With every new Layton game, the puzzle of whether the games get easier is posed (no doubt prompted by the Professor looking at something unrelated like a cracked window2). Personally I believe that while the puzzles may indeed be getting easier, bigger problems are that seasoned players become adept at spotting trick questions (I guessed the trick to one puzzle without reading the riddle) and a certain amount of repetition (see the King Arthur Sword puzzle).

As mentioned earlier the 2D environments of the previous game have now been replaced with livelier 3D spaces, packed with non-interactable NPCs who make Monte d'Or feel more like a city. Another visual change is that all character models are now 3D. These models are capable of more movement than the old ones but oddly enough Level 5 don't seem to have made much use of this potential. Layton, Emmy and Luke are still stuck with a limited number of movements which are repeated endlessly and Layton still sports that dopey smile in sometimes inappropriately serious conversations. 
Others have praised a section reasonably late in the game section in which the young Layton and his friend Randall (whose hammy Shatner-esque arm movements justify 3D character models all on their own) explore a top-down maze section. While the section was enjoyable and well done, it perhaps wasted time slowly introducing concepts that many will recognise as strength puzzles from Pokemon. One of the puzzle's in this section uses the gyroscope, but while this was a nice idea, it turned out to bequite frustrating to use.
As always there are three mini games. The first is similar to the hamster, toy car and train puzzles in earlier games, the second is an interesting one where items must be arranged in a way that triggers uncontrollable spending sprees in unsuspecting customers. These mini games are by far the greatest challenge the main game has to offer. The final minigame is a Nintendogs-esque rabbit training thing that no amount of unlockable puzzles could convince me to care about. The game is also sold as having 365 downloadable puzzles, but this number is split up into a number of sections of similar puzzles of increasing difficulty.


Miracle Mask represents a return to form for the Layton series. It boasts nicely paced plot that held my interest throughtout with a varied (albeit quite easy at times) selection of puzzles and an interesting top down exploration section later on. The graphics have been updated for the 3DS but this update arguably didn't go far enough.


1:This is perhaps the most cliche opening I will ever write and for that I am sorry.
2: Actually, the old trope of absolutely everything reminding Layton of puzzles is underplayed in Miracle Mask.... sadly.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Next Generation Specs Explained

A feature by Ivan

I have it on good authority (from a guy who works at Gamestop  no less) that the next generation of consoles that I've been hearing so much about has become the current  generation of consoles. You may well be thinking "gee, I sure would like to buy one of these machines, but all the talk of specs and performance confuses me. Nintendo already sold me a console that was designed to give puny Westerners headaches so now I don't know who to trust". Fear not for I was once like you until I was inspired by the following quote from winter yoga pioneer and Eye Moustaches mascot Miister X's autobiography. My inclusion of an extract from a book has nothing to do with our licensing deal. I repeat, NOTHING AT ALL.
Many other titles were continued, but this pun was deemed "least tenuous"

Inspirational stuff

After all, if I can learn html, I can do <i>anything<i>
Let's start with the Wii U.

The first thing that should jump out at you is that the computer power unit (known in the trade as the CPU) is made by IBM. This is all you need to know. IBM have in the past worked with Microsoft, who produced Windows Vista, which as even the briefest web search will confirm was one of the worst things ever created. Vista has forever tainted the name of Microsoft to such an extent that companies that work with companies that work with Microsoft are smeared by the taint. It is this connection to Microsoft that makes the Wii U inferior to the X-Box One and PS4.
The Wii U has only 2GB of RAM (random accident memory). This memory is only accessed if the ROM (regular operations memory) the memory allocated to system functions and games, is compromised. This lack of RAM indicates Nintendo's confidence that the ROM won't fail.

It's difficult to find a clear victor in the all important USB race. The WiiU has four 2.0 slots to the PS4's two 3.0 slots. According to noted game site NBC news the X-box One has only... one. To put it in more visual terms the Wii U can run two times as many miniature USB fans as the PS4, but the PS4 is capable of transferring data to those miniature USB fans at a quicker rate. I'm going to call this a draw.

I must confess, that even with Miister X's inspiring words ringing in my ears, I was unable to understand what the role of the GPU is. For example, when examining the X-Box One and PS4 specs, I was frequently confronted by the term Tflops. I'm not entirely sure what Tflops are but I think there's medication for it.
The X box one is reported by IGN to:
"communicate with servers in the cloud to increase the computational power of the system".
For those that don't know, the cloud is a "computer localised on user's desktop" an optional plug-in which in a rare display of humour by infamously anti-fun makers of the X-Box is shaped like noted meteorologist John Dalton.

The PS4 utilises a Radon based graphics engine. Personally I'm fascinated to see if the graphics it delivers will be good enough to justify the use of radioactive components. 

While it's curiously not mentioned very often in the gaming press, an even briefer web search makes it clear that there is another console on the market that really has the forums talking. I speak of course, of the Xbone. The following specs come from prolific interenet commenter fLame_and_go420:
"xbone is an overpriced blok taht watches u while u sleep and reports it to Obama and the NASA. But dont worry, it makes up for it with all its Leet xclusive games. WAIT NO SYCH #legaliseit"
Only time will tell how the Xbone's, who's processor is reported by sources to be "a large turd" from "your moms butt (software)" performs in the market, but as they say, any publicity is good publicity.
One thing's for sure, this looks to be a tightly fought console war, with no competitor that's obviously lost already. I repeat, NO OBVIOUS LOSER.
On an unrelated note, tune in next week month when I'll be reviewing some 3DS game or old Wii game I found in a bargain bin.