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.

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