There’s nothing like a puzzle game for making you feel incredibly dim!
Professor Layton and the Curious Village (NDS)
Released Jan 2007 | Developed: Level-5 | Published: Nintendo
Genre: Adventure, Puzzle, Visual Novel | HLTB: 12 hours
Fun fact: this was the first game I ever owned for the DS. I can remember going into an Asda as a teen to pick up Pokemon Platinum and came out with this bundled in with the DS; what can I say – the quirky title and adorable art piqued my interest! The DS saw a glut of puzzle games, I suppose a result of its touch-screen interface allowing games to require players to write out answers, and that means that it’s that much harder for a game to stand out above its peers. However, Professor Layton and the Curious Village manages that by giving more than just a barebones puzzle game; it’s also a fully-fledged story with much more going on than just oodles of puzzles.
Make no mistake, there are still waves of puzzles of course, and these are thrown at the player constantly. The vast majority are math and logic-related, so a head for either will help. There’s plenty of challenges which require some lateral thinking to solve as well, which I’m a big fan of. Tell you what I’m not a fan of though: bloody sliding block puzzles, absolutely can’t stand the bastard things, and unfortunately this game has a bunch of them, not to mention some of them are used as story-gating locks which have to be solved to progress. I know they’re brute-forceable, but dear Lord I hate them, and I hate the experience of shifting blocks endlessly until you manage it.
Still, the vast majority are huge fun to solve, and that’s the crucial factor to Professor Layton and the Curious Village. Being able to draw and make notes on the touchscreen is a great help, and you can also get up to 3 hints by spending hint coins, which you can find hidden around the environment. The range of puzzle types helps to keep things engaging, although it can be discouraging when you come across one you dislike that gets repeated. Each puzzle also tells you how many “picarats” it’s worth; this is essentially a descriptor of how many points you get for beating it, though it decreases on any subsequent attempts so you’re incentivised to try your best to get it right the first time. After you submit an answer, there’s a marvelous moment of tension as you wait to see if it’s right, accompanied by a quietly effective musical sting and animations of Layton and Luke mulling it over. The dopamine hit you get when they give off a little smile and do that triumphant point towards the screen is awesome, and it never gets old.
It’s not all solving puzzles however: Professor Layton and the Curious Village is actually a kind of hybrid of adventure and puzzle games, mixed in with a healthy dose of visual novel. If you’re not a fan of lots of reading and wading through text screens in games, then Curious Village might not satisfy you, as there’s rather a lot of reading necessary to progress. Getting hung up on the puzzles can also cause the pacing of the game to drag somewhat, though it’s certainly possible for a fast reader and puzzle-solver to practically jog through the game in a matter of hours, so it absolutely comes down to personal struggles with the puzzles. Outside of the puzzling, you tap the screen to move around the town of St. Mystere, and to search for the hidden hint coins, and that’s more or less it for interaction, though I’d concede that the game doesn’t really need anything else; more would likely clog up the experience instead of adding to it.
The few things that are given to the player in addition to the core puzzles are, well, more puzzles all of their own. Solving puzzles doesn’t just give players picarats, but also many give rewards which tie into minigames. These aren’t too extravagant, but they are kind of cute, such as earning pieces of furniture in order to decorate rooms for Layton and Luke with the aim of making both rooms perfect for their respective occupants, while another minigame requires you to gather painting scraps and then assemble them into a complete work. Unless you’re incredibly diligent you’ll probably end the game with some of these missing, but thankfully the game makes sure to store up missed puzzles so you can take them on later.
Of course as a game with visual novel inspiration, Professor Layton and the Curious Village needs a strong enough story and characters to carry it along and justify the wealth of text it places before the player, and thankfully I think in that area the game largely succeeds. Our story concerns the eponymous Professor Layton, a professor and puzzle-enthusiast from a London university, and his apprentice, Luke. Layton cuts an immediately enjoyable figure with his soft-spoken, calm demeanor and unflappable attitude, combined with his gentle chiding of Luke for any ungentlemanly behaviour. Luke, on the other hand, I suppose functions as a bit more of the player avatar, more prone to speaking his mind and calling developments in the plot out. The rest of the cast are good, of course; the game has a huge group of characters as we meet every resident of the town of St. Mystere, and each one has a distinct personality, though you’ll probably only really remember a couple of them as many show up only a bare handful of times to deposit puzzles on your lap.
Our plot is a good old-fashioned treasure hunt! Layton and Luke come to the isolated town of St. Mystere to search for the Golden Apple, an enigmatic fortune left by the recently deceased Baron Reinhold. In order to find it however, Layton and Luke must solve the mystery of the town, and St. Mystere certainly is as unusual as the name implies; shortly after they arrive the town’s drawbridge is raised, trapping them in, and at the edge of the village is a seemingly unreachable tower which looms ahead and which the denizens warn the pair never to approach. Worse yet, amidst their arrival a resident is found murdered, deeping the conundrum that surrounds St. Mystere.
Curious Village certainly does a great job of drawing you in with its initial questions, and I love the feature which tracks the game’s mysteries for you in the pause menu. It’s especially useful along with the regularly updated journal since this is a handheld game and it’s very feasible you might only play this in short bursts and with gaps between play sessions. Like any good mystery it does a fine job of leaving enough clues to let players take a good guess at what’s happening as the story unfurls, but it does stumble a tad during the endgame. The grand resolution is by no means a total nonsense, but elements of it feel a little hastily explained and I couldn’t blame anyone who, as the credits rolls, sits back and asks with incredulity whether that was really the answer the developers thought was best. I’m trying to be a wee bit cautious here since I don’t want to give spoilers, naturally, and I don’t mean to criticise the end overmuch; I do enjoy it, but it has half a foot in the realms of fantasy and for some it might feel like that’s come out of nowhere. It’s unfortunate that although players can take personal guesses at the way things resolve, in practice it all plays out without player involvement; we just solve the regular puzzles along the way.
One aspect I have absolutely no complaints about however is the presentation. Professor Layton and the Curious Village looks truly stunning. The backgrounds have a gorgeous French comic feel to them, with what looks to be beautiful hand-painted environments and St. Mystere, true to its name, has the feel of a quaint European village, with its homely interiors and tight, winding alleyways. When the night settles in and we have the opportunity to explore it manages to convey a faint edge of suspense as villagers disappear indoors and the streets are lit only by the dim glow of lamps. Along with this are a series of lovely animated cutscenes which, DS resolution notwithstanding, wouldn’t be out of place in a movie or short, and you can tell no expense was spared in their creation; it really feels like a game made with love and care.
The soundtrack is also decidedly French in inspiration, and another strong point in the game’s favour. Tomohito Nishiura’s soundtrack is seared into my memory purely down to how innovative and fresh it feels. From the moment the lovely minor piano line opens Layton’s Theme things feel special but once the violin sings out the melody accompanied by the accordion the track leaps into a whole other gear; that combination of upbeat melancholy played by those specific instruments instantly captures a quaint European feel which complements the imagery of the game truly perfectly. The soundtrack also aims for a vaguely unsettling creepiness to accentuate the mystery, such as in , which uses chimes and awkward, low strings to craft an uneasy edge. I’ve seen some complaints online about the music, saying that it gets grating but I personally don’t share the sentiments; for me, the feel of the score is so refreshing that I could listen to it for hours on end.
Once the mystery has been settled and Curious Village’s credits are rolling, what are we left with? It’s by no means a hugely innovative game – indeed, at its core it’s simply another brain-teaser game released during a glut of them – but the added context of a story elevates it above its competition. It’s a lovely bonus that the game is beautiful and that the narrative has such rustic charm. Obviously puzzle games really aren’t for everyone, and it’s easy to be left frustrated if you’ve not got the head for the game’s challenges, but if you’re happy with what the game throws at you I think you’ll be left smiling by the end.
5/7 – GREAT.
Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.