I said it in my review of the first game, but puzzle games often just make me feel dim. I’m not really a videogame masochist; I like playing games on easy, I tend not to even glance at games that are supposed to be difficult, and although I’m happy to try pretty much anything, I don’t typically return to games or series that make me feel dumb sometimes. And yet, there’s something about Professor Layton that drew me in. Even though some of the puzzles in the first game were fiendish, the whole package was so much greater than the sum of its parts that I just had to hunt down the second game and play it as well.
Professor Layton and Pandora’s Box (Android, iOS, NDS [reviewed])
Released Nov 2007 | Developed: Level-5 | Published: Nintendo
Genre: Adventure, Puzzle, Visual Novel | HLTB: 13 hours
In what is surely a surprise to no-one, Professor Layton and Pandora’s Box (known as The Diabolical Box outside of Europe) offers more of the same as Professor Layton and the Curious Village. It’s the same package of maths and logic puzzles, endlessly tapping on the screen to eke out hidden hint coins, and and occasionally scratching your head at the way the story swings, all the while accompanied by some of the most charming audiovisual design on the DS – so what makes this game better than the first?
For a start, I think the writing has improved. It was already good in Curious Village, but here the story is a little more expansive and Luke and Layton get a little more time to shine. Our heroes are investigating another mystery, but the stakes are immediately higher this time as upon visiting an old friend of the Professor’s, Doctor Schrader, they find their man dead in his home. The good doctor had been investigating an artifact known as the Elysian Box which is rumoured to kill whoever opens it; overcome with curiosity after getting his hands on the box, the doctor chose to open it and met his unfortunate fate. The box is then seemingly stolen, and the only evidence left for Layton to follow is a mysterious train ticket with no destination. This sets Layton off on his own inquiry into the box’s whereabouts as he attempts to unravel the mysterious circumstances surrounding his friend’s death. Having a death be at the centre of the game’s story helps give a little more weight and urgency to proceedings; it casts Layton as a little more in the Indiana Jones mould, albeit a genteel version of the character, and less inclined to punch things or fight against Nazis.
In a strong structural move, the first act takes place entirely on a train. Although this might sound restrictive at first, I’m actually very fond of this. It’s a piece of clever design which avoids a general issue that can plague adventure games. Often games like this can become paralysing as you end up in a relatively large area and stacked with items to use or things to interact with, so trying to figure out the thread of logic you need to follow can become difficult. However, by constraining events to a small area it makes players explore thoroughly, revisiting areas as events proceed, and also acts as an effective safe-zone for players to become acquainted with how the world of Professor Layton works before the game opens up in later chapters.
Indeed, the entire first couple of acts are built to serve as an easing-in for players; that sense of the game opening up doesn’t actually occur until the players reach the strange town of Folsense, about halfway into the game. Both the train and our first stop, the quaint English countryside village of Dropstone, are designed to equip players with everything they need to tackle Folsense, both in terms of slowly increasing the difficulty of puzzles and in terms of setting up the various minigames that come into play in the latter half of the game. It’s a design choice that I think makes Pandora’s Box that much more accessible than its predecessor; it’s not that Curious Village was particularly obtuse, but I certainly prefer the structure of the sequel in the way it helps both mechanically and narratively to give the plot a bit more shape and direction.
It’s also a great credit to Pandora’s Box that it feels like there’s a greater variety to the puzzles on offer here. Once again, the previous game already had a nice selection of brainteasers to solve, but it did fall prey to repetition of the same puzzles a bit more than I would have liked. While there is still some of this here, in general Pandora’s Box is a lot more restrained. The puzzles are the usual mix of largely logic and light maths-based riddles, and obviously a lot of understanding if you’re going to have a good time with Professor Layton still comes down to whether or not you enjoy those kind of puzzles; if you’re not into brainteasers then no matter how charming the game looks or sounds, I fear it won’t be for you. The game retains the same hint system as the first game, wherein each puzzle has three hints that can be unlocked by spending hint coins, but finding these requires you to scour each screen, clicking on everything in case it hides a stray coin. It’s possible to brute force some puzzles, but doing so costs you picarats, the game’s point system. If you’re just hoping to reach the end then you most likely won’t care about them, but post-game puzzles can only be unlocked if you have enough of these picarats so completionists will need to be at their best to get the most out of Pandora’s Box.
As an aside, I still hate sliding block puzzles. There aren’t as many in this game as in the first, which is a huge mark in its favour, but there are still some and I still despise them.
I mentioned minigames earlier; while the first game also had them, they feel like a bit more of the entire experience in Pandora’s Box. I enjoy how they fit into way the game is structured; 3 of 4 of the minigames are acquired in the first half of the game and can be completed before arriving in Folsense, so they’re ready and available for that latter section of the game when Layton gets free roam of the bigger town. The last one only shows up once you’re in Folsense but its purpose is to give some vital backstory for the events that transpire in the final chapter of the game. Of all these minigames the one I think I like the most is the tea set you get given in Dropstone, but it’s also the one with the greatest flaw to it. The minigame itself is sweet and very fitting for Layton; solving some puzzles rewards you with different flavoured leaves that you can mix together to form exciting new teas. You’re then supposed to serve these teas to the residents of Folsense when they get thirsty, as marked by giant anime sweat drops emanating from their head. This I’m sure all sounds fine, so what’s the problem? Well, for a start, whether or not a person will be thirsty is random, so you end up having to flick back and forth between screens multiple times before the game decides the person you’re trying to serve is ready for a cuppa. Then you have to make sure you have the right ingredients for their tea, and that you’ve already made the tea they want beforehand; if not, or you get it wrong, then it’s back to jumping between screens before they’ll want tea again. To top it all off, there’s no way to track who has or hasn’t had a drink, so unless you’re using a guide or you’ve been noting them down, you can find yourself getting very frustrated at the entire minigame. It’s a shame that it’s an adorable idea but misses the mark so hard in its implementation.
I do have another gripe which perhaps wouldn’t bother anyone else, but it really nags at me. At the end of the previous game, Layton rescues a girl named Flora, who becomes a surrogate daughter to the professor. It’s reasonable to assume she might show up here in the sequel, and she almost gets a featuring role. However, the game seems a little cold towards her for some reason; Luke and Layton leave her behind at the beginning of the first act, prompting her to sneak aboard their train to rejoin them, and then barely a ways into the second act she’s abducted. I’m really not entirely sure why the game seems so averse to having a female main character be a main part of the action; she rarely (if ever) gets to solve a puzzle, despite literally being from a village built on them, and her character can largely be distilled down to the fact she exists to get kidnapped. It’s a startlingly old-fashioned and irritating way to treat a female character, and it feels very much like Level-5 had no idea what to do with her, or how she might be introduced into the Layton and Luke dynamic.
The Professor Layton soundtracks continue to be a joy. As much as I like the first game’s, I think this is a stronger offering. For Pandora’s Box, Nishiura seems to have been given freedom to explore a greater range, although the soundtrack naturally still retains the broad French jazz vibes that epitomises the Layton scores thanks to the prominent accordion that follows us through the songs. I like how the main theme has a kind of Tubular Bells piano going on, which tells us that we’re going to experience a slightly more unsettling atmosphere than the previous game, although it swiftly gives way to a more traditional, bouncy theme. The greatest strengths on the soundtrack however are when it gives way to more unusual, and often more emotionally-heavy songs, such as Folsense’s theme, which treats us to a beautiful mix of slow unease and a melancholy beauty. I think my favourite track is Lost Forest. It only appears on a bare handful of screens towards the very end of the game and I think it’s truly mesmerising; an ethereal flute hangs against the reverb-soaked plucked strings, creating an entrancing atmosphere that is at odds with the usual Layton fare, but that makes it stand out even more.
Coming to the end of Pandora’s Box, I think the overriding emotion I took from my playthrough was perhaps contentment. I’m safe in saying I enjoy it even more than Curious Village, which is pretty good going as far as I’m concerned. I think Pandora’s Box comes with a different set of drawbacks to its predecessor, although it shares one big one in the way that the story comes to a conclusion is just plain weird; we’re only two games in but it’s probably fair to suggest that the Professor Layton franchise has and is going to continue to have a, shall we say, loose grasp of how to construct a satisfying ending that fits with the otherwise largely realistic setting. Like Curious Village, this game probably doesn’t have much replay value once you’ve beaten the game; it’s not like the Dr. Kawashima series where it has a daily routine of puzzles and instead relies on you enjoying the story and post-game puzzles enough to want to return. Still, the series remains one of the most charming set of games on the DS, and I’m always happy to sit down with them.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.